around the bar
August 12, 2009

Is “Never Again” for Real?

In the more than 60 years since World War II, there have been several genocides around the globe.  The pledge of “never again,” so far, has come up short. 

Experts recently gathered to discuss an emerging declaration called the “Responsibility to Protect “ doctrine – endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly in September 2005 and by the U.N. Security Council in 2006 – and to advocate for its implementation.

The doctrine, known as R2P, sets out the expectation that nations will act when another nation is unwilling or unable to protect its people from crimes such as genocide and ethnic cleansing. 

Moderator, David J. Scheffer, former U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues and director of Northwestern University Law School’s Center for International Human Rights, pointed out that “much of the developing world sees this doctrine as a threat to their own sovereignty.”

M. Cherif Bassiouni, professor of law emeritus at DePaul College of Law and president emeritus of the law school’s International Human Rights Law Institute, said, “In the age of globalization…I see much less of a commitment to universal values than ever before.”

In an attempt to emphasize the global carnage from 1948 to 2008, Bassiouni and a research team has been investigating the number of known conflicts in those 60 years and the number of persons killed.  He said this information needs to be publicly known.  Roughly, he said, there have been more than 300 conflicts that have resulted in more than 90 million people killed.

“This is two to three times as many deaths as World War I and II combined,” said Bassiouni.

His hope is that when nations are confronted by the reality of those numbers, there will be greater interest in developing programs that stop the atrocities.

The key, said Gay J. McDougall, is to stop an atrocity before it happens – “before a society break[s] apart into chaos.”

McDougall is the first United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues.  She said we must have a way to respond to early warnings of problems and not to wait for an “emerging pattern” of atrocities.  By the time a pattern has been established it is “way too late,” she said.

She noted that most of the societies in which there have been genocides are ones “in which there are inherent inequalities and grievances…. When we see countries begin to have internal structural problems, that is the time to [act].”

In particular, she said there must be a way for rapporteurs – who investigate various regions around the world – “to report directly to the U.N.” or similar organizations.

The other crucial element is action.

“A rapporteur reported on Rwanda a full year before the genocide started,” said McDougall.  “What happened?”

In December, Bassiouni expects that the full report of atrocities of the past 60 years will be published.

As ABA Center for Human Rights co-chair Jerome J. Shestack explained, “Once you bring out the facts, it becomes hard to ignore.”  Shestack is a past president of the ABA.