Genocide prevention

by Marcello Flores

Marcello Flores during the conference

Marcello Flores during the conference ( Photo credit: Francesca Cassaro)

We hereby publish Marcello Flores' remarks at the conference “Genocide prevention”, the first of a series of four meetings devoted to discussing the crisis of Europe and the Righteous figures of our times, organized by Gariwo in cooperation with Franco Parenti Theatre, under the patronage of the Università degli Studi di Milano and the Corriere della Sera Foundation.

In December 1948, the United Nations decided to approve almost at the same time two fundamental acts, which are still at the basis of our idea of rights and international law. On 10 December, the Universal declaration of human rights, which for the first time established the total equality of all individual and person, whose fundamental rights had to be defended and protected. On the previous day, December, 9, they had approved the Convention on genocide. Why in one case did they choose to adopt a convention and in the other a declaration? The commission for human rights presided by Eleanor Roosevelt, who would accomplish the formidable task of delivering us the most beautiful modern document – thirty incredibly clear and simple articles, summing up the well 500 rights listed in the first stage of their work – had first thought of a convention, but had then understood that a convention, implying a strong and immediate political-legal duty, would have not been voted by numerous United Nations members (then 50), thus almost immediately weakening the will to protect fundamental rights. They thus chose the way of declaration, an unbinding political-moral commitment providing no penalty for those who fail to abide by it, differently from what happens with conventions.

The genocide issue was different instead. The complementary set of acts dated 9 and 10 December 1948 was meant to solemnly and undisputedly affirm that – after the tragedy of World War Two, Nazism and the Holocaust – it would no more be possible to repeat those crimes. A new pathway of conciliation was sought to defend everybody's rights. On 9 December the topic was the past in order to be able to conceive a better future, on 10 December they looked ahead by indirectly condemning the past.

The convention on genocide, as its very title reads out, concerns prevention first and then prosecution (its full name is Convention for the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide), and it starts from the idea – which will be an often repeated slogan – of not letting those events repeat ANY MORE, also with the threat of bringing to justice whoever dared try to do so. In a similar judgment, they thought, to the one that had just taken place in Nuremberg, where the crime of genocide had not been added to the official crime counts (crimes against peace, war crimes, crimes against the humanity) but had been used in some moments to underline the novelty and gravity of the crimes committed by the Nazis.

Genocide was a new word, a new term but also, legally speaking, a new concept, because it referred to a crime committed not against an individual – the basis of modern criminal law – but against a whole group. The word was coined in 1944 by Jewish Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin, who had fled to the US after the occupation of Poland in 1939.

This convention, that came into force in January 1951, after being ratified by the minimum number of countries required, is inviolable and imperative, as regards international justice, also for the states that not subscribed to it (Italy joined it in 1952 and approved in 1967 its own law on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide). What are the genocide that were committed after the ratification of the Convention? It is not easy to probe the heated argument that is there among jurists, historians and social scientists, on which are the post-1948 genocide cases or those preceding the introduction of the genocide concept and term, which was – as Lemkin wrote– a new word for an ancient practice. For example, according to Gregory Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch, since 1945 there would have been 55 genocide cases, totalling 70 million victims. We can, anyway, base ourselves on the decisions made by international tribunals, and contend there have been only two genocide cases since 1948: in the middle of the Nineties, in Rwanda and Bosnia, as stated by the ad hoc courts created precisely to punish the culprits of these crimes.

Why had the international community to wait for the Nineties to resume talking about genocide? Was this because only the end of Cold War (and communism in 1989-91) made it possible to find a new shared vision of human rights and the gross violations of them, which previously had been classified within the confrontation between the superpowers and their support to the different countries or clashing factions in different places of over the world? The Nineties witnessed at the same time, and in a contradictory way, to a strong rebirth of rights culture and a serious and repeated violation of them, even when the international community would have been able to avert this. The case of Rwanda is too well-known to come back to it: but it would have sufficed to answer the call of general Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN contingent of mission Unamir, to have 5,000 more men, to block genocide in its birth. Or it would have sufficed that the Dutch contingent in Bosnia would not bow to the murderous will of Mladić and his men to avoid the massacre of Srebrenica.

