By Josh Morency
April is Genocide Awareness Month, a time for reflection and memorial and when the often repeated phrase of “never again” must be seriously assessed and recommitted to. Through the last century, April has continued to be a month of tragedy and atrocity, with many of the worst genocides having begun, occurred, or marked significant moments during this period. For example, on 24 April 1915, the Ottoman Empire began the process of the Armenian Genocide through mass arrests of notable Armenian intellectuals and community leaders on Red Sunday. To this day, 24 April is commemorated as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. It was also in April, decades later, that the Nazi regime began its systemic campaign of discrimination and oppression of European Jews in the form of business boycotts and exclusionary civil service laws. The date of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, also most often falls within April in the Gregorian calendar. Finally, on 17 April, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime seized control of Cambodia and began its systemic and brutal campaign of genocide that killed millions between 1975 and 1979. It is these tragedies, and others, that we remember, their millions of victims we commemorate, and the pledge of “never again” that we reflect upon during Genocide Awareness Month.
Unfortunately, it is upon reflection that we remember the countless times “never again” has failed to be anything more than a pleasant turn of phrase, devoid of any meaningful action or obligation. Most powerfully, we recall that in the final decade of the 20th century the world saw further genocides that occurred without significant action or timely response by the international community. In both Rwanda and Srebrenica, the warning signs and risk indicators were present in the countries well before the massacres began, as were UN peacekeeping missions. Yet in both these tragedies, failure to pay attention to the indicators of risk and a lack of political will on the part of the international community resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians.
Prior to the outbreak of the genocide in April 1994, Rwanda was in a period of temporary and exceptionally fragile stability brought about by the signing of the Arusha Accords in August 1993, which were meant to bring an end to the country’s civil war. However, animosity between the belligerents, the primarily Hutu central government and the primarily Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), raged just below the surface. The UN Security Council saw fit to deploy the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) in 1993 to support the implementation of the Accords. Despite its presence, UNAMIR was constrained by a tight and unyielding mandate, as well as by a lack of support from UN member states and the offices of the UN in New York, and it was either incapable or disallowed from acting to prevent the violence within its UN-mandated capabilities. Even when an informant from the Hutu Interahamwe militia provided the UN force commander, Maj-Gen. Romeo Dallaire, with actionable intelligence that the government and military were providing the Interahamwe group with training and arms, as well as the location of the arms stockpiles in Kigali, the UN Secretary-General and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations prevented UNAMIR from taking action. When President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in the air over Kigali by unknown actors on 6 April 1994, killing him and the Burundian President, the perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide were already mobilized and their campaign of violence was instantaneous. By the end of the next day, hundreds of Tutsis, moderate Hutus, members of the political opposition, and ten Belgian peacekeepers escorting the Prime Minister were all killed by rampaging genocidaires. Over the next several days, tens of thousands of Rwandans were murdered while the UN and foreign states focused their own forces toward evacuating foreign nationals. UNAMIR command struggled to do what it could to protect civilian lives with its limited resources, such as numerous requests for additional troops and a clear mandate to end the bloodshed, but these calls remained unfulfilled. Instead, Belgium withdrew its contingent a week into the violence, and several days later the total force of UNIMAR was reduced to 270. In little over a month, half a million had been killed in a wave of genocidal violence that would continue until the RPF’s military victory in July.
A year later in 1995, a similar scenario occurred with the genocide in Srebrenica, during which 8,000 Bosnian Muslim males aged 12 to 77 were slaughtered by the Serbian forces under Ratko Mladic in less than a week. Again, like the situation in Rwanda, international actors remained inactive in the face of overwhelming evidence and warning signs of an impending massacre. When the Bosnian civil war began in 1992, Bosnian Serb forces quickly and brutally launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the east. The Bosnian Muslims that survived this first wave flooded into Srebrenica and two other towns. The advance of the Bosnian Serb army of paramilitaries on Srebrenica in 1993 prompted the commander of the UN forces in Bosnia to formally place Srebrenica, and the now tens of thousands of civilians being sheltered in the town, under the protection of the UN force. On 16 April of that year, Srebrenica was declared the first of six safe-zones in Bosnia. Yet despite these initial assurances, the enthusiasm of Member States to meaningfully commit to protecting Bosnian Muslims proved lukewarm at best. The number of troops requested to protect the safe areas was reduced from 34,000 to 7,600 as the Member States balked at the heavy commitment under the initial proposal. As a result of this decision, only a small and lightly armed UN force, the approximately 400 soldiers of the DUTCHBAT battalion, was present to protect Srebrenica when the forces of Ratko Mladic bore down on the small town in June 1995, which at that point was providing shelter to over 40,000 men, women and children. Despite significant warnings of the impending massacre, such as a public statement by Mladic and other leaders of the Bosnian Serbs declaring their intention to destroy the Bosnian Muslim population, as well as promises made by Mladic’s political counterpart, Radovan Karadzic, to the Bosnian Serb assembly a year prior that there would be “blood up to the knees” if his army marched on Srebrenica, the international community’s response was either far too late, wholly inadequate, or both.
