This spring, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington honored the victims and survivors of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide with a series of events, culminating in a two-day conference that examined what is being done to prevent a future genocide. As VOA’s Serena Parker reports, there is growing awareness of the need to protect vulnerable populations from mass killings, but fulfilling the promise to prevent genocide is much more challenging.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington honors the memory of Jewish victims of Nazi persecution by warning of contemporary threats of genocide. The museum also organizes exhibits and lectures on this kind of mass slaughter.
Recently, the museum and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars co-sponsored a series of events dealing with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in Central Africa. According to Jerry Fowler, director of the Committee on Conscience at the Holocaust Museum, the organizers wanted to use the occasion to promote public discussion about how to anticipate and prevent such genocide.
“As we know, history since the Holocaust, which gave us the term genocide, has been one of recurring genocide,” he says. “And at the end of 2001 an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty -- originally put together by the government of Canada -- proposed the idea that there is a responsibility to protect -- a responsibility, first of all, on the part of sovereign states to protect their own citizens from avoidable catastrophe, especially mass murder, as well a responsibility on the part of the so-called international community to protect citizens when their own government is unwilling or unable to do so.”
Jerry Fowler says it’s one thing to call for responsibility, quite another to exercise it. Despite all the recriminations about the failure to intervene in Rwanda, for example, nothing has been done to stop ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region of Western Sudan. There government-backed Arab Muslim militias are targeting black Muslim farmers and forcing them off their lands. Already one million men, women and children have been displaced by the violence.
Mark Schneider, vice president of the International Crisis Group, says the world should be aware of what is coming. “When you burn down the villages of desperately poor farmers who survive on the bare essentials of what they plant and force them to flee into the wilderness and then deny them access to relief, you sentence them to death,” he says. “And unless there is immediate action by the international community, we will be seeing the next genocide.”
Organization is needed to respond to genocide says Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. We can promise “never again” but we don’t seem to mean it.
“What we mean by ‘never again’ is never again should genocide happen,” she says. “What we haven’t been prepared to mean by ‘never again’ is that never again will we stand idly by while it happens. Nor have we been prepared to allocate the resources that would be required or make the commitments prospectively such that the machinery, which is slow to move even under the best of circumstances, is prepared to move in a time of crisis.”
Samantha Power says the United States and other countries tend to look out for their national interests, while genocide often occurs in places outside their security zones -- like Rwanda, for instance. However, she notes that the way a regime treats its own people is a good indicator of its long term reliability in the international order and whether it may become a threat to U.S. security.
“Now clearly prevention of genocide is highly desirable above all for moral reasons of our shared humanity, but also for reasons of international security. But is it feasible?” asks David Hamburg of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict and author of No More Killing Fields: Preventing Deadly Conflict. He says forestalling genocide requires politicians and military commanders to overcome some misperceptions; for example, the notion that genocide occurs too spontaneously to be prevented. Studies indicate there is usually ample warning of impending catastrophe.
“What these studies show is that the warning time is not to be measured in days or weeks. It’s not to be measured in months. It’s to be measured in years,” he says. “It takes a while for even the most malevolent leaders to build up all the things that need to be done to cross the threshold to mass violence. And so let’s forget about the rationalization that we have no warning. That we don’t know. The real challenge is how to strengthen our institutions to use what we know, to add to what we know, to have responses more or less ready -- the more ready the better.”
Genocide often happens during wartime. In World War I, nearly one million Armenians died during the Turkish campaign of ethnic cleansing and forced migration. In World War II, Nazi Germany sent six million Jews to their deaths. And in Cambodia after a five-year civil war ended in 1975, the Khmer Rouge came to power and executed two million Cambodians.
Danilo Turk, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, notes there is also the threat of postwar genocide when peace is not really established. Take what happened this March in Kosovo, when Albanian mobs went on a violent rampage that left 19 dead, nearly 900 wounded and displaced 4500 Kosovo Serbs. Not genocide, strictly speaking, but a harbinger perhaps of what may come.
“When you are thinking about the prevention of armed conflict and the prevention of genocide, as part of that broad strategy one should pay particular attention to the questions of post-conflict peace building,” Mr. Turk says. “That is because very often armed conflicts erupt in places where there were conflicts before, and unless these places are properly stabilized and given proper institutional framework, it will be difficult to prevent genocide.”
Danilo Turk says U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s plan to appoint a U.N. Special Advisor on Genocide Prevention should help the international community prepare for such threats. He or she can provide information and early warning to decision-makers.
That is not enough, says Samantha Power. Various organizations, like the International Crisis Group, have members on the ground in the world’s hot spots. These human rights campaigners provide detailed reports on genocide threats before the killing begins. What is needed, she says, is somebody of stature to use the United Nations to mobilize public opinion.
“This is a position that should be filled by somebody who actually is a political heavyweight, somebody who can get the meetings when the meetings are needed,” she says. “Say somebody like President Clinton, who feels very guilty about a couple of genocides that happened while he was president. But the point is that this is a job that should be filled by somebody who spends more time in political capitals than he or she spends actually at the Chad border waiting to get permission to enter. We have those people and they are doing a pretty impressive job.”
Samantha Power says the decision to act against genocide rests with world leaders who respond best to political pressure. Therefore, it’s essential that people who care about stopping genocide speak out and raise public awareness. Until the political gains to intervening are obvious, we are likely to see the international community stand back and simply watch genocide occur as it did during the 20th century.