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Building An Understanding of the Past and Our Responsibility for the Present

07 Apr 2022
By Dr Joanna R. Quinn
The sculpture 'Non-Violence' outside the UN HEadquarters in NYC.
Source: Flickr, Matrin Frey,

On the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, a human rights crisis unfolds in Ukraine. To avert genocides, we must acknowledge the dark reality of these horrific events.

This week marks 28 years since the beginning of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In the horror of the realisation that an estimated 800,000 people had been brutally slaughtered in over just 100 days, the world promised “never again” and vowed to do better.

Events that have taken place in the years since show the inefficacy of that promise. There was a genocide in Srebrenica the year that followed, and subsequently the genocides of the Darfuri in Sudan, the Rohingya in Myanmar, and Yazidis in Yemen and Syria, among others, demonstrate the nonchalance with which the world seems to have regarded its solemn pledge, time and again.

The past few weeks have seen Russia’s unlawful incursion into Ukraine, and the sincerity of those promises once more come under scrutiny. This has brought the horror of earlier incidents into sharp relief. And promises of “never again” have once again been heard around the world. The crisis demonstrates what can happen when we fail to uphold those commitments, including the basic agreements of security and respect that were key to establishing the modern system of international law. More than four million refugees have fled the country and nearly seven million people are internally displaced within Ukraine itself.

It feels as though the lessons we thought we had learned have slipped away. It can also feel like any common understanding we had about what we needed to do, and why, has disappeared.

So how can we persuade individuals and governments that they need to pay closer attention, to bring what is happening in Ukraine, and also Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, to a halt?  And moreover, how can we prevent similar atrocities from taking place?

The starting point needs to be a real acknowledgement of what is taking place — attempting to understand the enormity of the suffering and chaos that civilians caught in the middle are subject to. Recognising the effect of both the repudiation of international law by specific states or groups of states, and how deeply that affects the populations that are caught in the middle, must extend to both the details of the events themselves and to their consequences. It also needs to expand to the duty that the international community ultimately bears for those harms. And we need to consciously learn from the inadequacies of our collective past.

In the first instance, the responsibility for ameliorating wrongs should be borne by those who have committed the atrocities. In the second instance, that responsibility must be taken up by anyone who is able. And since states are the primary protector of human rights, they must uphold those rights —preventing violence in the first place and protecting innocent civilians from harm and wrongdoing.  That means that all countries in the international system must help where they can.

The more they learn about what is taking place elsewhere, domestic constituencies are more easily persuaded to support efforts for intervention and relief efforts. Efforts to build that kind of understanding will ideally be carried out before there is a need for a country’s resolve to be tested. This knowledge will affirm truths about what is taking place, about the value of caring, and the possibility of making change —things that may have been challenged and questioned or have made people stop caring at all.

These upstream efforts help to build resilience within communities, and within whole countries more broadly. Some countries spend a good deal of time and energy educating their populations about the importance of human rights, both domestically and internationally. But even if efforts to build this kind of understanding have been lacking in the past, and the population has lost its connection with those events, knowledge about what is happening can even be built downstream — that is, while atrocities are taking place. In the worst case, knowledge-building can even be taken up after the conflict ends, as part of the rebuilding process.

This principle extends from the domestic into the international sphere, insofar as that kind of knowledge-building also needs to be undertaken by states with one another. States are responsible for continually reminding other states within the international system that they have committed to preventing, stopping, and remediating human rights abuses — that they cannot take the law and order of the modern international system for granted — and they must take seriously their commitment to hold other states accountable for failing to uphold those obligations. Especially in times of crisis, international forums like the United Nations and the Commonwealth, which bring states together in a neutral, depoliticised environment, can provide a stable negotiating forum for learning and norm development. Working together to understand the implications of what has taken place and how they can be prevented can build the kind of resilience that can insulate the international system from atrocity now and in the future.

As we pause to reflect on the significance of the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, it is important to renew our collective commitment to stop genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Promises to prevent and punish these atrocity crimes under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the Genocide Convention, the United Nations Charter, and others, must be kept. To do that requires an intentional focus on building an understanding of common humanity by intentionally building an understanding of the importance of what is happening now and what has gone before, and redoubling our efforts to make sure “never again” becomes a reality.

Dr Joanna R. Quinn is Director of the Centre for Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Professor of Political Science at The University of Western Ontario, where she is cross-appointed to the Faculty of Law. Dr Quinn’s research considers the role of acknowledgement in overcoming the effects of human rights abuses after conflict. She has written widely on the role of acknowledgment in truth commissions and in customary law in Uganda, Haiti, Canada, Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Canada.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.