Mladic’s forces began shelling the town on 6 July. The bombardment lasted for two days while requests from DUTCHBAT for air support were denied. On 9 June, the Bosnian Serb forces began to move towards the town, taking 30 Dutch soldiers hostage and prompting DUTCHBAT forces to retreat. By the morning of 12 July, Srebrenica had been surrendered to the Serb paramilitary forces. Over the next 30 hours, buses arrived to deport 23,000 women and children while the Serb forces separated out all males between the ages of 12 and 77. About 15,000 men escaped into the mountains during this period but were subsequently shelled by Mladic’s forces. The next day, the massacre of the captured men and boys began at sites around Srebrenica, and Dutch forces exchanged 5,000 refugees sheltering at their base for 14 of their soldiers held hostage by the Bosnian Serbs. By 16 June, over 7,000 men and boys had been murdered, and more would be hunted down and killed in the surrounding countryside during in the following weeks.
If any positivity can be found in the inability of the international community to prevent these mass murders, it is that such failure inspired the commissioning of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2000 and its subsequent report, The Responsibility to Protect, in 2001. The Responsibility to Protect is just as important and relevant to the world today as it was during those crises. Today, there are numerous concerning situations around the world from an atrocity prevention perspective and that urgently require action. In Burma, the current crisis faced by the Rohingya population in Rakhine State is marked by numerous risk indicators of genocide and crimes against humanity. Political and cultural conflict has locked both Sudan and South Sudan in a state of continued civil war, producing environments highly conducive for the development of atrocity crimes. Globally, the rise of large-scale radical extremism has mired many countries in similar states of unrest, conflict, and war crimes.
Many of these country-specific situations, including those previously mentioned, are monitored by the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP) due to their nature as potential atrocity crime scenarios and consequently their relevance to the responsibility to protect. As part of its monitoring effort, ICRtoP has produced updated crises summaries for each of the 15 country-specific situations in infographic format. In observance of Genocide Awareness Month, ICRtoP will be releasing several of these new summaries, beginning with South Sudan on 7 April, alongside ICRtoP’s regular weekly news update, the R2PWeekly. By drawing attention to and spreading knowledge of these crises before they devolve into occurrences of atrocity crimes, and by enabling civil society to effectively advocate for RtoP normalization and adherence, ICRtoP hopes to ensure that political actors will never again fail to protect populations from genocide or other atrocity crimes due to a lack of political will.
Recalling the first address of Secretary-General Guterres to the Security Council in January 2017 in which he called upon Member States to “commit to a surge in diplomacy for peace,” it is important that during this Genocide Awareness Month we remember that “prevention is not merely a priority, but the priority” (emphasis added). As Secretary-General Guterres rightly indicated in his address, the international community, the UN and, most importantly, states must work to prevent conflicts and crises. When recalling the failures of prevention, intervention, and protection in Rwanda and Srebrenica, we are reminded of the importance of the Secretary-General’s call on the Security Council to be more active in its duty to assure world peace and to make better use of the options under Chapter VI and other resources at its disposal. ICRtoP is glad that the new Secretary-General is committed to prevention and recognizes its own importance in preventing atrocities. Moreover, ICRtoP hopes that when Member States, civil society, and other actors consider the Secretary-General’s statement that “if we live up to our responsibilities, we will save lives, reduce suffering, and give hope to millions,” they are reminded of the responsibility of all states to protect all populations from all forms of atrocity crimes. Let us hope that in observance of this Genocide Awareness Month and in memory of the millions of victims of genocide in the past century, all states will accept their responsibility to protect populations from atrocity crimes, and that the vow of never again may finally be realized.