Start of Main Content

Beyond the Canon: New UN Tool Suggests Broader Base for Thinking about Atrocity Prevention

In a small but meaningful gesture, the photographs on the cover of the UN’s new framework of analysis for assessing the risk of genocide and other mass atrocities go beyond what I call the genocide canon—the cases of Armenia, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and, of late, Darfur that are typically cited to prick people’s conscience and spur action by policymakers—to include images from East Timor, Guatemala, and Cambodia [see below; captions are on page ii of the document]. This expansion matters because, up to now, policy for the prevention of atrocities and activism to raise awareness of them have been based largely on a tiny sample of past genocides in which there seems to be a clear-cut distinction between “good guys” and “bad guys,” and the narrowness of that sample has constrained thinking about prevention in the present.

To cite just two recent examples:

  • In the United States, the Holocaust continues to be central in activist and policy discourse about atrocity prevention and response. The most recent and striking example of this was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s exhibition of photographs in October, documenting atrocities from the conflict in Syria. Although the Museum itself did not liken the atrocities committed by the Assad regime to those committed by the Nazis under Hitler, the fact that it chose to host the exhibition was enough to invite the comparison. In any case, most media coverage made the connection. Likewise, in September 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on Syria, made reference to the Holocaust in comments urging Congress to support the use of force in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.

  • UN officials and policymakers also rely on the canon to make the case for greater commitment to atrocity prevention and response by member states. On the 20th anniversary of Rwanda’s genocide, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave a speech in April in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, saying “The international community failed the people of Rwanda 20 years ago.  And we are at risk of not doing enough for the people of the Central African Republic today. [. . .] From here I go to Rwanda to mark the twentieth commemoration of the Rwanda genocide.  It is your responsibility as leaders to ensure that there no such anniversaries in this country.”

It isn’t that the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide are undeserving of commemoration or unproductive to consider in thinking about how to prevent atrocity crimes, but there are many other examples that are routinely ignored. Unsurprisingly, these omitted cases tend to be ones that exhibit greater moral ambiguity, or that might reflect poorly on those drawing the comparisons. The choice of East Timor and Guatemala as illustrations for the new framework of analysis is especially conspicuous, given that criticism of U.S. policy on genocide/atrocity prevention has zeroed in on these very cases. As one reviewer of Samantha Power’s 2002 “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide pointed out, the argument that the United States has historically been a bystander to genocide, and that U.S. policymakers need to be more interventionist in their response to atrocities, ignores the cases of IndonesiaEast Timor, and Guatemala, where the U.S. role was “less that of a bystander and more that of a partner-in-crime perpetrator.”

On the other hand, conspicuous for its absence among the illustrations is Sri Lanka. That country is currently under investigation by the UN Human Rights Council for events in 2009, at the end of a civil war in which there is evidence that both sides committed crimes against humanity and war crimes. I say conspicuous because the United Nations was subjected to heavy criticism for its terrible failure to protect civilians during the conflict, and its unrolling of the “Rights Up Front” initiative last December was a direct response to those critiques.In short, which cases are included in the genocide canon matters, even if those cases are being used purely for symbolic purposes and not researched for facts and patterns. Expansion of that canon—especially with instances where a simple “good guys versus bad guys” analysis does not apply—increases the chances that individuals and institutions will advocate for, and produce, more effective atrocities-prevention policies.