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Sudan, Ivory Coast underscore need to prevent large-scale killing

Vlad Sambaiew
The Hill
January 2011

The current referendum on independence in southern Sudan and mounting tensions over the presidential leadership stalemate in the Ivory Coast remind us once again that too many people around the world live their lives under threat of large-scale killing and atrocities. While the immediate vote was generally calm, much of the last decade in Sudan has been aptly described as “genocide in slow motion.” These crises and others (Congo is a prominent example) evoke the urgent need for a comprehensive international approach to prevent the use of mass violence as a political tool.

Encouragingly, putting a stop to deliberate and systemic murder recently became an explicit US diplomatic priority. Top policy directives now commit the United States to engage actively “in a strategic effort to prevent mass atrocities and genocide” and develop real-life plans to that effect. Senate Concurrent Resolution 71 passed in December with strong bipartisan support and calls for a “whole of government” approach to such prevention. These are major steps forward, yet still only a start. As always, translating good intentions into successful global action will be a long, hard slog.

The challenge for all of us is the same: survival. While some decry “human rights” as a Western construct, the fact is that surviving the day anywhere in the world should be the most basic and universal human right. And, unfortunately, the record of preventing deadly political violence during the last 100 years is not good.

The many democratic, economic, and technological achievements of the 20th century need to be contrasted with the tens of millions who died in wars, genocides, and other murderous campaigns. Rwanda, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, the Holocaust, and Soviet and Chinese Communist mass killings are only a sampling of a 20th century that may well be remembered more for its tragedies than its advances. In this century, many continue to face the threat of unnecessary victimization.

On the positive side, concepts of basic human rights made great strides forward in the years after World War II. The Nuremberg trials were followed by adoption of the international convention against genocide in 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into force that same year, asserting that “everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.” While still controversial, an international treaty established the International Criminal Court late in the century. It provides a formal, rather than ad hoc, way to prosecute those who commit, order, or incite the worst human crimes.

We continue to take other potentially constructive steps to stop mass killings. The principle of “responsibility to protect” (R2P) was adopted at the United Nations in 2005 by more than 170 national leaders, including then-President Bush. The R2P concept obligates nations to protect their populations—whether citizens or not—from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has spoken forcibly about R2P as “one of the more powerful ideas” of our time. R2P underscores that governments and the broader international community have a duty to provide basic protections to vulnerable groups.

Much remains to be done, but more governments, international organizations, and nongovernmental groups now actively seek practical approaches to prevent the use of mass murder and atrocities as a political strategy. Unlike during the period of the Rwandan genocide, willful ignorance is no longer viable policy. Today key international actors, including the United States, are actively engaged in efforts to avert deadly conflict in both Sudan and the Ivory Coast.

The expanding efforts to give actual meaning to the words never again assume that the worst is not inevitable, and that we can do better in the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities than we have in the past. The United States needs to build on its leadership in this critical area. Sustained high-level political will, stemming from all branches of government, is essential to success in these nascent but critical human protection initiatives.

If we get it right, the next decades will not be a replay of earlier failures or indifference to protect populations at risk. We might even do better than we think possible.
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