How many acts of Genocide does it take to make Genocide?


The title of this piece was a question posed by a journalist to the US State Department spokesperson Christine Shelley on 10 June 1994 regarding the continued violence that was occurring in Rwanda. That was Day 65 of 100 days of murder, rape and atrocities committed on an unimaginable scale which resulted in the deaths of 800,000 men, women and children.
Shelly refused to answer that question because if she did admit a Genocide was occurring, such a statement would imply that the United States and the United Nations would be legally bound to intervene in accordance with the Genocide Convention of 1948.
During the Rwandan genocide, the U.S. State Department’s lawyers infamously directed U.S. diplomats to avoid use of the word genocide. Only “acts of genocide” were being committed, they said. It was a distinction without a difference. The crime of genocide is defined by the Genocide Convention as “acts of genocide.” It does not exist apart from those acts. A pattern of acts of genocide is frequently called “genocide” and evidence of such a pattern of ethnic, racial, or religious massacres is strong evidence of genocidal intent.

The Genocide Convention is sometimes misinterpreted as requiring the intent to destroy in whole a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Some genocides have fit that description, notably the Holocaust and Rwanda. But most do not. Most are intended to destroy only part of a group. The Genocide Convention specifically includes the intentional killing of part of a group as genocide. It reaffirms this definition when it includes as among the acts that constitute genocide “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’. Those who shrink from applying the term “genocide” usually ignore the “in part”.

The tragedy in Rwanda could have been prevented. Both the United States and United Nations had substantial evidence prior to the commencement of the Genocide that it was going to occur but they did not take this threat seriously. Even during the genocide when film footage, photos and eyewitness accounts from Rwanda all showed irrefutable evidence that a genocide was being committed, the United States and United Nations still took no action.
After the Holocaust, the nations of this world stood together and said “Never again”. This was a promise that genocide would be prevented and stopped by any means necessary. The United States, United Nations and many other nation states broke that promise. The western world abandoned Rwanda and its people and today in places such as Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo it continues to stand idly whilst the atrocities committed in Rwanda are repeated.

Kofi Annan said in a speech in 2004 “I long for the day then we can say with confidence that, confronted with a new Rwanda or a new Srebrenica, the world would respond effectively”. 10 years since that speech Mr Annan’s wishes have not come true and the question surely to be asked is: When will “Never again” be a promise that we, the international community, keep?


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