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Never again? But again and again

Genocide Convention was to end atrocities for all time but slaughters continue

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A boy displaced by fighting in South Sudan. Despite the world's resolve following the Holocaust, systemic killing continues unabated.


A boy displaced by fighting in South Sudan. Despite the world's resolve following the Holocaust, systemic killing continues unabated.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the systematic extermination of six million Jews, the United Nations passed Resolution 260, formally known as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The Genocide Convention was supposed to stop any systematic effort to destroy any ethnic, religious or cultural group, in whole or in part.

It was the brainchild of a lawyer and intellectual named Raphael Lemkin, a Lithuanian-Polish Jew who fought against the Nazis during the Second World War and actually coined the term genocide by combining the Latin words for family and killing.

He spent his entire adult life meditating on a concept he initially described as "barbarity."

Lemkin was horrified by the Turkish slaughter of Armenians in 1915, the murder of ethnic Assyrians in Iraq in 1933 and the death of almost his entire extended family during the Holocaust.

His scholarly work inspired a Genocide Convention intended to prevent and punish not just systematic efforts to kill any specific group, but systematic efforts to indirectly destroy a group by causing mental or physical harm, degrading living conditions, preventing childbirth or forcibly remove children.

The intent after the Holocaust was to "Never Again" allow atrocities to be inflicted against any one group.

Canada is among the 144 parties to the convention and has struggled to reconcile its own forcible removal of indigenous children for several decades after the 1948 resolution.

But this country is hardly the only one deemed in some circles to have committed genocide, as defined by the U.N. convention. Nor is it the most flagrant violator.

Since the 1948 convention, mass extermination efforts have taken place in Burundi (1972 and 1993), Cambodia (1975-78), Iraq (1988), East Timor (1975-99), Rwanda (1994), Bosnia-Hercegovina (1995) and Sudan (2003), to name just a sample of relatively recent events.

"Genocide has occurred so often and so uncontested in the last 50 years that an epithet more apt in describing recent events than the oft-chanted 'Never Again' is in fact 'Again and Again,' " future U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power wrote in 1998, when she was a Harvard University professor.

"The gap between the promise and the practice of the last fifty years is dispiriting indeed."

As Power noted well before she was an employee of her government, U.S. military interventions since the Second World War had been conducted for a variety of reasons, but never uniformly to prevent or stop genocides, some of which provoked no U.S. response.

This week, as the world observes the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide -- the systematic slaughter of approximately 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutu - systematic killing continues unabated.

The death toll in the Syrian civil war has exceeded 100,000, according to the most conservative estimates.

At least 10,000 have died in ethnic factional violence in South Sudan, which only achieved independence from its northern neighbour in 2011.

No less than 500 are dead in Central African Republic, where Christians and Muslims who once lived peacefully side by side are now killing each other.

In all three of these countries, the number of people displaced by fighting and at risk of malnutrition, disease and death vastly outnumbers the number of dead. But a conflict-weary world, where the major powers are divided politically, appears unable and unwilling to aid, let alone intervene.

People living in relatively wealthy developed nations can quibble over the definition of genocide and argue whether it is the responsibility of the rest of the planet to intervene in military conflicts.

But there is no room for quibbling when it comes to the moral responsibility to mitigate humanitarian crises -- which is a clinical way to describe efforts to prevent misery, suffering and death.

The U.N. considers the suffering of Syrian refugees the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Nine million Syrians have been displaced, to date.

The situation in South Sudan is becoming just as dire, as one million people have been displaced and a total of 3.7 million are facing starvation - in a country of only 11 million people.

The U.N. and non-governmental humanitarian organizations are frustrated they can not raise the funds they need to distribute food and water purification tablets and to conduct vaccinations.

While it's dubious to compare tragedies, the coverage devoted to a single missing Malaysian jet has absolutely dwarfed the humanitarian crises in Africa and the Middle East.

"The world focuses for about three weeks on a missing aircraft," said James Elder, a spokesman for UNICEF operations in east and southern Africa, speaking over the phone from the South Sudanese capital of Juba earlier this week.

He recently toured areas of South Sudan where thousands of children fleeing violence have wandered hundreds of kilometres through the desert in search of food. Approximately 400,000 kids are among the displaced.

The suffering of one person is easier to comprehend. So humanitarian groups try to place a face on massive tragedies, appealing to individual donors because they know nations such as Canada will either refuse to provide aid or refuse to provide enough of it.

"Everyone is really desensitized. We have to remember there's a human face and there's a child behind it all," Elder said. "They deserve our help and at the very least they deserve that people become aware of what they're going through."

Nearly seven decades ago, the nations of the world made a commitment to prevent mass extermination on this scale. This week, officials from many of the same nations vowed to never again tolerate another Rwanda.

These appear to be empty promises.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2014 D5

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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