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Finding the courage to fight genocide
Kyle Matthews, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies
24 April 2013
This article is based on an address given by Kyle Matthews of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies to the U.K. House of Lords on April 15.
April is the month when the international community is reminded of its checkered record in preventing genocide and other large-scale killings. The United Nations named April 7 the official day of remembrance of the victims of the Rwandan genocide, which began 19 years ago and went unchecked for three months, resulting in approximately one million civilian deaths. Holocaust Remembrance Day took place on April 8, reminding us that six million Jews were murdered on European soil only three generations ago. The victims of the mass killings that engulfed Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 was commemorated on April 17. Rounding out the month is the Armenian Genocide Remembrance day on April 24. Armenians across the globe will mark the 97th anniversary of the beginning of a mass atrocity that resulted in the deaths of 1.5 million people.
April should engender more than just reflection about the horrors of mass atrocities. The international community must make a commitment to meet these memories with action, and give substance to that adage ‘never again’. Yes, we should do this for moral and ethical considerations; we should do it also for pragmatic reasons, for reasons of regional and international security.
Ever more central to this is the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, the internationally endorsed principle that stipulates that national governments have a responsibility to protect all populations within their borders from mass atrocity crimes — genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes. (…)
Following NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 to enforce UN Security Council resolution 1973, there have been widespread expressions of skepticism and misunderstanding of R2P among the general public, politicians and media commentators, with some equating R2P exclusively with military intervention or regime change. Others have criticized the selectivity of the international community in enforcing R2P, and have equated a failure to prevent or intervene in Syria as evidence that R2P itself is a failure.
This is to misunderstand the concept and principle. R2P provides an impetus and set of guidelines for preventing and responding to atrocities, but it is member states, ultimately, who must act.
Speaking about the responsibility to protect in 2012, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced 2012 as the “year of prevention.” At a ministerial meeting on R2P in September 2012, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson remarked that there is a need to “develop strategies for prevention-oriented engagement” and “to reach out to a wider public about the R2P and, of course, about the horrors of genocide and ethnic cleansing.” While much energy and research has been concentrated on support for R2P at the UN among diplomats and regional organizations, little work has focused on the role of parliamentarians in preventing and halting mass atrocity crimes.
Why is engaging and working with parliamentarians on R2P important? As Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire, the former military commander who led the doomed UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in 1994, proclaimed in the Canadian Senate just last year: “Governments and individual citizens agree that genocide is evil. Governments and individuals also agree that genocide should be halted when it begins to unfold or, better yet, prevented before it happens. Yet, since 1945, history has shown that the domestic political will to act preventatively is lacking among individual political leaders.”
The legislative branch is the main state institution through which citizens and civil society can participate in shaping government policy. Parliaments and parliamentarians can ensure that the will of the electors is respected and hold governments to their commitments to enact policies advancing the cause of human rights and genocide prevention. Mobilizing parliamentarians is an essential next step towards ensuring that individual states uphold the historic commitment they made at the United Nations in 2005 to protect vulnerable populations.
If anyone out there believes atrocities are a fact of life, or that we are mistaken in attempting to formulate strategies to prevent them from occurring, they might heed the cautionary words of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan: “Today, no walls can separate humanitarian or human rights crises in one part of the world from national security crises in another. What begins with the failure to uphold the dignity of one life all too often ends with a calamity for entire nations.”
To fulfill the potential of R2P in mass atrocity prevention, it will be necessary to identify, educate and connect a key group of parliamentary leaders drawn from every corner of the globe. Parliamentarians have a responsibility to engage on this issue. We have a responsibility to hold them to account.


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