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Conference on the Prevention of Genocide

by Archives October 16, 2007

Prominent academics, human rights activists and United Nations officials came to Montreal for the first Global Conference on the Prevention of Genocide last week from Oct. 11-13. The presentations covered a range of issues dealing with genocide, with often conflicting views on how to effectively prevent it.

United Nations and Genocide Prevention

Gay MacDougall, UN expert on Minority Rights, believes the UN has the human rights mechanisms in place to prevent conflicts but there lacks communication between their different institutions. “They have the info from these countries… but there is no institutional way to speak directly to the other bodies,” said MacDougall.
MacDougall suggested the creation of a cross-cutting mechanism between the development, security and human rights branches of the UN. She also suggested that instead of simply providing raw material to the UN in New York, the human rights branch of the UN in Geneva should assess and analyze the information because they best understand the cultural and political implications of the region in question.
Howard Wolpe, a seven-term member of the Unites States Congress and specialist in African issues, believes that the lack of conflict and genocide prevention measures in government and the UN are not only institutional, but also part of the psychology of civil employees.
“Not a single person amongst my colleagues wanted to begin this kind of conversation of ‘boots on the ground'” said Wolpe. “Unfortunately, the fundamental issues of peace building are not structural or institutional, they are psychological.”
Wolpe said members of government administration and diplomats need training to redefine the cultural dimensions of conflict prevention.
“The deeper issues [in genocide prevention] are conceptual and cultural, they require a shift in the way of how we understand the principal challenge,” said Wolpe.
“Instead of working on what our American institutions like, instead [we need to work] with the reality on the ground and come to a deeper understanding of the social-psychological characteristics of these societies to be able to build institutions in response to the real challenge.”
Wiebe Arts, a former UN peacekeeper in Srebrenica during the Bosnian genocide, also believes that genocide prevention cannot take place until the UN fully understands all the political and cultural elements present in a given country.
He suggested that a UN peacekeeping school be constructed and that only these special intelligence forces should be deployed into conflict regions. “They would know all the ins and outs of the conflict. They must be trained in all kinds of scenarios that may arise, they cannot learn as they go,” said Arts.
He suggested that the task of looking for early warning signs and advising the UN bodies on how to deal with these signs should be delegated to these forces. He said it should be up to the UN political adviser and the force commander to write the mandate and the rules of engagement if intervention is necessary.
Peter Langille, co-developer of a United Nations Peace Building Service (UNEPS), said a UN-run army and task force would work as a “deterrent effect [to let] bad leaders know [that] bad behavior would be responded to promptly.”
Arts also sees the media as a major asset that can be used to prevent genocide. “The media should be protected by these forces in order to report accurately. They should not be embedded or censored in any way as we see in Iraq.”
Because media propaganda often plays a major role in stoking the fires of genocide, Arts suggested that special officers of this UN peacekeeping force should operate in the radio stations and newspapers in the region to provide accurate news.
“If there are the right forces with the right moral and political support, [then] genocide can be prevented,” said Arts.

Ending genocide: the realists’ approach

Many speakers, particularly Gerard Prunier, did not share this view. Prunier, author and specialist on Eastern Africa, believes that states’ self-interest is at the root of prevention impossible. “I don’t think genocide can be prevented, because government is responsible. Once government has decided to undertake drastic measures, [it] cannot be talked out of genocidal policies out of dialogue and reason.”
Prunier advocates direct self-empowerment of people involved in conflict and genocidal situations.
He told the audience that handing over the “guns and money” to rebel groups in Darfur would be one way of getting people already on the ground to deal with the genocide.
“In my view, it is the very people that are involved that have to take things into their hands and try to bring it to end. Foreign intervention would be better done in supporting them than substituting ourselves for them. As we see in Iraq, the removal of a partly genocidal regime led to more mayhem that the regime itself,” said Prunier.
“The people who are in it know what they are doing. It doesn’t mean beautiful, peace and quiet, but they would be at central process in taking care of their own lives.”
Specific examples that Prunier cited were the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) Tutsi rebels, led by Paul Kagame, the country’s current President, that ended the Rwandan genocide, the Vietnamese army that stopped the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Tanzanian army that stopped Idi Amin in Uganda and even the allied armies who ended Hitler’s reign of terror.
Prunier called resolution 1769, which mandated for the deployment of 19,000 additional UN and African Union (AU) troops into Darfur, “something out of the moon.” “If it ever happens it will probably be useless… If foreign intervention is not by countries who are directly interested it will probably be useless,” said Prunier.
Prunier said he fully realizes that this is not a perfect solution that will bring about democracy and equal rights but called the solution, “that of a lesser evil.” Concordia professor Frank Chalk warned that the search for ideal or perfect solutions can sometimes obstruct efforts to end genocide. “Just as it is not realistic to dream of the perfect society, it is not realistic to dream of the perfect solution,” said Chalk.

Non-military solutions

Although much of the talk focused on military intervention, other solutions, like the possibility of imposing effective economic sanctions, were discussed. Justice Richard Goldstone, an international war crimes prosecutor, used the example of his native country, South Africa, to demonstrate how economic sanctions combined with international political pressure can help end an oppressive regime.
But, Goldstone warned, the sanctions must be well-thought out as to not further hurt the people in need of help. He said they can in no way disrupt the flow of food and medical services. “Arms embargos, freezing of assets, denying visas to leaders and restrictions of investment and divestment are most effective,” said Goldstone.
Audrey Macklin, associate professor of law at the University of Toronto, advised every country to do and make public a political and human rights assessment before deciding to invest anywhere. “We must have a framework that discusses how this affects the war zone,” said Macklin. Macklin said that there should be an independent monitoring body on the ground to do the assessment. “It is not effective to have states who are committing violations to monitor themselves,” said Macklin.
Goldstone suggested the idea of ‘oil for food’ in Sudan. “This would allow China to continue to buy Sudanese oil. The money would go into a bank where it could not be used by the Sudanese government for military interests,” said Goldstone. Goldstone said the sanctions should also be tied to clear benchmarks to get them lifted and accompanied by regular monitoring.

The role of the individual

While the feasibility of genocide prevention in government policies was debated, others, like Rebecca Hamilton, graduate of Harvard Law School, say that genocide prevention remains in the hands of civilians around the world.
“Blame it on civil society for not building political pressure from the outside,” said Hamilton, “it is not obvious to regular citizens that they, that we, have the [responsibility to] create political will.”
Hamilton, who works for Genocide Intervention Network in the United States, said that when community members pressure their members of Parliament to attend local demonstrations it is a form of political pressure and that such acts have changed government policies in the past.
“Generate costs for politicians who fail to act, rewards for people who do,” said Hamilton, “if you can hold politicians accountable in protecting gun-owner’s rights, surely you can do that same for preventing people from genocide.”
According to James Smith, founder of Aegis Trust, a genocide prevention network in the U.K., governments and international institutions are rendered irrelevant unless the public pressures them to act.
“Governments will remain populated in the whole by people who want things off their desk, who are constrained in their own decision making, and this won’t change in our life time. Therefore the responsibility of our society to urge, coax and pressure governments will be there for many decades to come,” said Smith.
Ali B. Ali-Dinar, a professor in Sudan, rallied the crowd for support in Darfur by asking people to step beyond donor activities and pressure their respective governments.
“It is not enough when you send money to keep the survivors alive and go and sleep. We want to go back to our communities, we want to be protected, we want you to support accountability and international justice,” said Dinar. “We need for you to consult your conscience, it is today or not at all. If it is after we are exterminated, we don’t like sympathy. It is not a favor we are asking, it is the responsibility you have.

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