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Darfur: Those Calling it Genocide Are Legally Obliged To Stop It

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In 1946, the United Nations declared genocide a crime under international law. In 1948, the UN adopted Resolution 260A(III), the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which obliged the "contracting parties to undertake to prevent and punish… acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group."

After the horrors of World War II, the world said "never again" to horrific mass killings. But, due to the Cold War tensions, idealistic ideas such as this one were abandoned in favor of realist politics and fighting for self-interests. "Never again" does not mean "we will do everything to stop genocides from happening anywhere in the world." The Western world in particular considers stopping genocides only in countries where they have economic or other interests.

That is why in 1994 the American government did not want to use the term "genocide" to describe the fastest genocide in recorded human history that took over 800,000 lives in Rwanda in only 100 days. This was "the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," as Philip Gourevitch puts it. Or, as George W. Bush calls it, Rwanda was a "wholesale slaughter."

Calling the mass slaughter "genocide" would obligate the US and other governments, signatories of the Resolution 260A(III), to intervene and stop it. But the US and other Western countries did nothing because they had no interests in the small, overpopulated, and poor African country. That a whole ethnic group was being exterminated in front of the whole world was not enough.

So the American officials said they knew that the "acts of genocide" were taking place in Rwanda but this was not enough to compel them to intervene. Blocking UN Security Council decisions concerning Rwanda, they even prevented other countries from acting.

After the Rwandan genocide, many world leaders publicly promised [again] that they would never again delay intervention while innocent people are slaughtered around the world. George W. Bush said, "not on my watch."

Yet, it took them only a decade to change their minds when it comes to Africans.

In September 2004, then American Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that a "…genocide was being committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility." The US Congress did the same. In spite of that, no effective action followed the claims.

Years passed. People in Darfur continued to suffer. Those who could help and prevent the carnage offered nothing but empty promises and vetoes in the UN Security Council (like China).

On February 14, 2008, George W. Bush repeated that what is happening in Darfur is "genocide," and added that his administration is doing enough to stop it. He listed targeted sanctions against Sudanese leaders, companies, and individuals.

As the US government is a signatory of the Resolution 260A(III), which is a legal international obligation, such statements would require a more serious action to stop genocide and human misery. Especially considering the fact that the US is currently involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, where, they say, they are trying to establish peace, democracy, and the rule of law.

We live in a world where only self-interests of powerful countries, not ethics, morals, and compassion, play a major role in stopping large-scale exterminations of human beings. Shame on our world.

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About Savo Heleta

  • Anh-khoa Tran

    I’m a bit late on this response but I stumbled across your blog while writing a paper and I just had to chime in and correct you. If you actually read the UN Genocide Convention, there is no legal obligation to act at all. International action to prevent genocide is optional under the
    Convention. Article 8 says “any contracting party may call upon competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide.” If you notice, the charter says ‘any contracting party “may”‘ implying that they can choose not to act. Furthermore, the degree in which they respond is “as they consider appropriate” which could very much entail writing a letter or making a phone call.

    I’m not saying that US response has been adequate because we know it hasn’t. I just wanted to dispel the myth that there is actually any legal obligation to act.