“Genocide on Our Watch?”
Racism, at its worst, leads to genocide – the attempt to wipe out an entire racial, ethnic, national
or religious group, in whole or large part. Despite post-Holocaust calls for “Never Again,” the
United Nations and the international community generally have failed to prevent genocide in
Rwanda, Srebrenica and elsewhere.
As the current carnage in the Darfur region of Sudan reminds us, the world is still far short of
achieving an effective global commitment to stop mass slaughter in its tracks.
Yet if preventive action remains problematic, in recent years the UN has made strides in
developing preventive warning systems and indicators for genocide. On the tenth anniversary of
the Rwanda genocide two years ago, Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed a genocide action
plan that included the new post of a UN special adviser on genocide, who would report to the
Security Council through Annan.
Respected human rights expert Juan Mendez was named to the post. Although he was blocked by
US Ambassador John Bolton from addressing the Security Council last fall, Mendez’ report and
recommendations for stronger action on Darfur were presented in writing to all Council members.
They have helped to create a diplomatic climate in which more effective action may yet be taken.
But Darfur, at this late date, is no longer a situation where “early warning” is at issue. More
recently, Mendez warns of the potential for conflicts to escalate into genocide in such other
African countries as Congo, northern Uganda and Ivory Coast. Mendez is also a contributor to a
new report by a non-governmental group, Minority Rights Group International, which identifies
the top five “peoples under threat” in 2006 as minority groups in Iraq, Sudan, Somalia,
Afghanistan and Myanmar.
Considering that United States troops are currently in two of these countries – Iraq and
Afghanistan – and were recently in a third – Somalia – it especially behooves Americans to take
note of these warnings.
How does one identify groups at risk of genocide? Last October some 15 potential indicators of
genocide were published by a UN Committee of experts, which oversees the UN Convention on
the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The US is among 170 countries that have joined this
treaty. Our former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Ralph Boyd, is one of the 18
experts who sit on the Committee.
The Committee’s indicators warn of potential genocide in countries where the following apply,
especially in combination:
• lack of laws to prevent and remedy racial discrimination,
• official denials of the existence of certain groups,
• systematic exclusion of groups from positions of power,
• use of identity cards indicating racial or other group identity,
• grossly biased versions of history in school curricula,
• forced removal of minority children for the purpose of assimilation,
• segregation in such areas as schools and housing,
• systematic hate speech, especially in the media,
• racist statements by political and other leaders,
• violence against minority groups prominent in business or government,
• serious patterns of individual racist attacks,
• militia or extremist groups with racist platforms,
• large refugee flows or displacements of minority group members,
• significant socioeconomic disparities among groups,
• policies to block humanitarian assistance to vulnerable groups.
Even where many of these factors are present, case by case analysis is essential to detect potential
flash points. Predicting genocide is an art, not a science.
But we already know enough that our press, our public and our politicians should take note,
beginning with those countries – Iraq and Afghanistan – where our military is currently engaged.
The issue is not merely whether our policy in those countries is wise, but how to avoid the
ultimate moral stain of presiding over a genocide.
Doug Cassel’s commentaries are broadcast Wednesdays during the noon hour of the Worldview
program on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM. Views expressed are personal views of the author and
not necessarily those of Notre Dame Law School, the Center for Civil and Human Rights or Chicago