Genocide prevention: 60 years of abject failure

Darfur reinforces the impotence of this UN mandate.

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:

"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.

The National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum continues to commit all the genocidal acts enumerated in Article 2 of the Convention, even if one such act now has particular prominence: "Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part." We need look no further than the "systematic" denial of humanitarian access to targeted African ethnic groups that has been reported by UN and nongovernmental organizations for more than four years. While violence may have declined from the ferocious levels of 2003-04, it continues, if in more chaotic fashion.

And even this chaos in Darfur is "by design," as a recent report from Human Rights Watch authoritatively demonstrates. Nor were the consequences of Khartoum's genocidal counterinsurgency campaign difficult to discern early on in the conflict. Four years ago, it was clear that in the absence of international humanitarian intervention many tens of thousands of civilians would die. Today the death toll – from violence, disease, and malnutrition – is measured in the hundreds of thousands, and the future looks just as grim.

If the slowly deploying UN/African Union force fails to halt the violence, or aborts – a possibility explicitly raised by head of UN peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guéhenno – then genocidal destruction will almost certainly accelerate and hundreds of thousands more will probably die. If the international community fails to commit the resources required by this extraordinarily difficult mission, the lack of security will become intolerable. Humanitarian groups – the essential lifeline for more than 4.2 million human beings in Darfur – will be obliged to suspend operations or withdraw. A critically weakened population could face a cataclysm of death and suffering.

More than any genocide following the Holocaust, Darfur's killing fields are the measure of whether, 60 years after its ratification, the UN Convention has any remaining force or meaning. The debacle of deployment in Darfur argues that the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations desperately requires a substantial, robust standing force, prepared to deploy urgently to protect civilian populations facing geno-cide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity. Actual deployment would be at the request of the Secretary-General, and while a two-thirds majority of the Security Council should be formally required, deployment must not be held hostage to the veto of the five permanent members. This requires substantial revision of the UN Charter, but fundamental changes at the UN are widely recognized as critical for the organization to remain relevant in the 21st century.

Darfur reveals the consequences of having no such international force. If a ruthless regime of génocidaires can insulate itself from international action simply by claiming "national sovereignty," then Mr. Lemkin's labors will have been in vain. And a Genocide Convention that remains impotent in the face of ongoing, fully reported genocidal destruction will mark in us the deepest hypocrisy.

Eric Reeves, a professor of English language and literature at Smith College, is the author of "A Long Day's Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide."

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