- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2006

Twelve years ago this month, Rwanda experienced some of the most brutal crimes in memory. Up to 1 million persons were massacred, literally butchered with machetes, for merely being ethnic Tutsis or Hutu political moderates.

As images of mutilated bodies beamed across the globe, the international community stood idle. As we reflect on the lessons of that horrific episode, we must renew our commitment to take bold, decisive measures to ensure genocide does not take place in our times. We cannot claim to have learned the lessons of the 1994 Rwandan genocide if our action in the face of genocidal violence remains half-hearted.

Action is particularly needed in Darfur, where the threat of genocide continues to loom large.

In the aftermath of genocide in Rwanda and, only one year later, in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, the world as a whole again pledged to prevent this type of violence. Yet despite international obligations and repeated vows to uphold states’ responsibilities, our collective response continues to fall short of what is required.

My appointment as special adviser on prevention of genocide to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in July 2004 represented an effort by Mr. Annan to ensure the international community would take preventive action. It was meant to underscore the link between massive and systematic violations of human rights and threats to international peace and security.

Part of my job is to provide the Security Council information regarding the worst type of human-rights violations, those warranting a response by the international community.

I have based my work on the existing, universally binding legal obligation expressed in the 1948 Genocide Convention not only to punish genocide, but to prevent it. This legal commitment was reinforced at the September 2005 World Summit with a broader, political and moral commitment by which all member states of the United Nations have now accepted the responsibility to protect civilians from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

That protection may include, in limited cases, nonconsensual means when governments are unwilling or unable to protect their own citizens. As special adviser, I have stressed that international involvement with the consent of the government in question is always preferable.

Yet despite these obligations and commitments, people continue to be targeted for violence and murder solely because of their ethnic origin. This is happening most flagrantly today in the Sudanese region of Darfur.

I have visited Darfur twice since becoming special adviser, and have proposed a number of interrelated measures to reverse and prevent violence.

While the international community has managed to save many lives in Darfur, much more needs to be done, and urgently. The humanitarian relief operation under way is providing close to 3 million people with sustenance, in a volatile context in which more than 2 million people have been displaced from their homes. The peacekeepers of the African Union Assistance Mission in Sudan, AMIS, have helped contain the violence and offer protection to civilians in Darfur.

Still, their action has been hampered by problems of logistics, financing and available cash. Most distressingly, the Sudanese government and the rebel groups have at times impeded AMIS’ operations and its efforts to become more effective.

The peacekeeping presence in Darfur, whether in AMIS or a future United Nations mission — as recently agreed to in principle by the African Union — needs to be stronger. It must be better equipped, supported and funded without delay, to make it an effective deterrent to violence against civilians.

The time for a strengthened presence is now, when the security situation in Darfur is worsening, and attacks on civilian populations are spilling over into Chad.

We all can contribute to making the prevention of genocide effective. International organizations can do so by translating commitments into action, ensuring governments live up to their responsibilities vis-a-vis their citizens. And citizens throughout the world can pressure their leaders to go beyond rhetoric.

Violence against persons targeted because of their ethnicity, race, religion or national origin is simply unacceptable. Effective measures to prevent it from increasing and degenerating into genocide are essential. We should not have to wait until suffering has reached the levels seen 12 years ago in Rwanda.

Genocide need not involve massive killing in the hundreds of thousands — and should in any case be halted before reaching such proportions. We owe it to the memory of the victims of genocide, to ourselves and future generations to prevent such horrors from being revisited upon humanity.

Juan E. Mendez is special adviser to the United Nations secretary-general on the prevention of genocide.

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