A billboard promoting peace in Kotido District in Uganda
© Khristopher Carlson/IRIN
Amidst the Carnage, Hope.
“Scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history” was how one of the judges on the international criminal tribunal set up to investigate and prosecute crimes committed during Yugoslavia’s wars of dissolution described the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica. Over 7,500 unarmed men and boys were slaughtered there. A year earlier “scenes from hell” were written right across the small African country ofRwanda, where around 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days: a rate of killing higher than the Holocaust, achieved with Kalashnikovs, machetes and improvised methods of brutality. Shortly after the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region erupted in 2003, characterised by mass killing, widespread and systematic rape and ethnic cleansing, the then Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan, sharply criticised the world’s inaction. “We have learned nothing fromRwanda” he complained. More recently, the brief hope that the solidarity and determination exhibited by the UN Security Council when Gaddafi’s forces in Libya threatened to overrun the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and root out the ‘cockroaches’ (incidentally, the term used by Rwanda’s Hutu extremists to incite genocidal violence against the Tutsis in 1994) signalled a change of thinking about how the world should respond to acts of unconscionable and systematic inhumanity has quickly been replaced by cynicism as a result of the Council’s inability to reach a consensus on Syria.
It is easy to look at the carnage being unleashed on the civilians in the Baba Amr district of Homs, the children indiscriminately killed in their homes, the fate of thirteen year old Hamza Ali al’Khateeb who was tortured to death by the security forces, and come to the conclusion that we have indeed learned nothing. Learned nothing and changed nothing. According to this logic, regimes that can, will use extreme violence to preserve their privileges and the rest of the world will stand aside and accept it unless powerful outsiders have other interests at stake. From this cynical vantage point, it would be easy to criticise the efforts of those who champion the UN and its principles of human rights and the responsibility to protect as naïve idealists or, worse, as vain glory-seekers spouting fashionable hot air that signifies nothing. It would be easy to think like this, but wrong.
Wrong not just because the cynical belief that humanity can do no better breeds the very sort of behaviour it purports to condemn. If no good can be done, the logic goes, better not to try; the perfect rules out pursuit of the good. The cynical view holds that it is better to stand and watch from the moral high ground than to get dirty hands trying to make things better.
This kind of thinking is also wrong empirically. Although it may not seem it at times, things have actually improved in the past few decades and international institutions, primarily the UN, have played a significant role in that. The simple fact of the matter is that there are fewer wars; when wars do happen they are shorter and fewer people tend to die; and fewer, not more, civilians are dying as a result of mass atrocities. None of this happened by chance. Continue reading “Amidst the Carnage, Hope.”