On Preventing Genocide, Don’t Trust the ‘International Community’

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On January 8, Foreign Affairs Minister and Government Spokesperson Louise Mushikiwabo wrote an opinion piece in The New Times, “In Memory, We Find Seeds of Renewal.”

An extract from her speech at the launch of activities to mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide, the article makes a passionate call for commemoration and “Never Again” then calls for a “global discussion” of the question: “If the international community had at its disposal — as it did in 1994 — the information and capacity to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, would it act differently today?”

Since I also believe Ms Mushikiwabo’s question is pertinent, I will reflect on it as well. Before that, however, suffice to clarify two issues.

First, that I don’t think the term “international community” is useful when trying to make sense of world affairs, particularly when discussing what can be done when faced with a catastrophe.

The phrase simply means everyone — small and big nations as well as ordinary citizens, many of whom have no clue of what is happening. Instead, due to the importance of the undergoing, it’s more useful to refer, by name, to powerful and influential members of the “international community” — nations as the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Russia and France, and influential organisations like the United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU).

Secondly, because a “humanitarian catastrophe” isn’t the same as genocide, and since not all such catastrophes are genocide — for, as Raphael Ramkin opined, the latter is “a crime of crimes” — I prefer substituting the former with genocide.

Having stated thus, I would say the minister’s question can be answered, in short form, with a “yes” and “no” response.

Yes, for argument’s sake, I would say the “international community” might respond differently for three reasons. First, because international law requires it to do so and because it’s morally right. Again, unlike in 1994, concealing information around mass murder is much more difficult today, especially due to the advent of social media and “citizen journalism.”

More seriously, however, it would be naïve to argue that, faced with a similar crime, the “international community” would act differently simply because it’s legal and morally right. For, since the birth of modern nations circa 1648 after a 30-year war in Europe, countries have primarily been known to act largely out of their interest rather than serving a moral good or even law.

Bear in mind that, even in 1994, the law required nations to act when they had information that a genocide was under way — which is why nations such as the US couldn’t name what was happening by its rightful name, genocide, because saying so would have forced them to act.

Secondly, it’s also no secret that the world lacks a central authority to, in time of need, enforce international law or take risks — such as would be required to stop or end genocide.

Don’t bank on ‘international community’

Thirdly, deployment of forces in distant lands to stop or end genocide requires international support and, as we know, under international law, this is best secured through the UN. Unfortunately, due to competing and divergent interests from members of the UN Security Council, securing such support is no easier today than it were in 1994.

Finally, it would be noble for the world to work for and ensure “Never Again.” However, with limited political will oiled by competing national interests, the fact that ordinary people who would force politicians to act are distracted by their everyday concerns, and that human beings are more concerned with their proximate problems, unless something drastic happens that would change the structure of our world and the reasons politicians act, we are not done witnessing humanly engineered catastrophes such as genocide.

Therefore, instead of banking on the “international community,” each nation should put in place conditions, structures and institutions that work against such catastrophes; this is more feasible than expecting nations to work in concert without central authority to discipline each and force common action.

By Christopher Kayumba

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