Turning a blind eye to genocide

Toronto Star, Canada
Aug 12 2004

Turning a blind eye to genocide


“Never again.” These words evoke the international community’s
collective promise to remain vigilant and prevent the scourge of
genocide from repeating itself. But a promise to whom?

In 1948, the United Nations completed the drafting of the Genocide
Convention. Once called “a crime without a name” by Winston
Churchill, the convention defines “genocide” as the intentional
destruction, in whole or in part, of a national, ethnic, racial or
religious group.

The convention followed the Holocaust and the near extermination of
the Armenian population in Turkey. The first article of the
convention sets out the most important obligation on states: to
prevent and punish genocide, whether it occurs during time of peace
or time of war.

Over the past decade, the international community has demonstrated
the will to punish genocide.

U.N. war crimes tribunals have indicted and prosecuted the
perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the
International Criminal Court has been established to continue this
work into the future.

Despite this apparent will to punish genocide, the international
community has demonstrated no will to uphold its obligation to
prevent genocide. The Genocide Convention empowers states to seek
action through the U.N. to prevent and suppress genocide.

Unfortunately the U.N., a body that is ultimately a reflection of the
will of its constituent states, has proved both unwilling and unable
to intervene in genocidal campaigns.

In the former Yugoslavia, 8,000 Muslims were killed in the Bosnian
town of Srebrenica while under the reluctant protection of the U.N.
Hopelessly outnumbered, the Dutch peacekeepers guarding the
Srebrenica enclave offered no protection as Bosnian Serb forces
rounded up the Muslims in the area, killed all men of roughly
military age and deported the remaining men, women and children.

In an even more tragic scenario, the U.N. peacekeeping force in
Rwanda, under the command of Canadian Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire, was
powerless in the face of the genocidal fury that swept the country in
1994, claiming the lives of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus over a
period of only 100 days.

Since 1994, world leaders ranging from former U.S. president Bill
Clinton to Annan have made their way to Rwanda to express their
regret over their failure to prevent the unspeakably terrible
genocide, and to once again breathe the words, “Never again.” But on
the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, has anything changed?

In recent months, familiar images of systematic extermination,
systematic rape and other inhumane acts taking place in Sudan trickle

The situation in Sudan is complex, but the core of the humanitarian
disaster is the attacks upon black African civilians in the Darfur
region of Sudan by ostensibly government-sponsored Arab militias
known as the Janjaweed.

The scope of the disaster is staggering: 1.2 million Darfur residents
displaced, at least 50,000 civilians killed, widespread and
systematic rape, and according to a statement released by the head of
the U.S. Agency for International Development in early July, an
inevitable death toll due to mass starvation and disease that will
range from 300,000 to 1 million people.

In the face of such a disaster, swift and decisive action is
required. Instead, as in 1994, the international community refuses to
apply the word “genocide” for fear of the obligations that will be
raised, and the Security Council has limited its response to requests
that the Sudanese government disarm the militias. Sudan remains
defiant, and the atrocities continue.

Perhaps the phrase, “Never again,” is not even a real promise, but
merely an empty statement to ease our collective guilt over past

As a nation, Canada has accomplished much good in the area of
international affairs. In recent times, we have deployed peacekeepers
to troubled regions of the world and provided diplomatic leadership
in establishing the International Criminal Court and banning
anti-personnel land mines.

Is this merely out of a desire to uphold a certain image
internationally or is it a reflection of the principles for which we

If it is a reflection of our principles, then we must be engaged into
action whenever those principles are violated. We are not a great
military power, but we are leaders in the areas of international law
and affairs and have the ability to mobilize co-operative power.

Human beings are being killed, raped, and otherwise destroyed in
Sudan on a horrific scale, and no state seems willing to make a firm

I ask Prime Minister Paul Martin: Where do we stand?

Peter Morley is a senior law student at the University of Victoria
specializing in international law. He recently returned to Canada
after working with the Yugoslavia and Rwanda war crimes tribunals.