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from issue no. 03 - 2004

The responsibility of those who are more important

On 7 April the Secretary General Kofi Annan nominated a special rapporteur (special spokesperson) for the prevention of genocide, a new post who will benefit from the help of the High Commissioner for human rights, but who will be directly answerable to the Security Council of the UN, thus emphasising the direct connection between violations of human rights and global security. The date of 7 April is not just any date: it is the international day of commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 that began the day after the explosion of the plane on which the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were traveling, in which both were killed, provoking the murderous reaction over the following months which led to the massacre of about 800,000 Rwandans, of the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups. According to the Rwandan authorities, the number of victims is now 937,000 but it is bound to increase.
The inability of the United Nations to stop this African holocaust was probably the blackest page in its history, and Kofi Annan who at the time was head of the department which took care of peacekeeping operations, well remembers it.

Not least because of this the Secretary General was particularly active in declaring the need of a special rapporteur and the setting up of a committee for the prevention of genocide (which will meet periodically to analyze reports and recommend intervention in areas at risk). The Secretary General found a positive sponsor in Canada, which participated in the debate following the embarrassing attempt made by the UN in Rwanda – as previously in Bosnia and Somalia - which led to the setting up of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. This Commission published a report in 2001, The responsibility to protect, made extremly relevant by the Iraq crisis. Speaking at the International forum in Stockholm in January on the subject of genocide, Annan had declared that the problem “was no longer that of the right of intervention, but rather that of responsibility. In the first place, the responsibility of all States to protect their own people, but in the end, that of the entire human race to protect our fellow men from extreme abuses wherever and whenever they occur”. It is obvious that, too, that all the speeches from the delegations present in Stockholm – against the wishes of the Swedish government which had invited them to “abstain” from comments on Iraq – reached the heart of the problem, the legitimate use of force in international law, in the face of massive violations of human rights.

Commemorating once again the Rwandan genocide, the memorial conference held at the UN Center on 26 March last, asked for by Rwanda and Canada, discussed “the means of assuring in the future a more efficient international response”. This is the point and what is at stake. “Are we certain of being able to respond effectively should we find ourselves faced with another Rwanda?” Annan asked, and answered honestly: “We cannot be in any way certain” (and he repeated it word for word in the message sent to a similar conference in London on 27 March). This “growing doctrine”, as Annan defines it, of the responsibility of the community of States to protect people from the violence of their own rulers can only functions if multilateral institutions, the UN in first place, are truly up to their task, otherwise this interpretation of international law will seriously damage the principle of state sovereignty and open the way for those who, dissatisfied by inefficacy of the projects, chose to act unilaterally.

The issue is delicate and complex. But certain essential requirements for the safeguarding of human rights and the prevention of genocide have already been picked out. The legal instruments already existing must be put into operation (for example the 1948 Convention on genocide and the International Criminal Court), the central role of the United Nations in helping the developing nations to observe its precepts must be recognized, and finally the education of individuals and communities not only to react against violations but to prevent them.
All of this is in prospect for the desired reform of the United Nations, and those who carry most weight in the Security Council will have the greatest responsibility (and earn the greater praise) for their success. The reforms are also owed to the 800,000 victims in Rwanda.

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