UN Adviser on Prevention of Genocide: “We Have to Make Sure the Security Council Acts”

In Bor, South Sudan, people fleeing ongoing clashes board boats headed for Minkammen, February 27, 2014. (Mohammed Elshamy/Flickr)

The mass atrocities in Rwanda and Srebrenica provided “a shock to the international community,” said Adama Dieng, the United Nations Secretary-General’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide. The UN has been widely criticized for its failures in both, but in the intervening years, Mr. Dieng said the United Nations has made a lot of progress. “It takes time to change [UN] culture,” he said.

He said, “too often, strategic interests of the member states are placed above human lives,” and the failure of the UN to act is often rooted in Security Council members letting their own interests impact their decisions.

“And I keep repeating it: we have to make sure that the Security Council acts timely and decisively whenever we are witnessing situations of potential genocide or atrocity crimes,” he said.

In Central African Republic (CAR), where, since 2012, sectarian violence has escalated and caused internal migration and hundreds of deaths, Mr. Dieng said a genocide is not happening, though there is a risk. “We do not use, of course, the term lightly,” he said. “We talk about this risk of genocide because we have seen elements of the crime in place. We have seen very clear statement of intent to destroy, to wipe a population from the country, and I’m referring here to the Muslim population.” He said CAR is at risk for all atrocity crimes, particularly crimes against humanity.

Mr. Dieng said the UN needs to invest more in prevention. “We must get involved earlier if we are to save lives, and if we are to stop tensions from escalating,” he said. “We cannot say that we are not aware of what is happening in the world. We have enough early warning information.”

Mr. Dieng used CAR as an example of the potential cost difference between early interventions and peacekeeping interventions. “With certainly less than $100 million dollars, one could’ve prevented the crisis in Central African Republic leading to the establishment of a peacekeeping operation.” In contrast, he said the CAR’s peacekeeping operation could cost “at least $1 billion dollars.”

Mr. Dieng listed many improvements the UN has made in its approach, including its ability to act as “one UN,” which he said means deciding on policy at headquarters and implementing coherent strategies on the ground. As an example, he cited the decision in February 2014 to “open the gates” of the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan and provide refuge to South Sudanese fleeing bloody political violence. “Thanks to that decision, thousands of lives were saved,” he said. He contrasted this with 20 years ago “when the gates were opened, but only to release the soldiers to go back home.”

Mr. Dieng said one situation his office is monitoring but does not receive enough attention is the sectarian violence in in Myanmar. He said concern over the upcoming election, which is seen as a crucial step in Myanmar’s democratization, is clouding the issue. “We have to make sure that political appointees/opportunists will not allow that the people of Myanmar, particularly the Rohingya, who are at risk, be left abandoned… Because if we allow the situation to continue, you are facing the risk after the election of a situation which will be worse than what we are witnessing today.”

The interview was conducted by Adam Lupel, Director of Publications and Senior Fellow at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

As you know, this month marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. So, I’d first like ask you what have we learned since then, what is United Nations doing better, and where are we most in need of improvement?

Well, I would first of all like to say that the genocide not only Rwanda but also in Srebrenica provided a shock to the international community, which was forced to take a hard look at the unacceptable human cost of failing to take action or not be adequately prepared. And speaking about the United Nations in particular—an investigation into why we’ve fail to prevent these genocides—and most recently the death of civilians in the last months of the conflict in Sri Lanka—have resulted in several processes of reform within the UN. And, of course, it takes time to change culture. But, I believe that we have made a lot of progress in 20 years.

There has been a real desire to use all the resources that we have at our disposal to respond earlier and better in order to save lives. One of the areas where we have worked hard to improve is providing member states with accurate, timely, candid information with respect to people at risk of or subject to serious human rights violations or international humanitarian law that could result in atrocity crimes, including genocide. And the most recent example I can offer is the briefings I have given so far, since November, to the Security Council in relation to the situation in Central African Republic.

