Lessons from beyond the mass grave

Institutional mechanisms for intervention after the Rwandan genocide did not prevent violence in CAR and South Sudan.

Muslims in the Central African Republic have faced ethnic cleansing since December 2013 [Getty Images]

It was a haunting discovery: A terrified 11-year-old girl cowering in the corner of a ransacked house three days after her village had been attacked in a horrific act of ethnic cleansing. Her parents had also been killed and in the streets outside dogs fed on the decomposing bodies of her neighbours. This scene, witnessed by Amnesty International researchers, may be reminiscent of one that occurred during the Rwanda genocide. But this girl was a Muslim, not a Tutsi. The village was in the Central African Republic not in Rwanda. And this happened in February, not 20 years ago. 

A decade ago, marking the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan lamented the collective failure of the international community to protect the 800,000 people who perished.

“Such crimes cannot be reversed. Such failures cannot be repaired. The dead cannot be brought back to life. So what can we do?” Far from being a rhetorical question, Annan was raising the key issue facing all concerned with safeguarding against genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.  

Since the Rwandan genocide, regional and international institutions have developed new norms and mechanisms aimed at providing some answers to Annan’s question. The International Criminal Court and other UN-assisted tribunals, including the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, are attempting to ensure that those who commit atrocities are held to account. The principle of “responsibility to protect” also provides that states must protect their populations from crimes against humanity.

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The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has the power to investigate widespread human rights violations while the African Union has the right to intervene in member states where genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes are taking place.

And yet, despite these institutional changes, this renewed commitment to principles of international justice does not translate to sufficient practical action on the ground. The recent events in the Central African Republic (CAR) and in South Sudan underscore the continued failure of regional and international bodies to act firmly, decisively and quickly enough to prevent atrocities.

Since December 2013, the CAR has experienced ethnic cleansing on a massive scale with targeting of the country’s Muslim population. War crimes and crimes against humanity have been perpetrated against civilians and many have been caught up in fighting between the mostly Muslim Seleka and the mainly Christian anti-balaka militias. It is only now that the UN has finally decided to bolster the peacekeeping mission to CAR to 12,000. But that will not be fully in place until September.

In South Sudan thousands of civilians have been killed since the outbreak of conflict in December 2013. Both the government and opposition forces have targeted civilians based on their ethnicity, raped women and girls, burned homes and looted badly needed humanitarian supplies. Heavy weaponry has been used indiscriminately in civilian areas; churches and hospitals sheltering civilians have been attacked; and more than a million people have fled their homes.

In response to the violence in South Sudan, the UN Security Council unanimously agreed to increase peacekeeping force levels but deployment has been slow. The African Union Peace and Security Council called for a Commission of Inquiry in December 2013, but it was not formed until last month and its members have yet to set foot in South Sudan. Meanwhile, peace negotiations being brokered by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development have stalled.

The role of human rights organisations is crucial in raising awareness of the threat of mass atrocities in order to spur the international community into action. In CAR, Amnesty International experts have made three separate in-depth research trips to the country as well as to refugee camps in neighbouring Chad.

The organisation published a report flagging the escalating violence as far back as October 2013. It also published satellite images providing evidence of 485 homes being torched in the town of Bouca, as well as internally displaced persons massing near the town of Bossangoa, as people fled the violence. Amnesty International was the first to describe the bloodshed there as ethnic cleansing. And yet, despite international expressions of concern, the killing goes on.

Time is running out for the millions of men, women and children who are in desperate need of help in CAR and South Sudan. Tragically the young girl found hiding among the dead in her village in CAR is far from being an isolated example.

The genocide in Rwanda was shocking not just because of the extremity and scale of the atrocities, but also because it was preventable.

If the international community is truly committed to stopping mass atrocities, it must ensure that its mechanisms are effective. States and individuals must know that they cannot act with impunity. The Security Council must deploy peacekeeping forces where they are needed most and must be resourced to ensure they can carry out their mandate to protect civilians.

We may not be able to bring the dead back to life, but by taking these steps we can ensure we protect the living.  

Salil Shetty is the secretary-general of Amnesty International.