Friday, April 3, 2009

April is Genocide Prevention Month

April is a commemorative month for some of the world's greatest atrocities. Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, the Holocaust and Armenia all have anniversaries in April and the Genocide Prevention Project has taken action to spread awareness by making it Genocide Prevention Month.

Along with efforts to remember those lost in past genocides, the awareness campaign also focuses on the need for a global prevention policy especially with the current crisis in Darfur. The spotlight on Darfur is a given since the project was launched by Dream for Darfur, an organization which has raised awareness about China's influence on the genocide.

Survivors and advocates will be hosting events all around the world. To launch the month-long vigil, the film, "The Last Survivor" was debuted on March 31 at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C. The film chronicles Darfuri survivors and their dedication to anti-genocide advocacy.

Ironically, I haven't seen much coverage about it. A simple Google news search for "Genocide Prevention Month" turned up 12 search results with none from the mainstream media. It's quite disappointing. With the need for advocacy and awareness as Darfur's conflict is embarking on its sixth year, an effort such as this is a newsworthy topic.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran a very long but eloquent commentary by Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor of Policy Review. While I dont count this as coverage of "Genocide Prevention Month" he made some powerful points:
Though genocides are not uniform in character, they are all political. Genocide constitutes the most extreme possible terms for settling differences: a stronger party's decision to annihilate or extirpate the weaker. Genocide is organized. It entails a project, which in turn requires leaders with a purpose in mind and their acquisition of the means of death, including followers to do the dirty work.

We simply do not have to put up with this. By "we," let me be clear. I do not mean "humanity," although I would welcome the collective conclusion of mankind that genocide is unacceptable. I do not mean the "international community," although a decision on the part of all national governments to refrain from engaging in mass atrocities at home or abroad would be most welcome, as would a collective intention to stop and punish leaders or would-be leaders seeking to deviate from the norm. What I really mean by "we" is "we who are strong enough to stop the murderous bastards before they can get away with it."

This "we" is an inclusive group; everyone with a will and a way is welcome. But its purpose must go far beyond declaratory well-wishing. It is not a bad thing but a grossly insufficient thing to join in choruses of "never again," the familiar refrain after something really bad has happened—say, six million dead Jews, two million dead Cambodians, or 800,000 dead Tutsis. No, we must act to stop the malefactors.

And by "we," in the last analysis, I mean the United States.


So, in recent memory, "we" have acted effectively, showing that we can, and "we" have failed to act effectively, revealing a gap between our professed moral sense and what we are prepared to do to vindicate it. The test of progress for this generation is whether we will be able to extend the principle of regard for others by acting when necessary to prevent or halt genocide.


In 1946, with the dimensions of the horror of the Holocaust still unfolding, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution declaring genocide a crime under international law. Genocide "shocks the conscience of mankind," the resolution memorably declared. This effort to "internationalize" the crime of genocide might have been the world body's finest hour. The ensuing Genocide Convention of 1948 provides for "the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide" whether "committed in time of peace or time of war" and elaborates a definition, which includes "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

The convention isn't self-executing, in that it doesn't compel its signatories to take any particular action if the terms of the treaty are violated. But it does provide an international legal and, more important, moral framework for preventive action in response to the risk of genocide.

Breakthrough though it was, one unintended consequence of the Genocide Convention has been a serious problem. The definition of genocide is good as far as it goes, and the prevention mandate seems to allow latitude for timely action against would-be perpetrators. But whether "genocide" as defined in the treaty is actually occurring or about to occur is a complicated question both epistemologically and legally. For if you act to prevent genocide and succeed, there is no genocide—and so you cannot prove you have prevented one. Moreover, those you act against can claim you have violated their sovereign rights, and the argument will carry weight.

If, on the other hand, there is a legal finding of genocide, then it is too late for prevention. All that is left is mitigation. Moreover, if "genocide" is the trigger for action, then the bar is rather high: Atrocities short of genocide may somehow end up as tolerable, or at least tolerated. In 2005, a year after Colin Powell announced the U.S. finding of a genocide in Darfur, a U.N. special inquiry issued a report saying that while criminal atrocities had taken place in Sudan for which perpetrators needed to be held accountable, it lacked the basis for a conclusion that those crimes amounted to genocide. The bloodstained rulers in Khartoum were delighted to characterize the report as a vindication.

That's only the tip of the iceberg for Lindberg's commentary but it's definitely worth reading the whole thing. I focused on those particular parts because it raises the conflicting issues when combating genocide. Morally, we agree it's an atrocity, but actively little is done. Lindberg beautifully outlined the politics behind it all and those are the loose ends that are in dire need of being tied up if any progress is to be made.

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