The responsibility to protect and the duty to prevent genocide: lessons to be learned from the role of the international community and the media during the Rwandan genocide and the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Author:Sarkin, Jeremy

    "Never again" (3) became the catchphrase in the years following the Holocaust. (4) After the Nazis exterminated at least twelve million people, six million of whom were Jews, the world awoke to the horror of genocide and vowed to never again let a crime of such magnitude take place. (5)

    To prevent genocide, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. (6) The Convention deals with issues related to the "crime of crimes." (7) The Convention codifies the prohibition against genocide (8) although it has been outlawed for much longer in customary international law and has occurred throughout history. (9) The definition of genocide is, however, intensely contested terrain. (10) "The term and its underlying concepts have been subject to a bewildering array of misrepresentations and distortions, both unintentional and deliberate." (11) One reason for the disagreement about the extent to which genocide occurred in the past is that international legal genocide convictions occurred for the first time only in the 1990s. (12) Prior to the establishment of the International

    Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and that for the former Yugoslavia, there were no courts to prosecute those guilty of committing genocide internationally. Few countries had this crime on their statute books, although some prosecuted individuals were charged with murder and other types of domestic crimes. Thus, while genocide was deemed to be the most terrible of crimes, the fact that there was no forum to prosecute those guilty of it resulted in genocide being seen by some as a crime that existed in theory rather than practice. In brief, the lack of court decisions on genocide resulted in a lack of clarity regarding its interpretation and practical application in specific settings. (13)

    Despite the adoption of the Convention sixty years ago, nearly fifty genocides (14) have occurred in places (15) including the Ukraine, Burundi, Paraguay, Cambodia, (16) Iraq, Rwanda, (17) and continue to occur today in the Darfur region of Sudan. (18) In this regard, a major failure of the Convention has been the absence of an institution to oversee the work of preventing genocide from occurring and intervening where genocide was taking place. (19) Moreover, despite adopting the Convention, the global community has done little to prevent these atrocities and many millions of people continue to be killed in genocidal acts. Until recently, the international community has frequently failed to respond appropriately to incidents of genocide and other significant human rights violations.

    While historically principles of non-intervention and sovereignty have been thought to preclude the action of one state within another, these concepts are yielding to two "new" doctrines: humanitarian intervention (20) and the "responsibility to protect." (21) While the principle of state sovereignty has not been discarded, it has seemingly been eroded by the development of such doctrines as the responsibility to protect, which is believed to have arrived formally from then U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's 1999 charge that the world must formulate a response to gross human rights violations. (22) This was partly a response to the criticism raised as result of the world's inaction when the Rwandan genocide occurred. The responsibility to protect, however, also finds its roots in the 1948 Genocide Convention that obligates states to protect possible genocide victims and to punish genocidal perpetrators.

    Media coverage of disasters and gross human rights violations, (23) in particular, is not a new phenomenon. (24) For example, images depicting emaciated concentration camp survivors were published in the wake of the Holocaust and international newspapers covered the events of the Armenian genocide of 1914. (25) The media has played an increasingly important role in determining which topics and events the public is made aware. (26) As Stanley Cohen notes, "the media do not tell us what to think, but they do tell us what to think about." (27) The media, however, often miss and misinterpret important events, especially in areas of the world where there is no demand for information or media coverage. (28)

    As such, several questions need to be answered: How is it possible that the world that once vowed to "never again" let genocide occur, has seen so many genocides take place in the years since the declaration? In this post-Holocaust age, what are the obligations of the international community to stop genocide as it occurs? How do the political implications of intervention influence the willingness of the international community to acknowledge genocide as it happens? Some of the most pressing and most immediate questions today, however, concern the media. (29) In an age of immediate and universal access to information, what role does the media play, and what role should the media play in raising awareness of genocide and other human rights issues? Does the media have an obligation to not only raise public awareness of atrocities, but to also try to influence policymakers to take action to mitigate these crimes? And what is the nature of reporting on genocide and other atrocities? Does the media demonstrate a regional preference or bias when it comes to covering gross human rights abuses, and would such a bias constitute a failure on the part of the media, or is it merely reflective of the consumer subset they are serving?

    This article examines the roles played by the international community and the media in cases of genocide and other gross human rights violations. It explores the motivations behind the international community's decisions to intervene or refrain from intervening in cases of mass atrocities. It analyzes the correlation between lack of media coverage in certain cases and the failure of the international community to respond in a manner that mitigates the outcome and saves lives.

    The Rwandan Genocide of 1994 serves as a case study to examine how the international community responded, or failed to respond, to a situation of humanitarian crisis and will be used to illuminate why, in certain circumstances, the international community decides against intervention. The Rwandan Genocide exposes the role the media plays in facilitating or mitigating the systematic violations of human rights in a time of conflict. Finally, the genocide in Rwanda is compared to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, which occurred at the same time as the Rwandan genocide, to explore the regional biases of the international media to show how such biases affect public opinion and impact the creation of policy. The article finds that the failure of the international community to respond to the Rwanda genocide--and to gross human rights violations in other parts of the developing world--is partly attributable to the nature of media coverage of mass atrocities and the media's preference for covering certain countries and certain areas of the world over others.


    In the space of 100 days, (31) Hutu extremists (32) massacred about one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus (33) in a killing spree that was even more efficient than what was seen during the Holocaust. (34) Tutsis were murdered at a rate five times faster than what was witnessed in Nazi Germany. (35) The roots of the animosity between the Tutsis and the Hutus were inculcated for years (36) and the role of the media was important in this regard.

    In the years before colonization, the land that became Rwanda was home to three different social groups: the Hutu, who made up about 82% of the population; the Tutsi, who comprised around 17% of the population; and the Twa, who accounted for less than 1% of the population. (37) Before the Europeans arrived, the boundaries between these groups were soft and permeable ones, so much so that to distinguish them as ethnic groups would be inaccurate. Intermarriage between groups was common, and they shared a common language and religion. (38) While there is some disagreement between historians on the nature of Hutu-Tutsi relations before the arrival of Western colonizers, the majority agree that relations between the two were cordial, for the most part. (39) While Tutsi kings did rule over the territory, there was a symbiotic element to the nature of the relationship between the groups. (40)

    Under colonial rule, this relationship began to change, as first the Germans and later the Belgians used group identity to create a system of rule that used local people to enact colonial policies. (41) The notion of "ethnic" differences between the major two groups in the region must be seen as a construction of the Germans who colonized Rwanda. Moreover, the Tutsis were favored by the Belgians for their high pre-colonial standing and for their supposed racial superiority. (42) Tutsis in power under the Belgians were seen as collaborating with the oppressors, especially by the Hutu majority. Over time, a more discordant relationship began to form, and group identities began to harden. These new identities became permanent in 1933, when the Belgian colonial administration issued identity cards to all native people classifying each person as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. These classifications were random and were based on physical or economic assets, often ignoring birth. (43) During the era of Belgian rule, Hutus experienced systematic discrimination.

    Thus, the legacy of the 1884-85 Berlin Conference when the colonial powers of Europe met in Berlin to carve up Africa among themselves as colonies and dependencies has had dramatic effect on Africa in general and Rwanda in particular. (44) The colonialists imposed artificial identity and artificial borders that took no cognizance of the people living on the land, sowing the seeds of conflict that still plague the continent. (45) As Pallo Jordan notes: "[b]y the end of...

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