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Preventing Genocide:
The Role of the International Community 

Dr. Christian P Scherrer
ECOR-IRECOR Genocide Research Project, The Netherlands

This report is the summary of a presentation made at the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, 26 - 28 January 2000 

Mass violence and extreme problems have characterized the 20-century. The genocide in Rwanda only marks the most extreme recent case. Unlike some types of warfare, genocide is always a state-organized crime. If attempts to prevent genocide and mass violence ought to be successful then the quest of understanding has to concentrate on the following inter-linked areas. The causes for the genocidal frenzy we have witnessed in Rwanda, Sudan, or Cambodia have diverse features but a common element is the exclusion of minorities from the mainstream society based on ethnicity or rather the ethnicization of difference. Thus the mechanics of ethnicization and the secrets of ethnicity have to be uncovered. Ethnicity is a resource for exclusion politics, political manipulation, and vested interests. 

Ethno-politics and state-failure are closely linked. The phenomenon of weak or failed states became more salient in the 1990s. Awareness is growing that failed states are the most dangerous states. Failed states threaten to become genocidal states.

The Crime of Genocide and the Failure of United Nations in Rwanda

Cases of Total Genocide

Common Elements and Patterns of Genocidal Processes 

The Challenges of Genocide Prevention:

1. Genocide Alert and Early Warning System

2. Early Action: The Creation of a Rapid Reaction Mechanism 

3. Prosecution and Deterrence

4. Enforcing International Law 

5. Pressure, Vigilance, and Protection 

6. Anticipating Dangers and Learning Lessons from Past Experiences 

The Crime of Genocide and the Failure of United Nations in Rwanda

The source of Central Africa's recent turmoil was Rwanda. The 'politics of genocide' have been a planned, conscious strategy applied from 1990 onwards. The clique of powerful people around dictator Habyarimana (Akazu) superimposed a pathological plan to murder all Tutsi and the political opposition among the Hutu - in order not to implement the scheme of power sharing agreed in the Arusha Accords 1993. 

Despite earlier warnings, the United Nations remained disunited, paralysed, and inactive in the case of Rwanda. The weeks of inactivity by the UN -in the face of the horrific organized massacre of Tutsi civilians by militia forces, the police and the army- are an incomprehensible scandal. 

Cases of Total Genocide 

In the 20th Century alone there were four cases of full-scale genocide, causing millions of victims: 

the Aghet: Turkish genocide 1914 - 1923 against the Armenians; 

the Holocaust: genocides committed 1933 - 1945 by the fascist German state and its allies against the European Jews (Shoah), Roma (Parajmos), Russians, other Slavic peoples, POWs, slave workers and the political opposition; 

the Khmer Rouge genocide in Kampuchea 1975 - 1979 against the Vietnamese, Cham Muslim and Chinese minorities as well as against the Khmer urban classes; and 

the Hutu-power genocide in Rwanda 1994 committed by the akazu elite, their state machinery, Hutu-power factions of all political parties and a huge number of common people against the Tutsi branch of the Banyarwanda and against Hutu opponents. 

The most deadly regimes in the 20th Century have all committed total genocide against domestic groups, mainly the attempt to exterminate their minorities. 

Common Elements and Patterns of Genocidal Processes 

Analyzing and comparing the four total modern genocides of the 20th Century produces a set of common elements and patterns of genocidal processes. Patterns can be found by looking at the perpetrators and their environment. 

Comparative research identifies and explores:

  the role of the elite
  the core organizers
  legitimizers and perpetrators of genocide, and their relations to the mass of 'willing executioners' (Goldhagen)
  the internal and external conditions they find and create
  the context in which they act
  the political environment in which they take the decision to destroy
  the way genocidal extremists gain the state power and transform it
  the type of victims they chose
  the exterminatory ideology they use
  the systematic way they plan, prepare and execute the crime of genocide
The perpetrators, their ideology, the process of victimization and the way they executed the crime of genocide are the first focus of attention. A coherent and vicious elite is more likely to gain state power in situations of deep historic changes. Under certain internal and external conditions they succeed in imposing their genocidal and destructive aims. The agendas of such elites are to destroy specific domestic groups, which as a rule are always in a non-dominant and minority position. 

The Challenges of Genocide Prevention 

The challenges of genocide prevention are great and the matter is urgent. A systematic overview on the tasks, procedures, institutions and voids of genocide prevention is required. This overview on genocide prevention is focusing on such activities, which are essential to combat and eliminate genocide.  Following I mention six areas of activities.

1. Genocide Alert and Early Warning System

I believe that the global monitoring of gross human rights violations is a task which has to be coordinated by a special UN task force. Genocide scholars from all over the world shall be invited to a series of conferences. The main task is to filter out indicators for early warning about serious risk of genocide on global scale. Indicators of genocide alert and signifiers for "red alert" shall be deducted from a large tool box.  Translated into practical work this could be done in much the same way as it is done by Interpol or by the FBI when assembling and accessing their criminological data base in order to trace organized crime. One of the main tasks for applied comparative genocide research is therefore the development of an integrated early warning and early response system. The effective functioning of such a system is only guaranteed if a rapid reaction mechanism will be institutionalized within the United Nations system and as part of regional regimes. 

