Has the International Community Gotten Better At Stopping Genocide?

The New York Times’ Somini Sengupta asks whether 20 years after Rwanda, the United Nations is any better at stopping genocide? But the author only looks at the ongoing crisis in South Sudan as a way to gauge whether or not the UN has internalized the lessons of Rwanda. In fact, since 2001, there has been one genocide in Darfur; one mass atrocity event in Sri Lanka, where 40,000 ethnic Tamils were killed in just a few weeks; and ongoing mass atrocities in Syria.  There were also mass atrocity events that were likely thwarted, including Ghadafi’s assault on Benghazi. We still don’t know whether South Sudan and Central African Republic will be on the positive side of this ledger.

One common thread between the three mass atrocities of the last ten years is that in each of those cases, the Security Council was paralyzed by division. As a result, there was no real international pressure to stop the atrocities. On the other hand, the 2011 intervention in Libya, approved by the Security Council, almost certainly stopped a massacre in Benghazi; and the unity at the Security Council on the Central African Republic and South Sudan has so far resulted in more international troops being sent to those countries.

Still, we do not know if these strategies for averting atrocities in CAR and South Sudan will be effective. In South Sudan, additional peacekeeping troops — even when they do arrive — will not fundamentally alter the dynamic of the conflict. They will be relegated to protecting civilians sheltered at UN compounds. That is a crucial task, to be sure. But additional UN Peacekeepers will not force a cessation of hostilities. Rather,  the most important thing is for those countries with leverage over the government and rebels to force the belligerents to the negotiating table. It has been a profound failure of the international diplomacy that so far, Riek Machar and Salva Kiir have not been able to agree to a ceasefire.

On CAR, it is clear that international intervention has moderately improved the situation from a security standpoint. But it is also clear that the some 1600 french troops and 5000 African Union troops are simply not enough to provide adequate security. A top UN official yesterday warned starkly of the prospect of genocide. “The elements are there, the seeds are there, for a genocide,” John Ging, director of operations for the UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told a news conference in Geneva. “It has all the elements that we have seen elsewhere, in places like Rwanda and Bosnia.” A woefully underfunded humanitarian response–the appeal is only 6% funded — is only exacerbating the situation.

CAR and South Sudan benefit from the fact that there is no fundamental division between key international players in how to approach the conflict, as there was in Darfur and is in Syria. Still, we will know whether or not the lessons of Rwanda have been internalized only if and when mass atrocities can be averted in CAR and South Sudan.