Twenty years ago today the world stood by while 1 million Tutsis we slaughtered in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Then, the world pledged those famous words—never again, the same words spoken after the Jewish Holocaust. Here we are twenty years later and the words never again seem to carry little weight. Our international system continues to value state sovereignty over humanitarian intervention and while its does, we continue to have spurs of genocide like that in the Darfur region of Sudan or more recently in the Central African Republic (CAR).
In the past ten years, with increased pressure from the human rights community, there has been a push towards the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This doctrine rests on three pillars: (1) a states responsibility to protect its citizens from genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity; (2) the international community’s responsibility to assist states in protecting their citizens; and (3) the responsibility of the international community to intervene with coercive measure when a state fails to protect its citizens. Some would say this is an emerging international norm, one that, with time, will become the new standard of international relation. However, this norm struggles for supremacy with state sovereignty, and state sovereignty almost always wins.
So when does the internationally community choose to intervene? Principally when state sovereignty is violated. The February 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea exemplifies this. When Russia sent military troops over the Ukrainian border to Crimea without the consent of Ukraine, it inexplicably violated Ukraine’s sovereignty. The international community immediately jumped to attention imposing sanctions, condemning Russia’s actions, and calling for an immediate withdrawal of Russian military troops from the Ukraine. This violation of state sovereignty sparked an immediate international reaction and underlines the weight given to a state’s sovereign integrity. With such a strong weight on sovereignty, it then follows that internal state affair remain just that, internal. Regardless of how many people are dying, states are incredible hesitant to violate this principle of state sovereignty.
So, does what happens within a countries border remain the internal affair of a state? Legally yes. But then you have the quick reaction by the international community to the 2007 political violence in Kenya, an internal Kenyan affair. The outbreak of violence following the 2007 Kenyan election was referred to as genocide by the then US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who visited the rift valley region in Kenya in the weeks following the outbreak of violence. Approximately 1,000 people were killed and 600,000 were displaced. While theses numbers are not insignificant, they do not compare to the death count of the Rwandan genocide, and yet, this outbreak of violence immediately spurred international attention. The Panel of Three Eminent Persons, headed by Kofi Annan was put by the African Union to address the conflict, and a opposing parties were quickly forced into a mediation process. Three months after the outbreak of violence a peace agreement was signed that included a power sharing agreement before the two contested victors of the December 2007 election. Disaster averted by the international community.
The question here is why did the international community choose to intervene in Kenya after the 2007 electoral violence? Some scholars would call this a case for the Responsibility to Protect and point to it as state action supporting this emerging international norm. But, if that is the case, why have we not intervened in the CAR or in Syria, where fighting and violence persists. The conflict in the CAR barely grabs any media attention and the fighting in Syria has been so drawn out that it now falls on deaf ears.
What’s the connection here between the international community’s engagement in Kenya and the Ukraine? When does the international community act? Unfortunately, politics continues to be the driving factor of state action. Kenya and the Ukraine are both of strategic political interest to the world’s powers, namely the United States, and this strategic political interest prompts reaction. Kenya is the international hub in eastern Africa—many international operations based their headquarters there, Eastern Africa foreign aid is transferred through there, and in 2007, Kenya was a strategic US partner in the global war on terrorism. These are strong pull that prompted quick and swift international reaction at the outset of violence. The same can be said about the Ukraine: Russia’s involvement and access to eastern European oil are two very strong pull that forced an international reaction. Unfortunately, there are no pulls prompting a reaction to the CAR Crisis, just like there were no pulls prompting an reaction to genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan or Rwandan genocide in 1994.
In spite of what we would like to believe never again has never really had any political weight. It is was promise made out of anguish and regret for not prevent, mitigating, or stopping mass atrocities, but it is dangerously lacking in political will. The phrase is probably more accurately put as: never again so long as there is this political interest. Having travelled to Rwanda and having met with the victims and perpetrators of the genocide, it’s astonishing to think that the world could left it all happen again somewhere else, turning a blind eye like it did in 1994.
Have the lessons from Rwanda really be embodied by the international community? No. Can we really continue to proclaim never again. Again no. So where do we go from here? How to we ensure there isn’t a next time for genocide when the political cards seem stacked against the odds? These are all questions that remain unanswered by the currently framework of international relations.
Jolene Hansell is Conflict Resolution Practitioner and Communications Specialists. She has an MA in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and a Bachelor (Honours) of International Development from the University of Ottawa. Her specific area of expertise is transitional justice and rule of law. You can email her at email@example.com or follow her on twitter @joleneh340