Department of Anthropology


Has 2016 been fatal for concerted efforts to prevent and punish the crime of genocide?

Dr Nigel Eltringham
Senior Lecturer in Anthropology

Since 1990, 10th December has been observed as Human Rights Day, marking the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly on that day in 1948.  While Human Rights Day is now firmly established in the international calendar, only last year was the same recognition given to the UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which was adopted by the General Assembly the day before the Universal Declaration on 9th December 1948.  This new commemoration is particularly apt given that the two instruments are intimately connected, the Genocide Convention being an expression of the Universal Declaration’s key commitments to the right to be free from discrimination (Art. 2) and the right to life (Art. 3).

ICCThe creation of the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime by the UN General Assembly in September 2015 could be regarded as the apogee of the resurgence of attempts to prevent and punish the crime of genocide (‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’). 

Regarding punishment, the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY, established in 1993) and for Rwanda (ICTR, established in 1994) both had jurisdiction over the crimes of genocide as has the International Criminal Court (ICC, above) which began functioning in 2002. The conviction of Jean Paul Akayesu (mayor of Taba commune) by the ICTR in September 1998 for the crime of genocide was the first time someone had been convicted of the crime as defined by the 1948 convention. 

Six years later, the Office of the UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide was created to strengthen the preventative element of the genocide convention. The Special Advisor collects information on massive and serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law of an ethnic and racial nature that might lead to genocide and provides early warning to the UN Security Council (via the UN Secretary General) to prevent or halt genocide. The Office of the Special Advisor has also been responsible for establishing regional genocide prevention structures such as that established in collaboration with the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region in Africa.  The role of Special Advisor is currently filled by Adama Dieng (former Registrar of the ICTR).

Despite these advances, events in the year since the first International Day of Commemoration in 2015 question whether the advances of the last twenty years have been sufficient.  Regarding punishment, in March 2016, South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal accused the South African government of ‘disgraceful conduct’ in allowing Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to leave the country in 2015 despite an arrest warrant from the ICC for three counts of genocide.  The case cast further doubt on the commitment of State Parties, like South Africa, to the ICC.  In October 2016, Pierre Nkurunziza, the President of Burundi (whose attempt to be elected for a third term led to widespread and systemic violations of human rights described by a UN report as threatening ‘a spiral of mass violence which could bring conflict to the entire region’) announced that he was withdrawing Burundi from the ICC.  More significant was President Putin’s announcement a month later that Russia was withdrawing its signature from the 1998 Rome Statute (which brought the ICC into existence). Given that Russia has never become a full State Party to the ICC, such a move is largely symbolic, but could, it has been argued, embolden other states to withdraw or dissuade states from becoming State Parties.

While these developments undermine efforts to punish genocide, the last two months of 2016 saw two strongly worded warnings from Adama Dieng demanding urgent preventative action.  At the start of November 2016 he issued a statement on Mosul condemning the ‘absolute disregard for international human rights and international humanitarian law’ by ISIS while warning that ‘armed groups acting on behalf of ethnic and religious communities could carry out retaliatory violence against members of the Sunni community’.  At the start of December 2016, Mr Dieng issued a joint statement with the Special Advisor for the Responsibility to Protect on the situation in Aleppo, expressing ‘outrage at the dire situation of civilians who are trapped in the fighting’ and warned of ‘what could be one of the biggest mass killing of civilians in our time’.

Do these developments in 2016 herald a sea-change in global attempts to prevent and punish genocide?  On one hand, it could be argued that there is nothing novel in observing that international attempts to prevent genocide and other mass atrocities are weak.  Attempts by US administrations to undermine the ICC, the misuse of the principle of ‘The Responsibility to Protect’ (which allows, in a last resort, military intervention to protect civilians) during the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 or the failure to prevent mass killings in South Sudan since 2013 (despite concerted regional and international efforts to construct prevention systems) all point to weaknesses.  

Likewise, it can be argued that to place the responsibility for punishment solely with the ICC is misplaced. In May 2016, for example, the Extraordinary African Chambers (established under an agreement between the African Union and Senegal) found Hissène Habré, former President of Chad, guilty of sexual slavery, rape, and ordering the killing of 40,000 people.  Whether 2016 has indeed marked a sea-change will only become clear in the long term.  Having said that, the events of the last twelve months inject the sentence at the end of the Special Advisor’s statement on Aleppo with an urgency that is not just relevant to Syria: ‘It is time to uphold our commitment to “never again”’.

: International Criminal Court Headquarters, Netherlands.
By Hypergio (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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By: Martin Wingfield
Last updated: Friday, 9 December 2016