Preventing genocide: from rhetoric to action

UN Special Adviser urges firm measures against Darfur slaughter
From Africa Renewal: 

In Sudan’s Darfur region, as elsewhere in the world, the international community “must take bold, decisive measures to ensure that genocide does not take place,” affirmed the UN’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Mr. Juan Mendez, on 7 April. Commenting on the anniversary of the start of the Rwanda tragedy a dozen years earlier, he added: “We cannot claim to have learned the lessons of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, if our action in the face of genocidal violence remains half-hearted.”

Preventing genocide in Darfur Displaced villagers in Darfur hoping for tangible support to halt killings.
Photograph: UN / Evan Schneider

Despite obligations and commitments by world leaders to halt such mass slaughter, “people continue to be targeted for violence and murder solely because of their ethnic origin,” Mr. Mendez noted, “most flagrantly” in Darfur, which he has visited twice since his appointment in 2004. In addition to urging the Sudanese government, African peacekeepers and the United Nations to do more to protect civilians from murder, rape and displacement, he called on citizens throughout the world to pressure their leaders “to go beyond rhetoric and act decisively.”

100 days

The Rwanda genocide lasted for some 100 days, during which approximately 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered. Although a UN peacekeeping mission was in Rwanda at the time, its mandate and numbers were very limited — and the UN Security Council decided to reduce it even further. The perpetrators of the genocide therefore faced little international opposition. The killing stopped, in fact, only when a rebel group overthrew the government. An independent commission set up by the UN later concluded that “the responsibility for the failings of the United Nations to prevent and stop the genocide in Rwanda” lay with the Secretary-General, the Secretariat, the Security Council, the peacekeeping mission in Rwanda and the member states.

In 2004, on the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan outlined a plan of action to prevent future genocides. It involved five broad areas of activity: preventing armed conflict, protecting civilians during conflict, ending impunity for those guilty of perpetrating mass slaughter, ensuring early warnings of situations that could escalate into genocide, and taking swift and decision action — by national governments, the Security Council and other bodies — to block the development of genocide or halt it if it has begun.

To help spur movement in these areas, the Secretary-General appointed Mr. Mendez in July 2004. A former political prisoner and prominent human rights activist in his native Argentina, Mr. Mendez bases his work on the 1948 Genocide Convention, a universally binding legal obligation that not only provides for punishing genocide, but also for preventing it.

This emphasis on action to prevent genocide was reinforced at the September 2005 UN World Summit, when the “Outcome Document” unanimously adopted by member states agreed that both national governments and the international community have a “responsibility to protect” people from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Saving lives

In addition to addressing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire and other countries, Mr. Mendez has sought to focus world attention on Darfur. He has noted varying and unofficial estimates that “at least 100,000” have already been killed in Darfur, and perhaps many more.

Thanks to international relief efforts and the presence of a modest peacekeeping force, the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS), many lives have been saved, Mr. Mendez argued. But drawing on UN reports and his own two visits to Darfur, the special adviser stressed that “much more needs to be done, and urgently.”

Secretary-General Annan, in a 9 March report to the Security Council, further underscored the seriousness of the situation. More than 3 million people have been displaced by the conflict, with some 2 million of them dependent on international food and other relief aid. In Western Darfur especially, the situation has in fact worsened since the beginning of the year, Mr. Annan reported. Attacks on humanitarian workers have deprived some 30,000 people of access to relief aid. Fighting has spread into neighbouring Chad, while Chadian rebel groups have moved into Darfur, making an already complex conflict even more volatile.

The time for strengthening the peacekeeping presence in Darfur “is now,” said Mr. Mendez, “when the security situation in Darfur is getting worse and attacks on civilian populations are spilling over into Chad.” This could take the form of a stronger AMIS or a future UN peacekeeping mission, to which the African Union has agreed in principle. As of early March, AMIS had 6,900 personnel in Darfur — too small to cover such a vast area.

Mr. Annan has urged donors to respond to the African Union’s appeals for more financial and logistical support, while the UN has initiated contingency planning for a possible transition to a UN mission. However, reported Mr. Annan, Sudanese government authorities have organized demonstrations against the UN in various parts of Darfur to protest such a mission.

Mr. Mendez has noted that government consent for international involvement in protecting populations under threat “will always be preferable.” But international action may also include, in limited cases, “non-consensual means when governments are unwilling or unable to protect their own citizens.”

But the most important thing is to save lives. “Violence against persons targeted because of their ethnicity, race, religion or national origin is unacceptable,” said Mr. Mendez. “Effective measures to prevent it from increasing and degenerating into genocide are essential. We should not have to wait until suffering has reached the levels witnessed 12 years ago in Rwanda.”