We must attack the roots of violence and genocide

07Apr 2020
The Guardian
We must attack the roots of violence and genocide

April 7, 2004 was recognised as an international observance the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Rwandan genocide by the United Nations. Commemorative events were held in several major cities including Kigali, Rwanda; New York City, United States; Dar-es-Salaam and Geneva, Switzerland.

All member states of the UN were invited to join in one minute of silence in memory of the victims. In a speech given by former UN Secretary-General the late Kofi Annan given at the Assembly Hall of the Palais des Nations, he called for actions to prevent future genocides.

“Genocide almost always occurs during war. Even apparently tolerant individuals, once they engage in war, have categorized some of their fellow human beings as enemies, suspending the taboo which forbids the deliberate taking of human life. And in almost all cases they accept that civilians may also be killed or hurt, whatever efforts are made to limit so-called “collateral damage”.

“Unless we are very careful, this can be the beginning of a swift descent into a different moral universe, where whole communities are designated as the enemy, and their lives held to be of no account. And from there, it is only one more step to the actual and deliberate elimination of these communities: one more step, in other words, to genocide.” Said Annan.

So one of the best ways to reduce the chances of genocide is to address the causes of conflict. Annan’s plan therefore embraced, and expanded, the recommendations on prevention of armed conflict, which have been endorsed by both the Security Council and the General Assembly.

We must help countries strengthen their capacity to prevent conflict, at local and national levels.We must do more at the regional level, to prevent conflict spilling over from one country to another.

We must give greater attention to environmental problems and tensions related to competition over natural resources. We must work together with the international financial institutions, with civil society, and with the private sector, to ensure that young people get the chance to better themselves through education and peaceful employment, so that they are less easily recruited into predatory gangs and militias.

“We must protect the rights of minorities, since they are genocide’s most frequent targets. By all these means, and more, we must attack the roots of violence and genocide: hatred, intolerance, racism, tyranny, and the dehumanizing public discourse that denies whole groups of people their dignity and their rights.

“Wherever we fail to prevent conflict, one of our highest priorities must be to protect civilians. The parties to conflict -- not only states but also non-state actors -– need to be constantly reminded of their responsibility, under international humanitarian law, to protect civilians from violence.

“ In more and more conflicts we see that civilians, including women and children, are no longer just “caught in the crossfire”. They become the direct targets of violence and rape, as war is waged against a whole society.

“Wherever civilians are deliberately targeted because they belong to a particular community, we are in the presence of potential, if not actual, genocide.

“We can no longer afford to be blind to this grim dynamic. Nor should we imagine that appeals to morality, or compassion, will have much effect on people who have adopted a deliberate strategy of killing and forcible expulsion.

That is why many of the United Nations peacekeepers, today, are no longer restricted to using force only in self-defence. They are also empowered to do so in defence of their mandate, and that mandate often explicitly includes the protection of local civilians threatened with imminent violence.