On April 11, 1945, American forces liberated over 20,000 prisoners in Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp inside Germany. Between 1937 and 1945, the camp held about 250,000 prisoners, and it is estimated that some 56,000 of them were murdered by the SS – including 11,000 Jews. It was the first time American forces came across the horror that we now remember as the Holocaust. Soviet forces on the Eastern front, however, had been encountering such camps for almost a year. Just a couple of months earlier, they had liberated Auschwitz, finding undeniable the evidence of genocide and mass atrocity at an even greater scale.
The magnitude of the Holocaust captured the world’s attention. In its aftermath, the word genocide came to represent the most terrible of mass atrocities. No other issue attracts more attention from the international community. It was no accident that the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention) one day ahead of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
On April 16, Holocaust Remembrance Day, I had the opportunity to sit down for a conversation with Juan Méndez. He is the former Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General for the Prevention of Genocide and the current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
A former law professor, Juan became a political prisoner in his native Argentina and is a survivor of torture. Since then, and for over thirty years, he has been at the forefront of human rights advocacy, whether promoting immigrant rights in the United States, leading the International Center for Transitional Justice, or at the United Nations.
Our conversation covered a myriad of topics, including developments in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), seen increasingly as a guiding doctrine for the work of the UN General Secretariat. But our main focus was the topic of genocide.
For Juan, looking back at the Genocide Convention and its emphasis on criminalization, suggests that the drafters believed that the world could prevent future genocides by punishing those responsible for past atrocities. Experience however, has shown that prevention requires much more, especially early warning systems that identify groups at risk and activities in the area that might devolve into genocide (like radio broadcasts disseminating hate speech).
When early warning systems fail, responses to genocide and mass atrocities need to be dynamic and flexible. Learning from the response to the genocide in Darfur, policies and practices to stop genocide and mass atrocities should focus on four key aspects.
First, providing humanitarian assistance to preserve the status quo, because groups at risk usually need urgent aid. Second, breaking the cycle of impunity – creating pressure against genocide – by punishing even minor violations that have already happened. Third, supporting a peace process to address the underlying situation fueling hate or conflict. And fourth, providing physical protection for the vulnerable, be it through peacekeepers or other forces.
As Juan notes in his book Taking a Stand, not all mass atrocities amount to genocide under international law. The Genocide Convention is quite specific in requiring both the intent to destroy a group in whole or in part, and that the group be national, ethnic, racial or religious. Nevertheless, since the end of World War II the world has witnessed several atrocities undoubtedly amounting to genocide.
From Pakistan to Srebrenica to Rwanda to Darfur, the international community bore witness and in more recent times, actually took action. But not always – prevention has been the exception and prosecution has not fared much better.
Seventy years after the Holocaust, it is clear: the world still needs better monitoring and prevention strategies, stronger responses to mass atrocities once they begin, and more robust systems for justice. We still have a long way to go to keep the promise of “never again.”