Memory and knowledge for the prevention of genocides

making memory to redeem the “never again” promise 

In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, defining genocide as a crime under international law, encompassing acts committed to the partial or total destruction of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. As the title itself suggests, the 1948 Genocide Convention was concerned with the duty to prevent, and not only to punish, genocides. Written in the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust, the Convention stemmed from the idea of “never again” allowing genocides to occur.

The great inspirer of such document, the Polish Jew Raphael Lemkin, coined the term "genocide" to define crimes of this kind, providing with a previously inexistent name the atrocities that many populations had too often suffered.

What were the other genocides committed after the introduction of the Genocide Convention? As Marcello Flores wrote, “One cannot easily enter into the debate between jurists, historians, and social scientists on what have been the genocides committed after 1948 as well as before the notion of ‘genocide’ was introduced: this notion, as Lemkin wrote, was a new word for an ancient practice. The founder of Genocide Watch, Gregory Stanton, maintains that, since 1945, there have been 55 genocides, causing 70 million victims. However, based on the rulings of international ad hoc tribunals, we can argue that, since 1948, there have only been two genocides, respectively, in Rwanda and Bosnia and both in the mid-1990”.
For sure, international law has made progress. The International Criminal Court, active since 2002, was formally established. In 2004, the UN created the post of Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocides and, in 2006, set up the Human Rights Council to monitor human rights violations. In 2005, the UN General Assembly members adopted the Responsibility to Protect principle, indicating the moral obligation to react, prevent, and rebuild.

Preventing genocides has always been difficult, if not impossible. We often speak of a genocide when this latter is already happening or when it has just ended. Governments often use the war as an excuse to implement the extermination of a given social, ethnic, or religious group. To draw again on Marcello Flores, “The causes of the failed prevention of genocides are generally the following. First, the weakness of the genocide convention, which lacks a clear definition of genocide and some unmistakable indications on how to prevent genocides. Second, the inadequate analysis of the warning signs of genocide, the knowledge of which could ensure a prompt reaction. Third, the lack of a political willingness to solve these issues and the sovereignty principle's abuse to perpetrate violations. Finally, the failure of the UN's decision-making process”.

If all this is true, so is the fact that, although genocides and mass atrocities always occur differently in history, their mechanisms, language, and dynamics are often very similar. Recognizing these signs, knowing how to read them, and bringing them to the world's attention is central to preventing genocides. This is why knowledge deeply intertwines with the making of memory to redeem the “never again” promise. As is stated in the Charter of Memories, we will only be able to consider this commitment fulfilled “by checking that the UN Convention on the Prevention of Genocide has been actually enforced, protective measures have been implemented for threatened populations and ethnic groups, international courts work against those responsible for mass crimes, international institutions, the European Community and democratic States supervise respect of human rights in all parts of the world.”

But what are the most severe and urgent genocide scenarios today? Let us look at some of them.