Event Summary: Preventing Genocide and Mass Atrocities: International Law and the Responsibility to Protect

On January 13, 2015, four experts discussed the moral, legal, and political implications of conflict prevention at “Preventing Genocide and Mass Atrocities,” a panel organized by the African Affairs Committee in conjunction with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. The program was co-sponsored with the United Nations Committee, the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice and the International Human Rights Committee.

The panel included Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General for the Prevention of Genocide, H.E. Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Rwanda to the United States, and Sheri Rosenberg, Assistant Clinical Professor of Law, Director of the Program in Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Studies and the Director of the Human Rights and Genocide Clinic at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Elizabeth Barad, Co-chair of the Committee on African Affairs and an international law and gender consultant, moderated the discussion.

The remarks of the distinguished panelists focused sharp attention on the importance of the legal doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and of action to implement the doctrine by State Parties and institutional players. In her comments, Her Excellency Professor Mukantabana recalled the failure of preventative measures to protect against mass atrocities in 1994 and spoke of lessons learned. “The genocide was eventually stopped by Rwandans themselves,” she said. But “the problems of one country sometimes become the problems of neighboring countries,” she added. “That’s why it’s impossible to solve the problems of genocide without getting together.” Ambassador Mukantabana also emphasized the steps that Rwanda is taking to prevent genocide, such as the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide.

Dr. Adams – a former anti-apartheid activist, a member of the African National Congress, and a leader in the North Ireland peace process, spoke of the increasing engagement of regional political bodies through the negotiation of accords among member states. He also spoke of the need for institutional reforms within the Security Council that would make the United Nations (U.N.) more responsive to urgent humanitarian crises. “We need a better U.N. for the 21st century,” he said.

According to Adama Dieng, the key question remains how to ensure accountability through legal and judicial means, including the international courts and the vast array of tools that are available to State Parties under the U.N. Charter such as Chapters 5, 6 and 7. Had these been used in Syria, the hostilities would not have escalated. Mr. Dieng agreed with Simon Adams that more reforms had to be made in the Security Council.

Equally important is harmonizing the responsibilities of states, said Dieng. “Civil society is also important as are the youth in a country. Selfish interests must be left aside,” he said.

Giving South Sudan as an example, Dieng also acknowledged the U.N.’s role in strengthening and enhancing the protection of civilians and displaced people. And he mentioned the adoption of Human Rights Up Front, which was started after the Sri Lanka debacle. He said that the horrendous crisis of Boko Haram should be addressed by the international community since Nigeria had not sufficiently addressed the problem, even when it sat on the Security Council.

Professor Rosenburg addressed the shifting legal terrain for R2P, including the definition of atrocity, evidentiary barriers to prosecuting humanitarian crimes, and the delicate balance between the responsibility to protect and prevent. Ultimately, with the evolution of R2P comes a risk that countries may be held responsible for failure to prevent genocide within the scope of their influence, said Rosenburg. “There is a need for stakeholders to move from a “punishment as prevention” model towards a broader atrocity prevention toolkit that embraces institutional reform, conflict resolution, international advocacy, and rebuilding,” she said.

Panelists also spoke candidly about the political risks of putting R2P into action, emphasizing the need for regime-building approaches to be thoroughly vetted in the public sphere and for the R2P not to be implemented in a selective manner. “R2P doesn’t stop with [military] intervention,” said Dieng, citing the challenges of rebuilding citizen confidence in a weakened state such as Libya. When the prevention community is presented with the likelihood of future conflicts, “the prevention work continues into the rebuilding,” added Rosenburg.

Professor Rosenberg ended the formal discussion on a positive note. “The bottom line is that in the last twenty years at least in governments around the globe and in the international community, the question, unlike what it was in Rwanda…is not whether we should do something. It is how and what,” she said. “That is a huge step forward.”