Precisely after the genocide in Rwanda, the United Nations accomplished an important reasoning, by identifying five points for an effective future genocide prevention: preventing armed conflicts (the easiest and necessary context for any genocide) and, in case they break out, protecting minority groups; protecting civilians within the armed conflicts and granting more power to the peacekeeping missions in order to save them; implementing the international judicial system to stop impunity for the culprits; imposing a quick and decisive action from the Security Council whenever a genocide is occurring; setting up an early warnings system.

Since then, some steps forward, including remarkable ones, have been taken: first of all the creation of the International Criminal Court which, on the basis of the Rome Statute of 1998, came into force in 2002. But also, in 2004, the creation of the figure of the Special Adviser on Genocide Prevention, the 2005 resolution about it adopted by the World Summit Conference, and in 2006 the creation of the Human rights council to monitor violations.

Still unmet, at any rate, remain the two key problems, that build the true Achilles’ heel for any realistic prevention: the lack of political will (of the United Nations, groups of states, and single states) e and the veto power inside the Security Council, that hindered too many times the possibility to step in to stop a crisis that could end up in genocide. To this we need to add the lack of a police or rapid intervention force of the United Stations, which though is a consequence of what we mentioned before. Let’s think, for instance, of the two genocide cases “made clear” and recognized by everyone, the ones of Rwanda and Bosnia. Here, the US Administration and France refused to use the word “genocide”. A further difficulty is entailed in the very Convention, that provides as a minimum necessary condition to talk about genocide to prove the “intent” of destroying totally or in part an ethnic or religious group (we should remember that, despite Lemkin’s proposal, cultural and political groups are not mentioned, because in 1948 Great Britain and France did not want the former, out of fear of being affected in their colonial activities, and the USSA did not want the latter, out of fear of being accused of cracking down on every kind of political opposition). Proving the intention is not easy, and it is precisely this argument that the people denying the Holocaust or other genocide cases have tried to put forward.

To be fair, it is necessary to remember that there have been cases, in which genocide was stopped: for example in East Timor, by sending the Interfet UN mission – that stepped in, however, after decades of massacres and complicity of the Western powers with Indonesia. The international community has long been indicated the “early warnings” about a situation which may escalate into genocide: a past history of violence and conflict (as both in Rwanda and Bosnia); a serious upcoming economic crisis; a community mobilization against a minority; an insisting hate propaganda; a discriminatory legislation. In the aftermath of war, including the past decades after the end of the Cold War, there has however always been a prevalence of realpolitik, in which the national and state interests of one or more countries necessary have the primacy over the interests of the community, the victims or potential victims of violence and massacres.

It is based on realpolitik, for example, that both in Rwanda and in Bosnia there has been an undesestimate and minimization of what was going on or was looming at the horizon: this because the international community wanted to avoid the application of article 8 of the Convention on genocide, that referred to chapter 7 of the UN Charter (the one relating to actions against peace threats, peace violations and aggression acts). Where an intervention was decided, in Kosovo in 1999 – and we all remember the discussions and disputes it arose – the Nato did so “illegally”, i.e. without being authorized by the Security Council, because it thought genocide was really imminent; while in Libya in 2011 the United Nations authorized the use of force against Khadafi to protect the civilians (from Benghazi and Cyrenaica) excluding a “foreign occupation force” under any guise.

Now I would like to tackle more in detail the issue of intervention, which kinds of intervention are possible, there have been, and with what kind of outcomes. In past decades there were several military intervention without a legal basis, and not authorized by the United Nations: the one of India in Pakistan in 1971, for Bangladesh; the one of Vietnam into Cambodia in 1978; the one of Tanzania to Uganda in 1979. All these interventions were “illegal” and yet managed to interrupt some steady and indiscriminate massacres, and in the Cambodian case, a true genocide. In the Nineties and 2000s, there has been a huge numbers of United Nations interventions, which though were scattered and weak, often for the slowness and inertia of the Security Council, as well as ineffectiveness and lack of the resources put at the command’s disposal. But there have also been illegitimate and yet authorized interventions, which have though created the political and cultural climate, in which the public opinion confronts the topic of intervention.