The second aspect where we have made improvement is that we are now trying to ensure that we have a coordinated one UN—and I said one UN—approach to both deciding on policy at the headquarters and implementing coherent strategies for action on the ground, using the breadth of our mandates to support the protection of populations. And an example I can give also is the recent decision taken by the Secretary-General instructing his Special Representative in South Sudan to open the gates. Thanks to that decision, thousands of lives were saved. And at the same time, I may say that if you compare it with what happened 20 years ago when the gates were opened but to release the soldiers to go back home, while this time it was opened to allow civilian populations to be protected.

And the final measure of improvement could be engaging the support of all those who are best placed to have an influence on development and actors, particularly regional organizations, but also neighboring states and influential community leaders. And in this regard, I can, for instance, refer to the role which is being played recently by the African Union. So that is something we have to look into, and we are following closely, for instance, the work of the Commission of Inquiry which has been established to look into the atrocity crimes committed in South Sudan.

Now, the last leg of your question: where we need improvement. Firstly, we still get involved far too late. We must get involved earlier if we are to save lives, and if we are to stop tensions from escalating. We cannot say that we are not aware of what is happening in the world. We have enough early warning information. If you take the crises we are witnessing today—be it CAR, be it Syria, be it South Sudan—all the crises the world is facing, nobody can say that we did not have information. [Yet] we still have a habit of reaction rather than prevention, and this has to change.

I keep, these recent months, arguing when I met with Western ambassadors, with potential donors, saying that you need to invest more on prevention rather than on peacekeeping, because if you invest in prevention, you will not need to put into place a peacekeeping operation, which are extremely costly. Take the most recent resolution of the Security Council, establishing a peacekeeping operation in CAR—I’m sure, at the end of the day, it might cost… at least $1 billion dollars. Imagine that. With certainly less than $100 million dollars, one could’ve prevented the crisis in Central African Republic leading to the establishment of a peacekeeping operation. And I’m talking about strengthening the rule of law in that country, I’m talking about strengthening the security sector, making sure that you have a judiciary which is of a size and of a quality to address accountability issues. But at the end of the day, we are now at this situation where only God knows what will be the future of tomorrow.

So, I think, the second area where we need improvement is that too often strategic interests of the member states are placed above human lives. And that’s, [as] one of the survivors of the Rwandan genocide was referring to [during a recent panel discussion], putting “profit before people.” And I think it is time to reverse that tendency and put people before profit.

This is more so important when you remember that, in 2005, the world leaders committed, in September when they adopted the Outcome Summit Document on the Responsibility to Protect, that they will no longer sit down, hands crossed, abandoning populations who are at the risk of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. But we have seen them failing in Syria, so…

But at the same time, I was glad to see that within the framework of the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide (which targeted primarily the Tutsis but which also took the lives of many other people who stood firm against the genocide, and which led to about a million people who were killed in 100 days) the Security Council adopted an important resolution—really, a historical and landmark resolution on the prevention of genocide. The Council is, to my view, the place where we most often see the impact of the interests of individual states—through the failure of the Council to agree on action.

And I keep repeating it: we have to make sure that the Security Council acts timely and decisively whenever we are witnessing situations of potential genocide or atrocity crimes. And hopefully—this is not yet the case—we [will] see it in Syria. We did say at the end of the Second World War, never again, but again, again, and again, we are seeing this situation.

You mentioned UN peacekeeping. A special report published in Foreign Policy this month provides a quite damning account of the failures of UN peacekeeping to prevent recent atrocities against civilians in Darfur. I think this is particularly troubling because the region has been the focus of so much international attention. Why, in your mind, does atrocity prevention seem to fail again and again—and are we getting any closer to answering this crucial question?

I’m sure my colleagues in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations are better placed, but let me simply say that it is important to emphasize that the responsibility for preventing atrocity crimes and protecting populations lies first and foremost with the state. Sudan has the first responsibility to protect the population of Darfur, and Sudan has failed to do so. The international community, of course, has a responsibility—a responsibility to support states that are under stress, and to step in when they fail.

