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Essay: UN Genocide Convention’s Failings in Rwanda, Darfur and Myanmar: Critical Analysis

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For many, the United Nations is a vital international organization that aims to uphold international peace and security, with the responsibility bestowed on its Security Council. In spite of that, it has been subjected to many criticisms regarding its effectiveness and extent to which it has actually protected humanity. Despite past prevention and peacebuilding failures the international community, particularly the United Nations, have turned a blind eye to the warning signs of an approaching massacre in Myanmar.  The ongoing Rohingya conflict has shed light on the recurring cycle of genocide prevention and protection disasters that have regularly prompted the world to say “never again”. Drawing on the parallels between Rwanda, Darfur, and the current situation in Myanmar, this analysis will seek to examine the role of the international community in preventative and peacebuilding efforts in order to understand the effectiveness of these bodies. As a result of the international community’s failures in addressing the issue in Myanmar, factors such as the vague nature of the terms ‘intent’ and ‘genocide’, political obstacles, and the role of the media require revision and structural reforms in order to accomplish a successful international organization that indeed upholds its duties of international peace and security.

Nearly two decades after the catastrophe that took place in Rwanda and killed 800,000 people, history is repeating itself with another campaign of destruction against a group of people, the Rohingya. Countries have gotten torn apart within their own borders countless times as the world stood by and watched. Since the events that took place in Rwanda, Peacock argues that there have been many questions surrounding the international community and UN’s obligations when dealing with violence at a large-scale (1996). History plays a crucial role in understanding the UN’s failures when dealing with genocide, beginning with the Holocaust. The promise to prevent a genocide from unfolding again was followed by the tragic events of the Holocaust when Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide”. The importance of the UN Genocide Convention must not be disregarded because it creates a legal obligation for countries to act in cases of genocide. Under the rules of the Convention, if a situation has been determined as a genocide, the UN has the obligation to take measures to prevent further violence and punish those involved. However, in almost all cases, the UN’s response was crippled by debates surrounding whether the situation was a genocide according to the Convention, and what the definition really means (Goldsmith, 2010). The basic understanding of the term ‘genocide’ relates to the notion of ‘intent’ which helps recognize a situation in order to justify taking action (Goodhart, 2016). The limits that stand in the way of the Genocide Convention’s power, however, connect back to the notion of intent and the ambiguities surrounding it. The vagueness surrounding the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘intent’ and the difficulty determining whether there is intent, have hindered the Genocide Convention altogether (Goodhart, 2016).

From the start of its existence, Sarkin and Fowler argued that the Genocide Convention was destined to fail due to the “lack of clarity regarding its interpretation and practical application in specific settings” (2010, p.3). The failure of the Convention relates to the absence of methods in place to prevent a genocide from occurring and to intervene where genocide is taking place (Sarkin & Fowler, 2010, p.3). The Genocide Convention failing to identify the type of intent required for the definition of genocide contributes to the vague and unclear nature of the term. In addition, the countries involved in international law often come from different value systems that alter the understanding of ‘intent’ which makes it difficult to identify what exactly constitutes ‘intent’. As a result of these ambiguities, the effectiveness of the Convention is hindered and therefore ineffective in preventing genocide from occurring, and oftentimes even peacebuilding after the fact (Goldsmith, 2010). The circumstances and debates surrounding the issue of ‘intent’ fulfil a crucial purpose in the case of Rwanda, Darfur, and Myanmar because it was a detrimental period that determined the fate of the conflicts.

Goldsmith argues that preventative measures do not necessarily have to be applied to genocide once it has already occurred, but it might be more effective to focus those measures on earlier stages (2010). For instance, if action is taken when there are clear signs of mass violence, preventative measures can really improve the situation and possibly stop the potential genocide. However, critics have argued that the obligation to act only applies to a situation that constitutes genocide but, history has revealed how fast a situation develops if those early signs are ignored (Goldsmith, 2010). In the case of Rwanda, 800,000 people were killed within a 100-day period, despite the early warning signs and the information provided by reliable sources in the field (Grünfeld & Vermeulen, 2009). Ignoring early warning signs were a common case for both situations in Rwanda and Darfur, which raised more questions about the effectiveness of peacebuilding bodies and their preventative measures. Despite the widespread ratification of the Convention, the international responses allowed the genocides to occur. In addition, the media portrayals and inaccurate language associated with the genocides in both Rwanda and Darfur left little incentive for the UN and other international bodies to intervene because the problems seemed too far gone and thus stood as an obstacle for intervention (Goodhart, 2016).

In Darfur, labelling the violence as ‘genocide’ was absolutely crucial in order to trigger a response from the international community. After having finally labelled the violence as genocide, China and Russia’s role in opposing the non-consensual coercive action by using their Veto power contributed to the lack of preventative measures taken (Goodhart, 2016). Political obstacles such as the interests of state actors played a huge role in prevention because for instance in the case of Darfur, two powerful nations that sat in the Security Council determined the fate of the situation by using their Veto power to protect their political interests. In contrast from the Rwandan case, the Security Council was well aware of the situation in Darfur but chose diplomatic relations with the Sudanese government over the protection and security of the country itself (Grünfeld & Vermeulen, 2009). The opportunity to intervene was present at earlier stages of the situation in Darfur, but the Security Council’s decision-making strategy had a much bigger impact on the situation and therefore the effectiveness of peacekeeping and preventative measures (Grünfeld & Vermeulen, 2009).

