This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This is a foundational piece of international law that was born out of the mass atrocities committed by the Nazi regime against European Jews during the Second World War.
Despite the passage of time, we can still find inspiration in the example of Raphael Lemkin. After fleeing to the United States when he lost his family to the Holocaust, Lemkin campaigned for the establishment of an international law to define and forbid genocide. When his resolution proposing the Genocide Convention was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, it became the UN’s first human rights treaty.
The Genocide Convention has since led to other norms and mechanisms, two of which are crucial in combating large-scale human rights violations.
The first is the International Criminal Court (ICC), established through the Rome Statute in 1998, with a mandate to prosecute those who commit the crime of genocide. The second is the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a global political commitment to prevent and interdict genocide and ensure the Convention is operational. R2P was initiated in 2001 under the leadership of Canada, and endorsed by all UN member states in 2005 at the UN World Summit.
Yet the conditions that led to the Genocide Convention hold ominous similarities to our world today. The protection of human rights, the commitment to multi-lateralism and our rules-based international order are all under threat.
‘Mute and dysfunctional’
The ICC is under fierce partisan attack. Nationalism and xenophobia in Europe and Asia have produced authoritarian regimes, emboldened by a White House that has relinquished moral leadership and condones their worst behaviour. And the UN Security Council, responsible for acting on humanity’s behalf, stands by mute and dysfunctional.
Most troubling of all, there has been a resurgence of the very crimes the Genocide Convention was intended to address.
In August, a UN fact-finding mission determined the state-led ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar to be an act of genocide. This was echoed one month later by Canada’s parliament, which voted historically to recognize the events as genocide, calling for the prosecution of those in the Burmese military who are responsible.
Meanwhile, the Uyghurs are still being rounded up in mass detention camps in western China, facing the prospect of annihilation. And the Yazidis, a minority group in Iraq, endured attempted genocide at the hands of ISIS, a crime that continues to go unpunished. Nadia Murad, a Yazidi survivor who was sold into sexual slavery, was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for using her voice to campaign for the prevention and punishment of genocide.
Our collective response to these heinous crimes has fallen far short of what the Convention requires. Most UN member states have shown reluctance even to use the term “genocide” when it obviously applies, no doubt worried they’ll be called upon to meet the responsibilities laid out in the Convention — to prevent and to punish.
Inaction now the norm
So inaction in the face of mass atrocity has sadly become the norm. While R2P was adopted relatively recently, it is already in danger of atrophying to irrelevance. R2P has not led to effective responses in Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, Yemen or South Sudan. Indeed, R2P has not been meaningfully invoked since the controversial 2011 intervention in Libya.
While there are ample grounds to criticize the way R2P was implemented in that case, it is shameful to use those concerns as an excuse for doing nothing to prevent atrocities elsewhere. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council must take up their responsibility and stop abusing their undeserved privilege to advance their narrow self-interest.
History shows that individuals like Raphael Lemkin and Nadia Murad can make a difference. But the promise of “never again” will ring hollow in the absence of political leadership.
Only 149 UN member states have ratified the Convention, leaving 45 to do so. Adama Dieng, the UN’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide, has launched an appeal for universal ratification.
Faced with a lacklustre response, he said this:
“What message are those states sending, 70 years after the adoption of the convention? That genocide could never happen within their borders? That is being naïve. History has shown us time and again that genocide can happen anywhere.”
Heeding history’s call, we must reaffirm our commitment to the Genocide Convention and work towards universal ratification. More importantly, we must abide by the convention’s terms and show the moral courage of our convictions.
The Genocide Convention’s anniversary comes at a perilous time. But it can also be a moment of promise if we summon the spirit of 1948 and renew our collective determination to prevent and punish the most serious crime of all.
Kyle Matthews, Executive Director, The Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Concordia University and Allan Rock, President Emeritus and Professor of Law, University of Ottawa, former Attorney General of Canada and Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, University of Ottawa
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