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This essay, by 14 year old Clementine Scott, won Third Prize in the HART Prize for Human Rights Junior Essay Category. Read more entries here.
The Holocaust. The methodical annihilation that wiped out two thirds of Europe’s Jewish population, characterised by horrifying concentration camps such as Ravensbrück and Auschwitz. The largest ethnic cleansing in history, that caused the term genocide, literally “tribe killing”, to be coined. One would think that an event on such a scale would make world leaders think twice about allowing similar crimes to occur again – and indeed, preventative measures were taken: international tribunals were formed to try those involved, and later in 2002 the International Criminal Court, which “helps to end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community”, including genocide. In addition, the “Eight Stages of Genocide” model was devised in 1996 to increase understanding of how and why genocide occurs. However, the execution of Cambodian minorities in the notorious “killing fields” in the 1970s, the 1994 mass slaughter of the Tutsi people in Rwanda by the ruling Hutu elite, and most recently the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma and the sustained aerial bombardment of non-Arab communities in southern Sudan, all prove that despite the world’s vow in 1945, genocides continue to happen. So why have we broken our promise?
One reason for the world’s reluctance to take preventative measures against genocide is perhaps the definition of the word itself. Where is the line between a mass murder that can be tried in a national court, and ethnic cleansing that requires international intervention? When does murder officially become genocide? When twenty members of a race are killed? Two hundred? Two thousand? The boundary is not defined. In addition to this lack of clarity, there is also the understandable stigma it encompasses. Too often the word genocide is dismissed as too shocking, a hyperbole, but most of the time it is entirely appropriate. A recent example is the sectarian violence between Buddhists and the minority Rohingya Muslims in Burma. The situation has been described as arguably the closest the world has come to genocide since Rwanda, and yet world leaders seem afraid to apply that particular taboo to it, even though many Rohingyas are being denied citizenship and are being systematically removed, while their government watches this quasi-apartheid situation indifferently and possibly even encouragingly. Matters are worsened by the juxtaposition of sectarian violence with positive news of Burma embracing democracy and strengthening economic links with the West, and becoming a popular tourist destination. Our attention would perhaps shift from Burmese river cruises to preventing atrocities there, if we did not shy away from calling the situation genocide.
Even if we cite ignorance or misunderstanding the gravity of the situation when justifying not intervening in Burma, we certainly cannot use these excuses in conjunction with Sudan. Darfur, a central conflict zone in western Sudan, has been in a state of humanitarian emergency since 2003, and the crimes committed there, including the relentless ethnic cleansing of the area’s non-Arab communities, were officially declared “genocide” by 2004. But even with this publicity, the conflict is still ongoing after twelve years, and the situation is further complicated by additional unrest in the southern Sudanese area of Abyei, which escalated after the area was denied a referendum over joining newly-formed South Sudan in 2011. Peace agreements are gradually being violated in both intertwined conflicts, and international humanitarian aid has been restricted in some affected states. Even though the world is largely aware of the Sudanese people’s suffering, the widespread ethnic targeting, the aerial attacks on important community structures, no perpetrators have been brought to justice and a ceasefire has not been achieved. So perhaps the key to ending crimes like these is persistence. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement proved unsuccessful, and in 2009 President Omar al-Bashir became the first head of state indicted by the ICC, but five years later he still has not been arrested and the ICC investigation has been formally dropped. Eventually though, the peace terms and the arrest warrant may become successful, if only we persevere. World media has a way of holding our attentions on a particular atrocity for a short time, then letting us forget about it when another incident appears. This approach is ineffective when preventing genocide. It takes many years to discriminate against, dehumanise, persecute and finally exterminate an entire minority, so naturally it will take years to bring the process to a halt. If we really want to end situations like the one in Sudan, then we must continue to spread awareness, continue to negotiate, continue to bring perpetrators to justice, continue to try and consign genocide to history. If we are truly to keep our post-Holocaust promise of “never again”, then we must be as willing to keep fighting genocide as its perpetrators are to commit it.
Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.