“Never again” or again and again: The Genocide Convention, the responsibility to protect and mass atrocity prevention
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The twentieth century has been labelled the ‘century of genocide’. According to some estimates, more than 250 million civilians were victims of genocide and mass atrocities during this period. Genocide and mass atrocities have occurred in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, (1971), Indonesia (1965-66), Cambodia (1975-79) and East Timor (1975-79). In their aftermath, massive refugee flows, regime changes and secessions have profoundly impacted upon the geopolitical composition of the region.
Never Again' was the refrain that reverberated around the world in the wake of the Holocaust. Stunned by this crime of unprecedented proportions, the international community responded by codifying the crime of genocide in international law at the very first session of the new United Nations (UN) General Assesbly. Yet in six decades since the Convention on the Prevention and the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Con- vention) was established, it has never been formally invoked to prevent or bring an end to a genocide. 'Never again' became the familiar but increas- ingly meaningless mantra of world leaders, spoken in the aftermath of each new atrocity but failing to provoke a different response to the next. Few would argue with genocide scholar Jacques Semelin's declaration that after Cambodia, Srebrenica, Rwanda and Darfur, 'the cry of "Never Again!" has become almost unbearable to hear. Yet despite - or perhaps because of - the mass atrocities that have littered the latter twentieth century, 'never again' is once again featuring prominently in international parlance. This time, it is in the context of the new principle of the 'responsibility to protect', or RtoP as it is commonly known. As the Australian representative to the UN enunciated at the General Assembly, RtoP is 'the expression of our irrevocable collective commitment to ensure that never again are we confronted with the horrors of another Rwanda or Srebrenica, Cambodia or the Holocaust'. The rhetoric is powerful, but can RtoP achieve what the Genocide Convention could not?