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Preventing Genocide: threats and responsibilities

28-01-2004 Statement

At the Stockholm International Forum, organized by the Swedish government on 26-28 January 2004, ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger highlighted lessons that had to be learned from horrors such as the Holocaust and Rwanda.

I thank the Swedish Government for hosting this important Conference.  The ICRC endeavours to protect and assist civilian and military victims of armed conflict and its direct results. The organization also works to promote the understanding, dissemination and faithful application of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts. Wars  – in their vast majority civil wars today – and situations of internal strife are therefore the environments in which our staff of about 11,000 are working.

This can also imply to work in wars that lead to the horror of genocide. The ICRC was pretty alone staying and working in Rwanda between April and July 1994. Research on the causes of non-international conflicts or civil wars has, it seems to me, reached a deeper level in recent times. Reductionist causal models applied to very different conflict situations are more and more frequently replaced by efforts to understand individual conflicts by paying attention to different factors, historical and cultural roots included. Identity-related differences however clearly do predominate in the case of genocide which can take place in the framework of a war or outside.

However, if our purpose is to examine how acts of genocide, mass murder or ethnic cleansing can be prevented, I would also here advise against explanations based on one single cause. All possible motivations and interactions among them have to be considered – as they should be in conflict analysis in general – if we want to address causes efficiently and determine specific responsibilities in the prevention of genocide.

Among the lessons we can draw from threats and acts of genocide that have occurred in the past, I would like to highlight the following:

  • Genocide, like armed conflict of a certain dimension, does not erupt from one day to the next. It is the result of a combination of factors: a lack of dialogue, a failure to respect others and an absence of shared values being among the important ones. It is difficult to anticipate the critical moment at which genocide will begin or the scope that the massacre will take. Greater efforts must therefore be made to interpret the warning signs and respond to them adequately. This should not be too difficult. Genocide needs organizers. It is also most useful to distinguish at an early stage what comes from below and what from above.

  • More information on the causes of tensions and injustice, and a proper analysis of this information, are of critical importance in forestalling violence. However, the inability of the international community to prevent genocide cannot be explained solely by a lack of information or a poor understanding of the situation. Alarm bells ring for those who are listening. There is another, far more worrying factor in play, and that is the lack of will to act, or the lack of power to take the necessary preventive measures.

  • Keeping alive the memory of past acts of genocide is an effective way of stiffening the resolve to act early on should threats of genocide appear again in any context. Holocaust Memorials are extremely important. It is imperative that the genocide that occurred in Rwanda 10 years ago, and indeed all other acts of genocide, be remembered. We must not forget nor should we accept that geographical distance implies moral distance, thus weakening our resolve to act when genocide l ooms.

The prevention of genocide, like the prevention of armed conflict, calls for a whole set of actions (political, social, legal and economic), depending on the context, and involves the responsibility of different actors if future generations are to be spared the horror of genocide. Their contributions must include:

  • the struggle against political, economic and social marginalization and discrimination of national, ethnic, racial, religious, political and other groups;

  • the promotion of dialogue so as to heighten mutual understanding and trust. Dialogue is never easy to keep up, whether between persons of the same or of different cultures or civilizations. But it is the only way for us to understand each other, to identify shared values and interests and to build a future together. There is much talk about the merits of dialogue. Real dialogue, however, is a very demanding exercise involving attitudes that may be less widespread than we could wish. Dialogue is a matter of taking the " other " seriously by listening to him. The effort involved in seeking to understand a partner in dialogue will not necessarily result in agreement, but the very willingness to make the effort will be perceived as a mark of respect. And let us not forget that dialogue takes place not between different cultures and civilizations, but between human beings belonging to different cultures and civilizations, human beings who have many things in common. This is why real dialogue has the potential to build bridges;

  • the promotion of respect for the dignity of each and every human being by combating all forms of intolerance, discrimination, racism and exclusion;

  • the promotio n of a culture of better respect for the law, in particular the bodies of law aimed at the protection of human dignity;

  • the careful handling of words and concepts. We know words and concepts can prepare realities;

  • the struggle against impunity, the ICC being a real source of hope in this respect;

  • the monitoring of political decisions to ensure that they take full account of the need to protect individual and collective liberties in a completely impartial way that allows all social groups to take part in setting the goals of their community or nation.

What is it you can expect from a humanitarian organization like the ICRC or other components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement? Humanity, impartiality and neutrality are among the seven fundamental principles of this Movement, a network composed by National Societies like the Swedish Red Cross, their Federation and the ICRC, which founded the Movement. Ensuring respect for each human being without discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions is at the very heart of these principles. Provided all the components live up to these principles, this network can make a real contribution to efforts aiming at the prevention of genocide. The ICRC and the other components will also continue to foster a culture of respect for diversity and the peaceful settlement of disputes by promoting humanitarian principles and compliance with the rules of international humanitarian law.

I come to the end of my statement. There is no alternative to strengthening our respect for the dignity of each individual human being if we want to prevent future threats of genocide. The various preventive measures that are needed, from short-term emergency interventions to long-term education, will require different time frames and involve the work of many. The ICRC stands ready to play its part. Thank you for your attention.

* See the Stockholm International Forum Web site.