It takes political will to prevent genocide, not international law
December 9th is the international day of genocide awareness and prevention. The Genocide Convention (1948) was a response to the Holocaust, marking the special status of mass murder committed with the intention of eliminating a category of people on the basis of their ethnicity or faith.
The Genocide Convention has been followed by sundry international laws and treaties, aimed at creating legal norms recognized across the world as universal ethical standards. Yet, to judge by the collective impact of these worthy pieces of paper, the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, guaranteeing state sovereignty, still overrides well-meaning attempts to stop leaders slaughtering their own people.
The problem lies not in the absence of international law, but the lack of political will to enforce that law. World leaders regularly vow to never allow another genocide. However, the reality beyond their hyperbole is disappointing.
For instance, during the 100 days of 1994 Rwandan genocide, as a million people are thought to have been massacred, the Clinton administration focused on finding a way to categorize events as "acts of genocide" (not requiring a response) rather than genocide (which did commit the US, and the international community, to respond).
A low point was reached in 2004 when the then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, told the UN General Assembly that genocide was occurring in Sudan's Darfur region. But, he added, his determination did not necessarily mean the US would do anything about it, implying the UN must act together. Powell understood how unlikely it was that the Security Council would reach a consensus to take action to stop the state-sponsored slaughter in Darfur, which continues to this day, in a media vacuum. Recently, Amnesty International reported that chemical weapons have been dropped on unarmed Sudanese civilians more than 30 times since January 2016. However, because the intelligence and security communities consider the ruthless Islamist regime in Khartoum to be "on its side" in the war on terror, they avert their eyes from the elimination of Sudan's ethnic minorities. This mendacity is nothing new. Older readers will recall the repression and ethnic cleansing we ignored among our "friends" in Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Indonesia, Zaire etc., during the Cold War.
The permanent members of the UN Security Council have vested interests, selling weapons to unethical regimes, or buying their oil. Consequently, the Saudis are able to bomb hospitals in Yemen, the Russians bomb hospitals in Syria, the supposedly enlightened government of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar kills the Rohingya minority, the Turkish government continues its decades-long assault on its Kurdish minority, Syria's Assad obliterates hundreds of thousands of his citizens, and despots in Equatorial Guinea, and Ethiopia, Eritrea etc., crush dissent and democracy.
The leaders in this role call of barbarism use frequently repeated lies to ensure their impunity. Their cynicism is matched only by the predictable response of the international community, be it in Bosnia, Sudan, Yemen or Rwanda: in order to circumvent international law, diplomats repeatedly deny the genocidal intent of the perpetrators; they deny the scale of the killing; and they respond as if the mass graves were due to a natural disaster requiring humanitarian aid, rather than political solutions to political problems. Worse, they send in peacekeepers when there is no peace to keep and have peace talks with the architects of genocide who deliberately spin out negotiations so they can continue killing (the Serbs excelled at this).
So, how should we react to genocide? Should a coalition of willing nations work together, ignoring the UN Security Council? Should we target economic sanctions far more precisely on the architects of genocide, preventing them from going on shopping trips to Paris, getting medical treatment in Switzerland, buying mansions in London and the South of France? Should we freeze and seize their overseas assets, and punish their overseas enablers - the bankers, lawyers, and lobbyists based in countries that consider themselves ethical?
One thing is certain: despite the best efforts of initiatives such as Facing History and Ourselves, the Holocaust Education Trust, and my own group, Article 1, there is still breath-taking ignorance about what the Holocaust was and genocide is, be it among US students http://www.theblaze.com/news/2013/10/16/the-incredibly-depressing-answers-college-students-gave-when-asked-what-the-holocaust-was-and-where-it-began/ or UK school children (in a survey conducted in London 2016, only 19% of students could name a genocide other than the Holocaust).
Genocide is not a matter of history; as we know from Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Myanmar and Sudan, it is destroying communities right now. It is committed not by exotic people in faraway countries, but by people like us, given a certain set of circumstances. At the very least, education about genocide might reduce the levels of ignorance and apathy that allow us to ignore the unacceptable.