Wisconsin Historical Society
Twenty five years ago, on February 19, 1986, the United States Senate ratified the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. But this ratification was not easily accomplished. Nor was it a foregone conclusion.
On back-to-back days in early December 1948, the still-new United Nations adopted the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With the world reeling from WWII, these instruments were an effort to inoculate future generations against a repetition of the horrors of the Holocaust and other wartime atrocities visited on civilians. Under the convention, the world’s signatory nations were required to punish and prevent acts of genocide, defined as acts intended to destroy “in whole or in part” national, ethnic, racial and religious groups.
However, the legally binding Convention, the brainchild of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who had fled Europe and gave a name to the crime of genocide, did not find support in the United States. In fact, early efforts to ratify the convention failed in the U.S. Senate because of concerns that acceding to the pact could threaten U.S. sovereignty, and that its provisions could be used against the U.S. by hostile nations.
And so, even as some 70 other countries moved swiftly to ratify the Genocide Convention, the treaty languished without a vote in the Senate until the mid 1960s, when Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire took up the cause of ratification – a cause that became one of the hallmarks of his 32-year tenure. With allies in Senators Jacob Javits of New York and Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, Proxmire launched a tenacious campaign in 1967 to persuade the Senate to adopt the Genocide Convention.
For 19 long years, even as new horrors unfolded in Biafra, in Bangladesh and in Cambodia, Proxmire began every day that the Senate was in session with a speech during “Morning Hour.” Each speech was different, although the theme was always the same: that the U.S. was morally bound to use its power to prevent future genocides, and that ratifying the Convention would serve America’s best interests. “This is one senator who believes that ratification is not only patriotic, but also good foreign policy and a moral imperative,” he wrote in the Milwaukee Journal.
Frequently speaking to an empty chamber, the Senator from Wisconsin made a total of 3,211 speeches—an average of 168 each year -- until a presidential controversy in 1985 provided the breakthrough he needed to help get the Convention heard by a key Senate committee and on to the Senate floor for a vote.
President Ronald Reagan, about to leave for Germany to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of WWII, announced his intention to visit Bitburg cemetery, which turned out to also be the burial place of 49 Nazi officers. In the outcry that followed, Reagan made every effort to make amends but the damage had been done. Upon his return, he threw his full support behind the Convention.
Finally, on February 19, 1986, the treaty came to the Senate floor, and by an 83 to 11 vote, achieved the two-thirds majority necessary for ratification. By then, almost 100 other countries had done the same. Unfortunately, in the process of ratification the Senate added a number of legal disclaimers that weakened U.S. power to invoke the Convention, but Proxmire reluctantly agreed to accept them on the grounds that it was better for the U.S. to be a signatory with reservations than not at all.
Yet it still took another two years for the passage of legislation that would enable the Convention to come fully into force in the U.S. That legislation was named after the forceful and patient man who had brought it to reality, Senator William Proxmire.
This extraordinary tale of perseverance—an inside Washington story if ever there was one -- demonstrates that sometimes political change is only possible through a serendipitous marriage of diligence and opportunity. And it certainly shows that one person, with determination, passion and patience, can move the seemingly immovable object known as the U.S. Senate -- and that ultimately, no good cause, even preventing genocide, is a lost one.
Even though the promise of the Convention remains unfulfilled, its aspiration to a world without genocide would be that much further away without the international consensus that has been forged on the unique horrors of the crime it outlaws.
To learn more, watch eyewitness testimony about Senator Proxmire’s story
in our exhibit From Memory to Action: Meeting the Challenge of Genocide.