Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Reflections on crimes against humanity

Saturday’s forum at the Imperial War Museum to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide saw delegates divide over a central question: when should the international community intervene to stop deaths?

There seem to be two ways of preventing genocide. The first is through intelligence. A genocide – the systematic wiping out of a particular group – must be planned. Both the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide required planning of practicalities and a build-up of hatred against the target group to incite participation. It needs large numbers of collaborators. Given these aspects, genocide must be detectable.

The second way to prevent genocide is much more complex: intervention before killings on a ‘small’ scale become genocide. Weeks were spent debating whether the massacres in Rwanda should actually be called ‘genocide’ before any action was taken. Partly because of the obligation to act, states were reluctant to define the events as genocide. Politics trumped humanity. Many on Saturday called for action in Darfur, Sudan to prevent genocide, but this comparison was described as an ‘absurdity’. ‘Civilians are being bombed by the state’ we were told by a speaker in the audience, but this was not genocide in his opinion. Presumably people were saying exactly the same thing in May 1994 – it shows how unclear a situation can look from outside.

The distinctions between conflict and genocide were made clear at the conference: whereas conflict, simplistically, involves two sides fighting, genocide is a one-sided attempt to ‘rewrite’ humanity, to reduce diversity in the human race. Conflict resolution and genocide prevention must therefore be treated distinctly too. Before or during the event, evidence that this is what has been planned and carried out must be present and must be distinguished from the fog of disinformation that will be thrown out by the perpetrators. This requires specialised investigators. The international community must keep its eyes open: to remember past atrocities and see that it is not so unbelievable for one people to turn against another. Other countries that receive information of plans of genocide from informants must be obliged to take it seriously and act to protect the victim group. The need to keep racism out of education becomes more vital if it is viewed as a precursor to genocide.

Conflict resolution is different and it is up to the world to decide how seriously it should take this. There is no point in calling something a genocide just because thousands of civilians have been killed in conflict because while wars are acceptable to all countries the same bickering over terms and sovereignty that was present in Rwanda will be seen each time. Would countries condemn the killing of innocents in war and, as a consequence, stop bombing or fighting in civilian areas? While greater use of intelligence could contribute to preventing genocide, a fundamental change of world attitude is needed before rapid response to conflict can be achieved. While we can hope to become more sophisticated in insuring that Rwanda or the Holocaust doesn’t happen again, we still continue to live in a world where the deaths of 10,000 in Iraq can be seen as collateral damage and nobody will step in to stop Israelis and Palestinians from tearing each other apart. Is it so ridiculous to suggest that all innocent deaths should be a crime against humanity?

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