2. Early Action: The Creation of a Rapid Reaction Mechanism 

The main reason why a future institution for genocide alert and early action should become part of the UN General Secretariat is the idea to have short procedures and solid facilitation of high level diplomacy in cases of alert. The UN member states must agree on a new mechanisms of rapid reaction in cases of 'red genocide alert'. Averting genocide is in principle the duty of all signatory states of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention. 

The UN Secretariat will be chiefly responsible for organizing political to establish a rapid reaction mechanism which is not depending from political criteria but a purely professional venture. Organizing the political will for the mandatory military intervention of UN in case of genocide alert could be done by reforming the Convention. The effective protection of the victims in case of genocide is definitely a duty the United Nations have to accept. The consequences of the Carlsson Report of December 1999 have yet to be drawn. 

3. Prosecution and Deterrence: international and domestic

New developments such as the Pinochet case, the indictment of Rwandan perpetrators of genocide and the prosecution of crimes against humanity committed on Former Yugoslavia have in recent years helped to form public awareness. The understanding that the international community is responsible to monitor the mandatory persecution of perpetrators of genocide in anyone state is growing. 

The establishment of special persecution institutions in several states (such as Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda) is part of an international effort to end impunity for organised mass murder. The debate about the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its establishment in due time shows clearly that the time is ripe for systematic international prosecution and deterrence against mass murder. Ad hoc tribunals such as the ICTR are not enough. The international system needs a permanent international criminal tribunal specialized to deal with the crime of genocide; it shall be institutionalized as integral part of the UN system. In the spirit of Raphael Lemkin the international criminal law has to be developed comprehensively in order for the international rule of law to be respected by all states and political actors. 

4. Enforcing International Law

The main problem is the lack of enforcement of the existing international law instruments. Either no institution has the formal mandate to do so or the existing institutions are too weak. Law enforcement of by comprehensive review processes and checks-and-control, as in the case of the European Convention on Human Rights or in the case of the ILO convention 169, is rarely provided for by international instruments. Law enforcement needs more institution building. 

The establishing of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the first decade of the 21st century, in order to outlaw gross human rights violations such as genocide and crimes against humanity, is one of the noblest tasks for the near future. Establishing an effective and respected International Criminal Court is genuinely among the tasks of global governance. As coercive measures the United Nations should establish a commission of experts to refine the UN arsenal of sanctions. UN sanctions shall hurt regimes not the people. The heart of global governance must be prevention of destructive violence. The ICC is an important step into that direction. Unfortunately the ICC has already met strong resistance by great powers; amongst the hardest resistors were countries known for a intensive official Human Rights discourse such as the USA and France! 

5. Pressure, Vigilance, and Protection 

UN agencies such as UNDP, regional organizations and donor states shall impose conditionality on development aid in cases of organised forms of state criminality in weak states. Development aid should be suspended in cases of gross violations of human rights by such states. Threats against groups of citizens must be dealt with immediately. Incentives shall promote democratization, respect for basic human rights and minority rights, rule of law, good governance and promotion of free media. Projects in these sectors should get priority funding. 

International and local Non-Governmental Organizations as well as International Governmental Organizations should be more active in monitoring risk areas and minorities at risk. Averting genocide must become a main area of activity of all NGOs working in conflict areas. Escalation processes can be broken through permanent presence, monitoring and appropriate media coverage of the plight of minorities. A rapid and broad system of protection of possible victims should be organized by a NGO coalition in every conflict area. Civil actors shall intervene in addition to and as correction of parallel efforts by the UN, IGO and regional organizations. 

6. Anticipating Dangers and Learning Lessons from Past Experiences 

The international community can learn many lessons from past traumatic experiences of genocide as well as from relevant experience of genocide-free world regions. Especially violence preventive and confidence-building measures should be studied carefully. Civil actors should take the lead in fighting powerlessness and passive response on genocide taken by states and state organizations. The development of concepts of structural prevention of genocide and mass violence is among the noblest task of peace research. Charitable Funds and scientific funding institutions should prioritize research project in these fields. Genocide prevention should be written into the statutes of many more associations. Standardizing the prevention of genocide and mass violence internationally should become a key task for the UN Human Rights Commission in the 21st Century. Genocide prevention should become part of domestic laws and national constitutions as well as of relevant international conventions and pacts. 


Dr Christian P Scherrer, ECOR Genocide Research Project, (ECOR-IRECOR), The Netherlands Ph. D., University of Bern, 1985. Founder and head of ECOR. Senior researcher, Copenhagen Peace Research Institute (COPRI), 1997-1999. Since 1999 Research Director at the Institute für Ethnizitätsforschung und Konfliktbearbeitung (IFEK), Moers. 

Publications include: "Rwanda: Proposal for the establishment of a Conflict Prevention Unit" (1995), "Ethno-Nationalismus im Weltsystem" (1996), "Ethnisierung und Völkermord in Zentralafrika" (1997), "Ethno-Nationalismus im Zeitalter der Globalisierung" (1997), "Intra-state conflicts and ethnicity" (1997), "Ethnizität, Bürgerkrieg und Staat" (forthcoming 2000). 

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18 February 2000