The return of cultural genocide?

Leora Bilsky, Rachel Klagsbrun

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Cultural genocide, despite contemporary thinking, is not a new problem in need of normative solution, rather it is as old as the concept of genocide itself. The lens of law and history allows us to see that the original conceptualization of the crime of genocide - as presented by Raphael Lemkin - gave cultural genocide centre stage. As Nazi crime was a methodical attempt to destroy a group and as what makes up a group's identity is its culture, for Lemkin, the essence of genocide was cultural. Yet the final text of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention) does not prohibit cultural genocide as such, and it is limited to its physical and biological aspects. What led to this exclusion? In this article, we examine the various junctures of law, politics and history in which the concept was shaped: the original conceptualization by Lemkin; litigation in national and international criminal courts and the drafting process of the Genocide Convention. In the last part, we return to the mostly forgotten struggle for cultural restitution (books, archives and works of art) fought by Jewish organizations after the Holocaust as a countermeasure to cultural genocide. Read together, these various struggles uncover a robust understanding of cultural genocide, which was once repressed by international law and now returns to haunt us by the demands of groups for recognition and protection.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)373-396
Number of pages24
JournalEuropean Journal of International Law
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 May 2018


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