To speak overtly about my opinions, I will immediately say that I think intervention is a useful, fundamental and often legittimate means, both when it is authorized by the United Nations (in such cases it is always legitimate albeit it can be useless) both, in some cases, in which it is not. I think that, besides the already mentioned cases of Bangladesh or Cambodia, the Nato intervention in 1995 was fundamental to put an end to the Yugoslavian wars and it has always been an armed intervention to stop genocide (the Nato intervention in Bosnia, the one of the Patriotic Front in Rwanda, the Vietnamese one in Cambodia, the Soviet and Anglo-American intervention as far as the Holocaust is concerned, theallied intervention in Turkey as far as the Armenian genocide is concerned). There have been other interventions – like the one in Iraq by the Bush Administration in 2003 – that, besides being illegiimate, have created a disastrous situation, convincing more people that – always and under every circumstance – an arned intervention cannot but worsen the situation. That intervention, that for the last time saw a huge international pacifist opposition movement, was criticized precisely by the human rights associations that in other situations, earlier and afterwards, have demanded or would demand to step in to stop violence, especially in Darfur since 2003 and Syria since 2011.

If we want to have some data (subject to inaccuracy, as all data sets), we can remind that the intervention in Iraq, from 2003 to 2012, caused nearly 200,000 deaths, out of which 140,000 civilians; violence in Darfur almost 400,000; those in Siria, 400,000 deaths, too. Refugees from Iraw have been nearly 2 million and a half, from Syria 11 million. I think we should not go on anymore to discuss on the basis of yes or no to intervention, with general considerations, or weighing more or less integral pacifist choices or support to intervention led by the political-military leadership of the strongest states. We need to help create an integrated culture of rights and genocide prevention envisaging every kind of possible intervention, on the bases of a case by case evaluation, of international law, the interests of the affected countries, the realpolitik that is followed by most governments. And above all, the needs and requirements of the sieged populations and the victims of violence.

Prevention has always been particularly awkward, and nearly impossible as far as genocide is concerned: we can be sure something amounts to genocide only when genocide is really going on (and not all observers usually agree). War is the indispensable context-coverup to destroy a group considered a san enemy to annihilate and it increases in security, fear and the urge to eliminate the group that is deemed to be a danger. But genocide is the result of political choices made by leaders and élites. To prevent them, it would be necessary as Václav Havel, the founder of Charter 77 and then President of the Democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia after the collapse of communism, once said, that “the global community, and not the nation states, are where sovereignty is placed and the source of the protection of fundamental human rights”. The causes of the lack of protection have generally been identified in the following features: weakness of the Convention on genocide (limits of the definition and lack of precise identification of prevention tools); lack of analysis, and subsequent response of the early warning signals; lack of political will and abuse of the principle of sovereignty to keep on allowing violations; failure of the United Nations decision-making process.

It is on the basis of such considerations that in the 21st century a new role model is under definition, gronde on what was called as the Responsability to protect, an approach, which is different from the right of being protected because it presupposed more active an approach. R2P is a moral obligation, on the basis of the needs and will of those who are hit; it is the obligation to respond, prevent, and rebuild. R2P must have exclusively humanitarian goals, and it cannot serve political-economic interests. However we have seen that in many cases a humanitarian intervention has then turned into something else (such as in Libya, the last and most blatant example of this), for which there was a total lack of planning, proposal or strategy.

The principle according to which if a government is unable to protect its citizens, maybe discriminating or cracking down on a part of it, it is possible and dutiful to step in for the international community, that seemed to be widely shared about 10 years ago, today seems to have been forgotten, and seemingly we have restarted accepting that in every country the government is sovereign and can do what it wishes to its citizens.

In an international situation characterized by the strenghtening of the power of autocrats such as Putin in Russia and Erdogan in Turkey, and Trump’s government in the United State, we cannot indulge in optimism, because it becomes clearer and clearer that only a realpolitik guided by its own state interests will be at the basis of the attempt to tackle and solve the ongoing conflicts, political and humanitarian crises. This is precisely why, though, it is necessary that the numerous and growing forces which in all societies struggle for the defense of rights and the victims of rights violations keep on dealing with the theme of prevention by further analyzing what happened in the past and putting into place behavior and intervention hypotheses based on experience rather than on pre-established models.

In Italy, a problem that is sharper than in other countries is the lack of the most basic information; our society as ha hole has a particularly low level of knowledge, which does not enable us to interact with our government and the European and international dynamics and instead favours the attitude of following often ideological stances, not really based on the issues, which are really relevant to the critical areas. It is with this perspective in sight that the initiative starting today wishes to develop, with the awareness of the impossibility to provide clear and exhaustive answers, - which appear to us as extremely difficult, today more than in the past – but only to improve information and consciousness, an indispensable step toward more straightforward and aware participation.

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