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Never Again

It would not be too far-fetched to say that the progress of humanity in the 20th century could have been measured by the increasing piles of bodies.

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Yet there were important movements slowly evolving to put human rights and genocide prevention on the agenda of the international political community. Most of these took place with little, or reluctant, support from the United States. As the number of genocides and political atrocities increased, especially in association with failed states and ethnonational hatred and aspirations, there were positive signs indicating that there may have been hesitant movement toward genocide prevention. Some of these included:

The proposed creation of a UN rapid reaction force.

The creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

The creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

The indictment of Augusto Pinochet, former military ruler of Chile.

Proposed Cambodian trials to try the leaders of the Khmer Rouge for genocide.

The conviction in February 2001 of three former members of the Bosnian Serb armed forces for rape and enslavement of Muslim girls and women in Foca in 1992. This was the first time that sexual enslavement had been punished as a crime against humanity.

When terrorists flew the planes into the World trade Center and the Pentagon all of these stopped, and attention moved from genocide and human rights to terrorism. In the aftermath of 9/11, genocide prevention was sacrificed to a narrower definition of terrorism. Preventing terrorism and catching those who launched the attacks on the United States became the first priorities, while preventing genocide, or even acknowledging that it lingered as a continuing threat, disappeared from the center of our consciousness.

In fact, it was much worse than anyone could have imagined. Support for human rights was subverted to the "War on Terror," which became an excuse for any policy the administration wished to pursue. As James Traub recently noted in The New York Times, "... if humanitarian intervention must involve vital interests, then humanitarianism itself is irrelevant." He points out that humanitarianism may have become an "unaffordable luxury" in the face of the perceived threats to United States interests and that the "administration's effort to repackage the immensely unpopular war in Iraq as a Wilsonian crusade to free a subject people has discredited the very principle of humanitarian intervention."

At present, therefore, in this environment, the Sudanese government, which committed genocide in Southern Sudan and is now supporting the massacres in Darfur province in Sudan, has every reason to believe it will not be faced with military intervention to stop the massacres in Darfur. This, even though at least 70,000 people have died there.

That is where we seemed to remain until other countries realized the folly of abandoning genocide prevention and the hesitant steps abandoned on 9/11 started again. In January, the Swedish Government convened the 4th International Stockholm Forum on the Prevention of Genocide. It was attended by 60 governments, scholars and an international press corps. Interestingly, while it received extensive coverage in Europe, it was hardly mentioned in the American press.

The Forum issued a declaration outlining steps to be taken to prevent genocide and made an attempt to reinvigorate the stalled attempt to stop genocide and support international human rights. Several months later, on April 7, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in a speech in Geneva commemorating the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, announced he would appoint a special adviser on genocide and would try to start an action plan to prevent genocide. Specifically, this plan involved five points as summarized by Prevent Genocide International:

1. Preventing armed conflict.

2. Protection of civilians in armed conflict.

3. Ending impunity through judicial action in both national and international courts.

4. Information gathering and early warning though a UN Special advisor for genocide prevention.

5. Swift and decisive action along a continuum of steps, including military action.

These are the very steps recommended by the Stockholm Forum and by most experts on genocide. Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, the unfortunate commander of UN forces in Rwanda during the genocide, notes that, even given all the problems with the United Nations, it remains the only institution in a position to mobilize the energy and resources to prevent genocide. But to do so, it must be revitalized and given the authority to act "guided by the founding principles of its Charter and the Universal declaration of Human Rights."

While it's too early to say if these efforts will be successful, the events taking place in Darfur, Sudan, as well as in the Congo, raise important questions which will only be answered by the way in which these new atrocities are dealt with by the international political community.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, passed by the United Nations in 1948, the nations who signed and ratified that convention, have an obligation to intervene to stop the violence and bring stability to the area. The lead in this should be undertaken by the major powers, including the United States, whose record in combating recent genocides is not one of which we can be proud. S



Herbert Hirsch is a professor of political science in Virginia Commonwealth University's school of government and public affairs. He will speak about modern genocide Nov. 14, 5 p.m., at the Virginia Holocaust Museum.



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