Prevention of Genocide

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GROUP RIGHTS
International Journal on Minority and Group Rights 14 (2007) 379–397 www.brill.nl/ijgr

INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL ON MINORITY AND

Preventing the ‘Odious Scourge’: The United Nations and the Prevention of Genocide William A. Schabas*

1. Introduction The prevention of genocide has figured on the agenda of the United Nations virtually from the organisation’s very beginning. Resolution 96(I), adopted at the initial session of the General Assembly, pledged the organisation to prevent and punish genocide. It called for the preparation of a treaty on the subject. Two years later the General Assembly adopted the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,1 its very first human rights treaty. But the United Nations was unable to prevent genocide in Rwanda, in 1994. In reaction to this signal and devastating failure, the September 2005 Summit of Heads of State and Government pledged the United Nations to the prevention of genocide, invoking the ‘responsibility to protect’ vulnerable minorities. The scope of that obligation was further enhanced in February 2007, when the International Court of Justice condemned Serbia for failing to act to prevent the massacre of thousands of civilians at Srebrenica, in July 1995. Of course, the United Nations was literally forged in the crucible of perhaps the greatest genocide of all time, the intentional physical extermination of an influential minority based largely in Europe whose contribution over the centuries to science, literature, philosophy and the arts had been extraordinary and perhaps unique. Yet its founding instrument, the Charter of the United Nations, did not put the prevention of genocide or, for that matter, the promotion of human rights at the centre of its activities. In its December 2004 report, the High Level Panel observed that the preoccupation of the founders of the United Nations was

* Professor of Human Rights Law, National University of Ireland, Galway and Director, Irish Centre for Human Rights. 1) Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 78 UNTS (1951) p. 277.

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2007

DOI: 10.1163/138548707X208881

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with State security, not human security.2 Granted, there are useful references to the protection and promotion of human rights in the Charter of the United Nations.3 But in 1945, when the institution was established, the idea of human rights was far from the prominent position that it occupies today, as one of the three pillars of the activities of the organisation. The story of how the major Western powers, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, watered down the promises they had made in Roosevelt’s ‘four freedoms’ speech and the Atlantic Charter, once the tide had been turned and victory in the War assured, is well known.4 Essentially in parallel with the establishment of the United Nations, the international community created another organisation, albeit an ephemeral one, with responsibility in the area of genocide and human rights: the International Military Tribunal.5 Known more colloquially as the ‘Nuremberg Tribunal’, it was mandated to hold accountable those responsible for the atrocities of the Second World War. Genocide, that is, the intentional physical destruction of ethnic minorities by the Nazi regime, was very much part of the Tribunal’s remit, the result of effective lobbying by non-governmental organisations during 1943 and 1944. Initially, the international lawyers from the major foreign ministries were unconvinced and decidedly lukewarm about the prospect of prosecuting the Nazis for atrocities committed against their own nationals.6 But in March 1944, President Roosevelt referred in a speech to “the wholesale systematic...
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