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Genocide prevention: 60 years of abject failure

Darfur reinforces the impotence of this UN mandate.

By Eric Reeves / January 30, 2008

Northampton, Mass.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly on Dec. 9, 1948, the Convention reflects the tireless work of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish linguist and Jew who had survived the Holocaust. But in the long and too often darkened years that followed, the Convention has never prevented a single genocide, even as "prevention" receives pride of place in the ponderous convention title. Despite the many instances in which international action was desperately required, the demanding words of the Convention have always rung hollow:

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"The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and punish."

To be sure, whether genocide occurred in a particular place or time is debatable. Was Cambodia in the 1970s a genocide or a massive and brutal political purging guided by ideological madness? Was Nigeria's Biafra region the site of genocide in the late 1960s or self-inflicted starvation engineered by Biafran separatists? Was the Pakistani occupation of Bangladesh in the early 1970s a genocide?

But if the primary purpose of the Genocide Convention is prevention, the UN and international community must act before there is juridical or historical certainty. We are obliged to act when there is compelling evidence of large-scale destruction of a "national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such." We might wish for a more detailed account of the mechanism for prevention than is offered in Article 8 of the Convention, but the obligation to act is clear.

Instead, failure beyond doubt, beyond mitigation is too often in evidence, whether we look to Bosnia, Rwanda, or Kurdish Iraq. Continuing international acquiescence before genocide is not a matter of an imperfect document but of moral cowardice or a ghastly solipsism.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Sudan's Darfur region. Only a hopelessly constrained reading of the Genocide Convention, or a refusal to look at the systematic nature of ongoing ethnic destruction, can sustain diffidence or agnosticism.