So, the first failure is that of the state, which must do all in its power to build resilience to atrocity crimes, to establish institutions that are credible, to legitimate in the eyes of its population, and to respect the rule of law. And, of course, to respect human rights of all its people, irrespective of their race, their religion, their ethnicity or their beliefs or political opinion.

As I said earlier, I think we are getting better. We are getting better, and the international community is responding faster. But prevention will never be easy. And the international community still seems to wait until the last minute to respond, even though we know that preventive action is so much less costly in terms of both human lives and financial costs. But unfortunately, the strategic interests, the conflicting priorities, still get in the way.
So, that’s where really, I think, there is a need to make some progress, to change our way of operating, and that’s in the hands of the states. But I can say that more and more I am seeing member states accepting, for instance, to engage in dialogue with my mandate and offering more support. We need, of course, to build on that.

Could you clarify the UN’s position on the nature of the violence in the Central African Republic? Some have criticized the UN’s early use of the term genocide in reference to the ethnic violence there. What is at stake in focusing on the issue of genocide, in particular, as opposed to atrocity crimes more broadly?

Well, I would say that we are talking about the risk of genocide. I did say so on the 1st of November when I addressed the Security Council in an area formula. And I repeat it again: we have not said that genocide is happening. We do not use, of course, the term lightly. We talk about this risk of genocide because we have seen elements of the crime in place. We have seen very clear statement of intent to destroy, to wipe a population from the country, and I’m referring here to the Muslim population.

We have also seen the stigmatization and dehumanization of this Muslim population in CAR. The attacks against the Muslim population have been overwhelming in their brutality. And I just recently viewed a documentary where you would see one anti-balaka—which is the group of Christians which are fighting the ex-Seleka and which, as you may know, started as a reaction to what the ex-Seleka did before, and turned it now—manipulating religion.

And that is where there is a serious risk, and that’s why, when we speak about the risk of genocide in CAR, we are speaking also about the risk of all atrocity crimes, and particularly crimes against humanity, which can itself be an element of genocide. We have to always remember that the elements of the crime of genocide are those very same elements you will find also in Article 6 of the Rome treaty, which established the ICC. And the crimes against humanity is one of the elements of the crime of genocide.

There is a lot of attention right now on CAR, but also Syria, Sudan, and South Sudan. Is there another situation that you are monitoring that you feel has not been getting the attention it deserves?

Well, my office monitors situations around the world for the risk of atrocity crimes, and in all regions we focus on early warning of risk, and we’re monitoring a large number of countries at any one time for development that could cause concern. We have developed a methodology for risk assessment, and we work with our colleagues within the United Nations system to address early signs of risk. We know that there are many signposts along the road to genocide, and thus there are many entry points and opportunities to stop the process. What we must do then is pay attention to warning signs and secondly to take action, and to take it much, much earlier.

For example, I can refer to the current situation in Myanmar. In Myanmar, we are concerned about the conditions, the situation, of the Rohingya people. And now, not only the Rohingyas are affected, but there is now a potential risk that the Muslim Burmese of Indian origin may also become a target.

What is very surprising is that the Buddhists, who are known as being peaceful… when you see a monk calling for killings, committing violence based on religion; I mean, I feel really sad. We have to make sure that political appointees/opportunists will not allow that the people of Myanmar, particularly the Rohingya, who are at risk, be left abandoned. Efforts are being made by member states applying pressure.

But at the same time, because of the sensitivities—because at the same time, progress has been registered in the democratization of that country—the military are being more open. People are going for election next year. And people think that, “Well, we have to make sure [not to disrupt this].” But my view—my personal opinion is that we have to be more rigorous, more firm. Because if we allow the situation to continue, you are facing the risk after the election of a situation which will be worse than what we are witnessing today.

Thank you very much for speaking with me today.

It was my pleasure.