Considering the international community’s past failures in peacebuilding and prevention efforts, the case of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is worth examining in order to compare and contrast approaches and developments in the international community’s response to genocide. The Rohingya have suffered government oppression for several decades which briefly sparked international interest in the human rights crisis in 2014 under them Obama administration but remains mostly absent in conversation now (Kingston, 2015). The treatment of the Rohingya population has been linked to widespread structural violence that has almost become normalized in Myanmar. An ICISS report emphasized the need for prevention as “the single most important dimension of R2P” in the case of a largescale ethnic cleansing which has now become a reality (Kingston, 2015, p.1164).

 Despite early warning signs of a genocide threat, the UN and its member states failed the Rohingya community in several ways. By refusing to act on the evidence provided of the crimes against humanity, Hammad Zamurrad argued that “the UN conveniently turned a blind eye to what was happening” (2018, para.2). This crisis has raised questions regarding the UN’s failure to invoke its R2P obligation that was set in 2005 (Zamurrad, 2018). Zamurrad drew parallels between the radical Buddhist monks in Myanmar that have for decades now been spreading myths about the Rohingya in order to justify killing them, to the Hutu tribal propaganda labelling the Tutsis as “cockroaches” (2018). As previously mentioned, the struggle to label a crisis as ‘genocide’ is nothing new. In virtually all cases of genocide, the failure to define a situation as genocide paved the dangerous path of destruction. Petrie emphasizes the need to discontinue focusing so hard on defining whether genocide has been committed in order to avoid getting distracted from addressing the situation again (2018). As a result of debating to label the crisis as genocide, crimes against humanity and mass-killing continued to take place and no substantial action was taken (Petrie, 2018). The situation in Myanmar and the tragic events of Rwanda are starkly familiar and stopping it from happening relies heavily on the role of the international bodies. The “clearance operations” efforts organized by the Myanmar government go beyond human rights violations and hesitation on labelling such events as ‘genocide’ have reflected international fears of intervention (Blurton, 2017). Blurton argues that perhaps the reluctance to get involved in Myanmar’s affairs is a result of the same fears reflected in the Rwandan genocide (2017). Perhaps using the “g-word” implies an obligation to intervene that international states are unwilling to act on, which again raises confusion regarding the UN Genocide Convention and everything they stand for (Blurton, 2017).

Myanmar’s long history of dehumanizing the Rohingya is “reminiscent of the Rwandan state’s dehumanization of the Tutsi as ‘cockroaches’ that had to be eliminated (Ahluwalia & Toby, 2018, p.291). Similar to the case of genocide in Darfur, China and Russia’s veto power in the Security Council has again opposed the notion of intervention and condemnation of the Myanmar government as well (Ahluwalia & Toby, 2018).  Tun Khin argues that despite previous efforts of human rights protection, the reactions from the international community were lacking during the early stages once again, resulting in genocide (2017). The international community failing to protect the Rohingya allowed for the government of Myanmar to continue on with their violent actions against the community (Khin, 2017). Blurton suggests that the international action towards the Rohingya has focused mostly on the refugee crisis rather than identifying its causes. The rapid displacement of people is the highest it’s been since the Rwandan genocide, which again raises concern about a pattern forming again (Blurton, 2017). Khin stresses the importance of international pressure on the government of Myanmar in order to end the violence against the Rohingya. He also states that implementing action immediately can help with avoiding situations like Rwanda and Darfur from happening yet again (2017). Up until now, the responses to the Rohingya crisis have been weak and have painted a negative image of the international community’s integrity (Southwick, 2015). The early warning signs of genocide unleashing in Myanmar have been acknowledged by many scholars, and considering the developments made in the Convention after the genocide in Rwanda, institutions have the duty to validate and promote those early warning signs (Southwick, 2015).

 Kingston argues that legitimate conversations surrounding global responsibility are absolutely required in order to ensure that countries are taking responsibilities to prevent mass atrocities and genocide (2015). The factors contributing to the lack of sustainable preventative measures taken for the Rohingya crisis are deeply rooted and tied to various factors. Firstly, diplomatic relations take a huge toll on how state actors react to situations, and how they choose to handle them. The UN and Security Council, in particular, hold a lot of power and authority when deciding the outcome of situations. As explored previously, Russia and China’s role in the Darfurian genocide was entirely reflective of their political interests and definitely altered the outcome of the violence. The international community did not do a successful job at activating the justice system in regards to the Rohingya people because using the term ‘genocide’ to define the conflict would trigger debates and controversy (Zarni & Cowley, 2014, p. 746). Rather than being condemned by the international community on their violent actions against the Rohingya, the government of Myanmar has seen the removal of sanctions, increased military ties with the West, and increased economic investment. Furthermore, Zarni and Cowley argue that “any condemnation of violence in Rakhine State by Western governments has been overshadowed by praise for the wider reform process in Myanmar” and more specifically, embracing the newly democratic state (2014, p.747). The deeply rooted notions of Islamophobia and praising anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya rhetoric has become widely accepted amongst the international community, which raises questions about the Rohingya crisis being an Islamophobic mission (Zarni & Cowley, 2014, p.747). Zarni and Cowley call the situation in Myanmar a “slow burning genocide” because not only has it built up over the last few decades, but it is being fueled more and more by outside actors who are failing to see the consequences (2014, p.748). Having said that, the UN is simply not doing enough to ensure peace and protection for the Rohingya people, and humanity.

