April 16, 2006

‘Never again’ again

By: Justin K. Gelfand

Never again. That’s what the world vowed when allied tanks liberated Nazi death camps. Soon after, the West Pakistan Army massacred more than 500,000 Bengalis; Pol Pot slaughtered more than 1 million Cambodians; the Guatemalan army methodically killed 200,000 Mayan men, women and children; Mao starved and murdered millions of Chinese peasants; Bosnian Serbs systematically “cleansed” the Balkan peninsula of 200,000 Muslims; and Hutu extremists butchered 800,000 Tutsi Rwandans by machete. The world did nothing.

Today, it’s Darfur, a region of Sudan better known for its killing fields than its historic African kingdoms. For years, the government-sponsored Janjaweed militia’s ruthless and rampant killing spree of the country’s predominantly black African population has resulted in at least 400,000 dead and 2.5 million driven from their homes. And, somehow, someway, the world is once again turning a blind eye.

In 1941, Winston Churchill called genocide “a crime without a name.” Just after World War II, Rafael Lemkin, an international lawyer at the Nuremberg war trials who lost his entire family in the Holocaust, coined the term genocide to describe a particularly vicious act–committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group (e.g. Darfur). Since then, the world has used terms ranging from ethnic cleansing to civil conflict to avoid Lemkin’s nomenclature–because using the term genocide requires international action by treaty.

At a March conference in Africa, President George W. Bush broke with international norms and said of Darfur, “When we say genocide, we mean that the genocide needs to be stopped.” But the United Nations has refused to commit to intervention. Instead, the world’s largest multinational institution, which has agreed the Janjaweed has committed “acts with genocidal intent,” is busy debating just how many acts with genocidal intent constitute genocide–and there’s the rub.

President Bush, the first president in U.S. history to use the word genocide in time to intervene, is subtly reshaping the terms of the debate, or so it seems. Thus far, a brave group of under-equipped, under-trained African Union soldiers remain the closest remnant of an international force ready and willing to stop the genocide. While they have been in refugee camps in Chad and Sudan begging for financial support and reinforcements, the Bush Administration and the rest of the world have sat on the sidelines–the benches already warmed from trying the same strategy in Rwanda. The only efforts have come in the form of divestment campaigns, publicity campaigns, rallies and protests, all from concerned citizens, not governments.
Somehow, Sudan’s government has managed to appease the world by promising to stop the violence–while simultaneously funding the Janjaweed and opposing any intervention in what it insists is an internal conflict. If he’s not already, let’s hope President Bush is upping the ante. Humanitarian officials in Darfur are calling for action and the evidence, hundreds of thousands of corpses, should suffice.

The world must strike at the heart of the issue–whether it is committed to stopping genocide through external force. This month, the U.S. State Department issued another detailed report emphasizing the Sudanese government’s role in the Darfur conflict, and it is certain what will happen if the world continues to leave the power in blood-soaked hands.

This century, the world broke new ground with genocide by prosecuting war criminals. Now it’s time to take that final step: stopping genocide before it’s too late.

It’s a good start that we say “never again.” But let’s actually mean it this time.

Justin Gelfand is a writer based in Washington, D.C. His work often appears in The Hill newspaper.