December 09, 2016
Sixty-eight years ago today, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in response to the cataclysmic loss of life in the Holocaust. We recognize that genocide is a rare occurrence. Yet, today it is occurring or is threatened in an unprecedented number of places; in northern Iraq under the self-proclaimed Islamic State genocide is ongoing; while in Burma and South Sudan populations are at imminent risk of group-targeted violence becoming genocide. In Syria, civilians in besieged eastern Aleppo are threatened with total annihilation. These threats demand a renewed commitment to matching words with concrete actions to confront these genocidal threats.
"After World War II, the international community made a commitment to prevent genocide, yet, we continue to fail to heed the lessons of this tragic history," said Michael Chertoff, chairman of the Museum's Committee on Conscience. "We are painfully aware of the dire costs of inaction—the consequences of failing to respond early to warning signs or to halt atrocities ultimately undermines our safety and security at home."
At a moment of leadership transition in the United States, parts of Europe, and at the United Nations, the international community must recognize not only these very real threats, but also the dramatic side effects of our failure to address them. We are less safe and the world less secure when millions are violently driven from their homes, when terrorist groups arise in ungoverned spaces, and when innocent civilians are slaughtered.
"Atrocity prevention, if it ever is to be truly realized, must be coordinated among nations and elevated in our policymaking on a par with mutually reinforcing agendas aimed at advancing democratic governance, promoting respect for human rights, combating violent extremism, and countering terrorism," said Cameron Hudson, director of the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.
In March, the United States Government determined that the Islamic State perpetrated genocide against religious minorities in Iraq. If steps are not taken to protect civilians, document the crimes committed, hold accountable those responsible, and prevent future violence, civilians will continue to face violence and the use of the genocide label will have little meaning.
In Burma, the country's military has stepped up a brutal campaign against Rohingya, a Muslim minority. Witnesses have shared reports of the military firing upon civilians, raping women, burning villages, and forcing people to flee their homes. Reports of collective punishment, increased restrictions on humanitarian assistance, and the intransigence of Burma's leaders to address these crimes lead us to warn that genocide may be unfolding against Rohingya in Rakhine State.
For the past three years, South Sudanese civilians have suffered murder, rape, abductions, torture, and other crimes against humanity perpetrated by members of the military, rebel factions, and ethnic militia aligned with both sides. Tens of thousands have been killed and government forces are once again recruiting and deploying new forces, stockpiling weapons, and employing hateful, dehumanizing speech to enflame an already dire situation. If left unchecked, genocide could occur in the coming months as the dry season there gives way to renewed fighting.
In Syria, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and governments directly aiding him, notably Russia and Iran, have escalated their attacks on civilians, especially in Aleppo, where 250,000 civilians now risk annihilation. Since 2011, more than 400,000 Syrians have been killed and more than half the population of 22 million has been displaced as a result of the brutal crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated by their government.
The Museum's founding chairman, the late Elie Wiesel, admonished us that, "A destruction that only man can provoke, only man can prevent." In that spirit, the incoming US administration, the new UN secretary-general, and leaders in Europe and other parts of the international community should urgently confront the genocidal threats in Iraq, Burma, South Sudan, and Syria. Doing so requires sustaining and reinforcing efforts to institutionalize genocide prevention efforts within the United States and allied nations and broadening the toolkit available to these governments to take preventive action.
The consequences of failing to do so are clear—the loss of innumerable innocent lives to preventable atrocities, massive population displacement, destabilization of entire regions, economic devastation, and the further rise of extremism and terrorism.
"We face a moment of considerable global change, where, sadly, state and non-state actors around the world feel unconstrained in brazenly targeting groups of civilians for destruction," noted Tom Bernstein, chairman of the Museum’s governing council. "For the sake of the past and for our own future, we have a duty to respond before the vow of 'Never Again' is once again betrayed."
A living memorial to the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. Its far-reaching educational programs and global impact are made possible by generous donors. Learn more at ushmm.org.
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