Exactly 20 years ago, the sitting government in Rwanda commenced a genocide against minority Tutsi and moderate Hutu populations. Eight hundred thousand Rwandans perished in 100 frenzied days, the fastest rate of killing in recorded history, though most international actors did not name what was happening as genocide—and did not act before it was too late for most of the victims.
Today most people’s understanding of what genocide looks like comes from the grainy footage of the Holocaust that will haunt and stain the human conscience until the end of time. But when there are no gas chambers, no barbed wire, and no concentration camps, many don’t recognize the perpetration of new genocides and other targeted mass atrocity crimes because they may not look the same.
Yale Law professor Reva Siegel has written about the concept of “preservation through transformation,” which holds that evil practices of the past that we now universally condemn may continue in the present in different forms, precisely because they don’t stay or look the same. Slavery, racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry, subordination, and human rights abuse transform and adapt with the times. The concept applies even to the most profound of all human rights crimes: genocide and other targeted mass atrocities.
In the face of this accumulated horror, there are nevertheless signs of hope that international efforts can be much more effective in responding. But first, it is important to understand that despite the evolution in genocidal tactics, five common characteristics are distinguishable. Understanding them allows quicker recognition and more effective responses.
1. Definition. The first commonality is the very definition of genocide born in the aftermath of the Holocaust: the targeting of a group of people for elimination in whole or in part on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, or ethnicity. In Darfur, the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit peoples have been targeted by the Sudan government, as were Muslims in Bosnia. The 1994 Rwandan government attempted to eliminate en masse the Tutsi population.
2. State sponsorship. As in Nazi Germany, it is usually governments driven by greed or power calculations that perpetrate such crimes. In the last few decades, regimes in 1960s Nigeria, 1970s Cambodia and Burundi, 1980s Guatemala and Iraq, 1990s Bosnia and Rwanda, and today’s Sudan and Syria—among others—have committed such crimes.
3. Impunity for the perpetrators. In every one of these mass atrocity events, there is no fear of accountability. Only recently, with some of the convictions in the International Criminal Court (ICC), the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, and the hybrid courts established for Sierra Leone and Cambodia, is justice being served for some perpetrators, but usually years after the circumstances have changed, as with the Nuremberg trials after World War II. Only the ICC’s current arrest warrants provide conviction opportunities while conflicts still rage.
4. Mass culpability. Orchestrators try to drag ordinary citizens into their killing plans to ensure that as many people as possible are connected to the crimes. The most successful tactic for mobilizing people to attack is to use identity threats: “Get them before they get us.” Hitler’s regime vilified Jews throughout Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. The Sudan and Rwandan regimes instilled fear that targeted groups were on the verge of conquering the country and its land, dehumanizing the “other” as the “enemy.”
5. Manipulation of the rule of law. The legal system in Hitler’s Germany was disabled, as was the very constitutional framework of the state. That has been repeated in most other genocidal states. The rule of law is twisted to serve the interest of the perpetrators.
But three signs of hope are on the horizon. First, a popular anti-genocide/anti-atrocity movement is in formation. There is a long and successful tradition of popular movements in the U.S. and elsewhere having an impact on crises in forgotten places. The anti-apartheid movement’s contribution to the transition in South Africa and the “blood diamonds” movement’s support for ending wars in West Africa show that campaigning can have an impact. A central takeaway from Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell is that no response to genocide will arise without a constituency of conscience demanding one. In the U.S. today, a growing movement of students, faith-based groups, human rights activists, celebrities, politicians, and journalists is helping to increase political will to respond to mass atrocity events, including the conflict minerals in Congo, Joseph Kony’s abuses, and Darfur’s genocide.
The second sign of hope is the evolving progress in creating accountability for targeted mass atrocity crimes. The wheels of international justice grind slowly, but at least the ICC’s foundation has been laid. Besides prosecutions, other forms of accountability include truth commissions, sanctions, asset freezes, aid suspensions, and diplomatic isolation.
The third sign of hope is the promulgation of the principle of the international “Responsibility to Protect” civilian populations (R2P). During the dozen years or so since the R2P concept was formulated, its application has been complicated and ad hoc. But the international community has acted in some cases with aggressive diplomatic or military responses, such as in Kosovo, Ivory Coast, Libya, Congo’s Ituri region, and pre-referendum South Sudan.
The continuing violence in the Congo remains the deadliest post-Holocaust conflict globally. There could be no better tribute to those who perished in Rwanda’s genocide 20 years ago than to redouble efforts to counter mass atrocities in bordering Congo. The evolving international peace and protection strategy in Congo could be a model for future crisis response. Combined with the growing human rights movement demanding political action, it is increasingly likely that the international community will “never again” stand idly by in the face of such problems from hell.