Each year during April we solemnly observe Genocide Prevention and Awareness Month, marking the grim anniversaries of the start of several genocides in the past century. As the prevention of genocide and other atrocity crimes is at the core of our raison d’être, during this month the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect remembers the victims and survivors of past atrocities as we continue to advocate for those who remain at risk of these conscience-shocking crimes.
Yesterday, 6 April, marked the 30th anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. For nearly four years the Bosnian Serb Army besieged the city and subjected the population to heavy bombardment and shelling, killing more than 11,000 people. Atrocities were perpetrated throughout the Bosnian War, including ethnic cleansing campaigns, systematic mass rape and the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica.
Today, 7 April, the international community commemorates the 28th anniversary of the start of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Over the course of a 100-day period approximately one million Rwandans were murdered in the fastest genocide of the 20th century. Despite clear and credible warnings from those within Rwanda, the United Nations and its member states failed to take timely and decisive action to prevent the impending genocide.
On 17 April 1975 the “Khmer Rouge” seized power in Cambodia, where they used state authority to perpetrate atrocities. All Cambodians were deprived of their basic human rights and those deemed “enemies of the people” were murdered in the notorious “killing fields.” The Khmer Rouge also systematically targeted minority religious and ethnic communities for destruction. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives, but political divisions amongst the permanent members of the UN Security Council meant that the world largely ignored these crimes until after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown in January 1979.
Starting on 24 April 1915 over one million Armenians living under Ottoman Empire rule were killed during mass deportations. Armenian property and cultural institutions were pillaged, while thousands of women were abducted and forced into religious conversion. The systematic attempt to destroy the Armenian people was genocide.
All of these anniversaries serve as reminders from history that indifference and inaction should never be an acceptable response to genocide and other atrocity crimes. While we commemorate these past genocides and the memory of the victims on a day that coincides with the start of the atrocities, we must never forget that these crimes are the product of a plan and the failure to prevent its culmination. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P), adopted at the UN World Summit in 2005, was created to prevent the risk factors for genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity from metastasizing and to motivate a collective international response when preventive measures have failed. Learning from the past is crucial to our collective understanding of how the international community should uphold its responsibility to protect populations today.
As we observe this Genocide Prevention and Awareness Month, populations around the world continue to face the threat of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes not for anything they have done, but for who they are. It is for this reason that steadfast implementation of R2P is needed now, more than ever. We hope that during this Genocide Prevention and Awareness Month member states recommit to upholding their political and moral responsibility to protect the world’s most vulnerable populations and take effective preventive action wherever and whenever atrocity crimes are threatened.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA