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OPINION: What Was Meant To Be 'Never Again' Happens Again And Again

Metal racks hold the bones of thousands of genocide victims inside one of the crypts at the Nyamata Catholic Church memorial. Attackers used guns and grenades to blast their way inside the church on April 13, 1994 where thousands of people had taken refuge, killing men women and children. The memorial's crypts contain the remains of over 45,000 genocide victims, the majority of them Tutsi, including those who were massacred inside the church itself. (Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In September 2015, the UN General Assembly established December 9 as the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime. December 9 was an obvious choice, since, in 1948 of the same day, the UN General Assembly adopted the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention). This Convention was the first document that dared to define genocide for the first time, imposing an obligation on states to prevent and punish genocidal crimes.

The Convention followed the mass atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis before and during World War II. At the time of drafting the Convention, the drafters were hopeful that the world would never again witness such atrocities as committed by the Nazi regime. While, arguably, there has been no such great loss of human lives as during WWII, genocidal incidents have and still take place. After WWII, we have witnessed examples of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, and now in Syria and Iraq, to name only a few.

The genocide in Cambodia was the first genocide since the introduction of the Genocide Convention. From 1975 to 1979, between 1.7 and 2 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge. In 1994, in Rwanda, 800,000 Tutsis, an African ethnic group, were killed. Thousands of people were injured. It is estimated that between 250,000 and 500,000 women were subjected to systematic rape. In 1995, in Bosnia, approximately 100,000 people were killed. In 2003, over 300,000 people were killed and over three million people were displaced in Darfur.

Despite the numerous incidents of genocide since the Convention was adopted, nothing or not enough has been done to address the inadequacies of the Convention and their domestic implementations. As a result, we now witness yet more and more incidents of genocide, as perpetrated by state or non-state actors.

Genocide By State Actors

Over the recent months, more evidence has come to light to suggest that the Rohingya Muslims are subjected to genocide by the Burmese government. Rohingyas are the people indigenous to the Western Rakhine State of Burma. They are predominately Muslims. Despite their indigenous status, the Burmese government refuses to recognise their identity as Rohingyas, labelling them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The effect on their rights within Burma has been profound. Their situation deteriorated rapidly after the events on October 9, 2016, when nine Burmese police officers were killed by an armed militia. It is a given that any armed insurgency or terror activities must be adequately addressed by the state to ensure the safety of its people. However, the response to the killings of the Burmese police officers was reportedly violent, leading to widespread and systematic indiscriminate attacks against Rohingya Muslim civilians. The events of October 2016 decisively placed Burma onto the United Nations' radar. The atrocities committed against the Rohingya Muslims resulted in them being forcibly displaced and fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh, by the tens of thousands. However, the crimes are being strongly denied by the Burmese government and the steps taken by the international community continue to be slow and insignificant.

And while civil societies continue to express their disapproval of the lack of decisive action, it has to be emphasised that this is nothing unusual. This is nothing unusual in relation to the crimes committed by governments as per diplomatic considerations. Surprisingly, even if the genocidal atrocities are committed by non-state actors (like Daesh), there has been no speedier response.

Genocide By Non-State Actors

Since 2014, Daesh has been committing crimes of genocide. Its victims are Christians, Yazidis, and members of other religious minorities in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. The exact numbers of the individuals killed by Daesh are difficult to ascertain, especially in Syria with the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Mass graves continue to be discovered in Northern Iraq. However, this uncertainty about the exact number of fatalities should not take the focus away from the atrocities committed by Daesh. The overriding objective is that the murder, mass killings, torture, ill-treatment, rape, sexual abuse, sexual slavery, and many more crimes are committed by Daesh against Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities with the specific intent to destroy the groups in the region in whole or in part.

It took the cooperation of over 70 states to ensure military victories against Daesh. Currently, over 90% of formerly Daesh-occupied territories have now been recovered. The progress in Syria is much slower. The humanitarian assistance is ongoing. First steps have been taken to ensure justice for the victims, although the process will be long. Nonetheless, the lack of quick and decisive steps has marked the region and the survivors for decades to come.

Changes Needed

The recent cases of the mass atrocities committed against religious minorities in Syria and Iraq and against Rohingya Muslims, perpetrated by non-state actors and state actors respectively, show that the international community continues to fail in its primary obligation - to prevent and to punish the crime of genocide. As the Convention approaches 70 years next year, it is crucial to scrutinize whether the Convention is fit for its purpose – to prevent and punish the crime of genocide. Was it meant to be a powerless document merely defining genocide? Or maybe the aspirations to prevent and punish were once real but dissolved when faced with the empirical reality. Even if the document was meant to be just a symbolic document, the recent mass atrocities amounting to genocide suggest that the international community should consider whether the current approach is adequate or whether new mechanisms are needed to make the promise of ‘never again’ mean something.


(c) 2017 Forbes

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