The movie is billed as the story of Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish linguist born in Poland in the interwar period. As a young man, Lemkin was intrigued and, some may say, obsessed, by the Turkish massacre of the Armenian people. When Hitler moved on Poland in 1938, he knew what was coming and he fled, but he could not convince his family to join him. It was the same old story. “The Germans are civilized people. More civilized than the Poles, that’s for sure. What could they possibly want from us? We are not even political. We are just quiet people living a quiet life.” Lemkin did all he could to convince them otherwise, but they wouldn’t budge. Not a single one of them survived the holocaust. After the war, he decided that the world needed a word greater than murder, more biting than “war crimes” and more universal than “crimes against peace.” Drawing on his linguistic background, he invented the term genocide, and dedicated his life to promoting this word and ultimately to the drafting and widespread ratification of the genocide convention in the United Nations. He died penniless and alone, and was known as a pitiful figure who soiled the pristine halls of power with his unkempt attire and disheveled persona. And yet, the word genocide, the genocide convention, and perhaps most importantly, the inclusion of the prosecutable crimes of genocide in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and the International Criminal Court, are all his due.
“Watchers of the Sky,” however, is about more than just Lemkin. It is also about Ben Ferencz, who came to America from Hungary as a young child, ended up at Harvard Law School in the early 1940’s, fought on the battlefields of WWII and later became one of America’s top prosecutors at Nuremberg. Ferencz is still alive and came to Brandeis just about a week ago. In fact, I took a day off from work and made the trip just to meet him. If Lemkin’s lifelong passion was ‘genocide,’ then Ferencz’s is “the crime of aggression,” that is, criminalizing a government leader’s decision to cross the borders into the sovereign territory of another country. Ferencz was a key member of the Princeton working group on the Crime of Aggression, and was present and accounted for at the International Criminal Court review conference in 2010 in Kampala, Uganda during which the definition of the crime of aggression was agreed upon. He continues to work very hard to popularize the criminality of aggression.
In addition to Ferencz, the movie introduces us to Luis Moreno Ocampo, the first chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, who cut his teeth in his home state of Argentina, fearlessly prosecuting the high command of the oppressive junta regime. We also meet Samantha Power, who was a typical college graduate in the early 1990’s. She knew that she wanted to save the world, but had no idea how. She ended up reporting on the front lines of the Yugoslavian implosion, went on to become an expert on war crimes, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, and is currently serving as the United States ambassador to the United Nations.
The title of the film, “Watchers of the Sky” refers to a touching anecdote that Ferencz shares at the end of the film about the early astronomer, Tycho Brahe. I won’t recite it here, because I don’t want to spoil the moment when you see it on film. This documentary moved me quite deeply. I had dinner with a friend last week. She is currently working at an enormous world-famous law firm, and she confessed that her greatest fear was losing sight of the peculiar intersection of idealism and practical application that drove her to love the law in the first place. Well, “Watchers of the Sky” serves as a poignant reminder that it is ok to dedicate your life’s work to something important; that is something for which nobody should feel the need to apologize.
For more information, see the link to the film’s website here.