Genocide and ethnic cleansing in our times: from Rwanda to the Rohingyas

International criminal justice is suffering from a legitimacy crisis, according to a Trinity expert in international law who was among participants at a public discussion on genocide and ethnic cleansing yesterday, Wednesday, November 29th, 2017, in Trinity College Dublin.

The event, entitled ‘Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in our Times: From Rwanda to the Rohingyas’, brought together a distinguished panel of international speakers and practitioners with front line experience in the area. Organised as part of Trinity Long Room Hub’s Behind the Headlines discussion series, the event looked at the historical context to genocide and ethnic cleansing and its meaning; the different views of the international community in relation to prosecution and responding to cases of genocide; the geo-political dimension and UN system failure and reform; and case studies including present day Myanmar.

Denis Halliday, Prof Ben Kiernan, Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Professor Rosemary Byrne and Dr Jude Lal Fernando

At the event Professor Rosemary Byrne, Associate Professor in International Law, Trinity, argued that the international community has vested great faith and resources in the establishment of international courts and tribunals but international criminal justice has a mixed record.

“The recent conviction of Former Bosnian Serb general Radko Mladic for genocide and crimes against humanity is one of the final chapters in the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia which has been the pilot project in responding to mass atrocities through the rule of law. With high hopes for the trials of the perpetrators of some of the worst crimes of the last and current century, have come deep disappointments in the mixed record of international criminal justice.”

“For some, this is considered an inevitable outcome given the complexity of trying crimes of mass atrocity, and the glacial pace of the legal proceedings. We are in a period where international criminal justice, and the International Criminal Court, in particular, is suffering from a legitimacy crisis. For all of the obstacles that international criminal justice has confronted, establishing individual accountability for genocide and crimes against humanity provides an important, yet partial, record of history. One of most significant advances of these prosecutions has been the struggle to recognise the role of sexual violence in conflict, and the different facets of its criminality. Thanks to the work of international criminal courts, sexual violence is no longer regarded as an unfortunate by-product of conflict and civil unrest.”

Also speaking at the event was Ben Kiernan, Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale University, who is currently a visiting fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute. He will argue that the great powers must cooperate with the UN to end genocide, not fuel it.

“Just two months ago, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to ‘totally destroy North Korea’. A targeted threat – to destroy not the country but its nuclear weapons, army, or leadership – would have had different implications under international law. To ‘destroy North Korea’ could only bring wholesale destruction to many of its 25 million people. That would violate the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. While threatening genocide does not clearly violate the Convention, conspiracy and public incitement to commit genocide do. If Trump acts on his threat, he will have signalled his criminal intent in advance.”

“Moreover, he will have done so in the very forum, the UN General Assembly, that created the Genocide Convention, when the world pronounced ‘Never Again’. It is unprecedented for a leader of a state that signed the Convention, to mount a UN platform and flout this international criminal statute. Even if not carried out, Donald Trump’s threat made at the UN, weakens that body and undermines international law. The United States and China must reform their dangerous rhetoric and policies. The great powers must cooperate with the UN to end genocide, not fuel it.”

Denis Halliday, a former United Nations Assistant Secretary- General who was the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq from 1 September 1997 until 1998, was also part of the discussion panel.

In his talk he discussed front-line experience of his work with the United Nations and looked at the United Nations Security Council and its five veto powers. He argued that without change and reform, the UN will continue to fail all those at risk of genocide.

He said: “We need to get into a position where we can anticipate genocide and stop it before it begins, because right now we don’t do that – we designate genocide when it is too late.”

In relation to the UN Security Council, he argued for reforms that would make the Council more democratic. He added: “We’ve got to take the power which resides in the veto member states of the Security Council” and “make it a democratic institution.”

He said that the Council should have representation from every region in the world, and that is not currently the case.

Dr Jude Lal Fernando, Assistant Professor in Intercultural Theology and Interreligious Studies at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity, looked at the geo-politics that block international cooperation and speedy responses to cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

He argued that genocide is “not simply the killing of a group of individuals,” but in the case of Myanmar, that “this is a social, cultural, political practice which is embedded in the majoritarian Burmese Buddhist psyche”. Dr Lal Fernando stated that the “institutional practices of genocide against the Rohingya people in Burma started as far back as the 1970s.”

Simply because regimes are changed does not mean that genocidal practices cease, said Dr Lal Fernando, blaming western states for embracing undemocratic regime changes.

He said: “Why do the major actors in the international community embrace these regime changes, and do not want to call the crimes by their names? Because there are trade interests, there are arms deals, there are investments and there are strategic interests.”

About the 'Behind the Headlines' Series

Trinity Long Room Hub's ‘Behind the Headlines’ discussion series offers background analyses of current issues from experts from the fields of arts and humanities research. It aims to provide a forum that deepens understanding, combats simplification and polarisation, creating a space for informed and respectful public discourse. 




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