The role of the media is the second factor contributing to the prevention failures during most- if not all- cases of genocide and the current Rohingya crisis. Various elements play a role in the effectiveness of media coverage, such as language, regional biases, and lack of understanding. The Rwandan genocide is often regarded as a case study for many scholars to draw comparisons to other cases of genocide because of its complex nature and various elements that played a role in the conflict. The use of the term ‘genocide’ makes a crucial difference in the international community’s reaction and the treatment of the situation in general.  The term brings about moral and legal obligations which were evident in the case of Rwanda when the international community finally agreed to use it which struck a reaction (Sarkin & Fowler, 2010, p.23). The delay in labelling the situation as ‘genocide’ was a reflection of the fears associated with intervention and the threat of losing soldiers in the fight. National interests often influence media coverage as seen in the case of Rwanda with American interests. In addition, a similar situation occurred during the genocide in Darfur when the media portrayed the conflict as “ancient tribal hatreds”, leaving little incentive for the UN and other international actors to intervene because the problem seemed unsolvable (Goodhart, 2016). Overall, Sarkin and Fowler argue that the media has the ability to raise public awareness on issues happening outside the Western scope, they refer to this power as the “CNN effect” (2010, p.27). The question then becomes, what stories are covered? And why are certain stories more prioritized or catered to different political agendas? A significant obstacle in the way of effective prevention is the lack of media coverage and the misinterpretation and bias associated with particular stories. Alan Kuperman argues that “the media must share blame for not immediately recognizing the extent of the carnage [in Rwanda] and mobilizing world attention to it” (Sarkin & Fowler, 2010, p.28).

The situation in Myanmar is slightly different in nature when discussing the issue of media coverage because of the rise of technology and social media. In her blog post, Simona Gibauskaite discusses the important role social media played in the Rohingya crisis (2017). Gibauskaite argues that although the Western world remained silent and passive during the earlier stages of the violence, the acts of solidarity and protesting from international groups and actors gave rise to a platform for activism (2017). The use of social media made an important impact on spreading the news that the mainstream media failed to report, which has become a common element of today’s society. Overall, the largest contrast between news coverage in previous cases of genocide and the Rohingya crisis is the evolution of social media because, in other respects, nothing really changed. The mainstream media is still controlled by states, especially Western ones and unless they have interests in the conflict, there is an expected delay in reliable and accurate coverage of the conflict.

There are several elements from the Genocide Convention and UN as a whole that must be reformed and re-calculated. By examining the systematic flaws within the genocide process, Mohsin provides a breakdown of some of these elements that can aid in translating the UN’s power into a positive force. One of the first prominent revisions is “dialogue and communication”, which refers to understanding, empathy, and trust amongst communities which helps eliminate threat and conflict between groups. International bodies can work towards encouraging a dialogue during early stages of conflict or disagreement to alleviate the tension which was not attempted in previous cases of genocide (Mohsin, 2010, p. 9). The second revision is “mediatisation of crime”, which refers to the crucial and responsible role media has in disseminating and educating people on the conflict. He argues that “states often have been compelled to act due to the rapid dissemination of information”, which again related to labelling a situation accurately, and ensuring that the news is reliable and fair (2010, p.9). The third revision that was relevant was “strengthening the International Justice system”, which refers to the UN’s strong mandate for crime and conflict prevention that can have a great impact if used effectively. In addition, Mohsin suggests a need for an international monitoring system that can identify perpetrators and enter the data in a database for sharing information (2010, p.10).

The lack of preventative and peacebuilding efforts towards the Rohingya crisis is all too familiar considering the world’s history of genocide. The parallels drawn between previous cases of genocide and more current ones such as the Rohingya crisis are important in order to crucially examine the situation, and develop revisions to the process in order to make an effective change. The role of the international community still does —and always will—play and instrumental role in conflict prevention and/or peacebuilding. Having said that, however, there should be structural revisions within the UN and Genocide Convention, as well as a greater awareness for the role of the media, political/diplomatic relations, and the issues associated with language. History cannot keep repeating itself because people’s lives matter and the world must learn from its mistakes. The Rohingya crisis, like the Rwandan and Darfurian crisis, had early warning signs that could have been used for effective prevention methods. The root causes of the violence in Myanmar must be addressed in order to raise awareness and encourage international involvement in order to build the Rohingya community back up and hope for a better future absent of genocide.  

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