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As we approach the 13th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide we should not only remember the horrors that took place, but focus our attention on the failure to halt the developing genocide in Darfur.

April marks the 13th anniversary of the start of the genocide in Rwanda during which approximately 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days. When celebrating the anniversary of this horrific tragedy let us take a moment to remember those who were slaughtered so unmercifully. More attention should be focused on how to prevent future heinous crimes to occur in Africa and elsewhere.

‘Never again’ – an international commitment or a rhetorical sound bite?

After the horrors of the holocaust, the international community drafted the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and pledged 'never again' to such evil. The United Nations was founded with the objective that humanity should be spared the scourge of war forever. The pledge proved empty as numerous heinous crimes followed. In fact, civilians in Africa bear the heaviest brunt of acts of terror, civil wars, violent suppression of political opponents and criminal violence.

The most glaring and heinous examples of the failure of civilian protection in Africa are the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, the war in the DRC between 1998 and 2003, which resulted in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with over 3,400,000 persons displaced from their homes and an estimated 4 million killed and, the Darfur conflict that started in 2003, with estimates of deaths ranging from 180,000 to 400,000. At least 2,000,000 people have been forced to flee from their homes and are displaced in Sudan or in camps in neighbouring countries. These cases are particularly relevant: they happened in our lifetimes and continue to happen now.

Never say never again?

They are a tragic part of Africa’s contemporary history. One may easily say that 'never again' has lost its meaning. While Rwanda was supposedly the scar on our conscience that would be the last incident of mass atrocities allowed to occur, it provided a foreshadowing of things to come. That is true especially in Africa where, despite leaders’ pledge to never let another Rwanda happen again, they have not demonstrated the will to exercise the African Union’s right to intervene to stem gross human rights violations in a concerted or consistent manner.

Even if there is controversy about the definition of genocide in Darfur, there is little doubt that despite the hair-splitting of the proper description of the unfolding tragedy, there is a developing genocide in Darfur which is being met by a similar reaction or lack of action from the world community. Equally, the current situation in Zimbabwe - where the state is oppressing its own people - is another case for the agenda of actions to end this cycle, and move us to finally realise the call of 'never again'.

As 7 April has been designated by the UN as 'international day of reflection on the genocide in Rwanda', the profound sense of 'never again' should be reflected in the prevention or action in the event of of heinous crimes and other violations of human rights. Prevention of such crimes through swift and effective action will send us a clear message. Maybe, thus inspired, we can someday make 'never again' more than a mere slogan.

In so doing, responses to protect civilians would immensely benefit from President Paul Kagame’s sagacious words:

'Never again should the international community’s response to these crimes be found wanting. Let us resolve to take collective actions in a timely and decisive manner. Let us also commit to put in place early warning mechanisms and ensure that preventive interventions are the rule rather and the exception.'

To achieve the broad goal here expressed will certainly take more than rhetoric. Political commitment must be expressed, not only in establishing the required mechanisms but also in triggering them to act when action is required.

The case of Darfur aptly demonstrates the futility of establishing legal regimes which cannot be effectively utilised. In providing for intervention in internal affairs of member states when massive human rights violations are perpetrated without action from the government concerned, or when the government itself is involved in such atrocities, the Constitutive Act of the African Union has codified an important principle of international law. This principle as holds that while states have the responsibility to protect their citizens in recognition of their sovereignty, the default responsibility falls upon the international community, in this case the AU, which can intervene to forestall atrocities.

The cases of Darfur and Zimbabwe are the latest in a string of similar situations to pose unanswered questions to our rhetorical commitments. It is one thing for the silence to be ruptured for lack of preventive mechanisms. But our deafening silence in the face of continuing atrocities is quite another. Empty diplomatic gestures without concrete action in places like Darfur long recognised as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis is a damning indictment of the international community, in particular the leading nations at global and continental levels.

As the world commemorates the commencement of the tragic events of 1994 in Rwanda, our leadership and those who shape opinion and policy must rethink our commitment to a world and continent free of human suffering, a continent committed to furthering the aspiration of a peaceful world, a world in which human life and dignity are embedded in state policy and interactions between nations. This would allow us, when necessary, to discard parochial notions of sovereignty and to act accordingly when another Rwanda or Darfur threaten.

To achieve this, we must bring together the institutions and collective powers we have established to construct a world in which ‘never again’ means what it should.

* Joseph Yav is a lecture at the Faculty of Law, University of Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo. He is also the executive director of the Centre d’etudes et de recherche en droits de l’homme, democratie et justice transitionnelle/Centre for Human Rights, Democracy and Transitional Justice Studies. Email: [email]joyav22[email protected]

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