How has the Genocide Convention helped to prevent genocide?
The answer to the question “how has the Genocide Convention helped to prevent genocide” is simple: it hasn’t. Officially The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948, the convention was born out of the discovery of the magnitude of Germany’s mass extermination of Europe’s Jewish population, as well as the extermination of other categories of humanity deemed by that country’s National Socialist (Nazi) Party as unfit to survive, such as homosexuals and the mentally disabled. The intent of the Convention was entirely meritorious, and its adoption by the newly-established United Nations continues to rank among that organization’s most important contributions. Sadly, the Convention has repeatedly failed to deter subsequent incidences of genocide.
The United Nations is only as effective an organization as its membership allows, and that membership is so large and ethnically, culturally, politically, and economically diverse so as to prevent truly meaningful actions in most instances. The passage of resolutions and the adoption of conventions is great, but without the means to enforce the provisions of those documents, they become somewhat meaningless. Such has been the case with the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Enforcement of conventions requires the agreement of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—the United States, France, Russia, Great Britain, and China—and the political will on their part to act when warranted. These five permanent members, alone among members of the Security Council (additional member-states serving on the Security Council on a rotational basis), are vested with the power to veto meaningful U.N. Security Council resolutions. That means such politically and culturally disparate countries as the United States and Russia must agree on the text of any resolutions considered by the Council, and then one or more countries must have the capability and will to act forcefully to prevent or stop violent conflicts in Africa, Asia, South Asia, or Europe. And this is where the Genocide Convention has failed.
Since the 1948 adoption of the Genocide Convention, genocidal policies and acts have been committed in Cambodia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, the Darfur region of Sudan, Bangladesh (during its fight for independence from Pakistan in 1971), southern Iraq (former dictator Saddam Hussein’s campaign to exterminate the Shi’a “Marsh Arabs” in that country’s south), the Democratic Republic of Congo, and East Timor (during its occupation by Indonesia). Each of these cases can be categorized as “genocide” if one defines “genocide” as the willful attempt to eliminate a category of people based upon that category’s ethnicity, race or religion. Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide defines “genocide” as follows:
“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
There are many more instances of mass murder and forced dislocation of peoples from their ancestral homes (such as Russian/Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s forced expulsion of Tatars and others from their homelands), but whether each of these additional cases qualifies as “genocide” is a matter of debate. Suffice it to say that the above listed incidences of genocide clearly indicate a failure of the U.N. convention to eliminate genocide. Where progress has been made is in the establishment of international tribunals to try those accused of genocide, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which successfully if belatedly tried and convicted individuals responsible for the genocide against the Muslim population of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Such trials are great, and should be continued, but they are “after-the-fact” efforts at bringing to justice those who have already committed the most brutal acts against humanity imaginable. The Genocide Convention, unfortunately, has not helped to prevent such acts. It does, however, legitimize post-genocide judicial activities intended to punish perpetrators.