CANBERRA – Slaughtering people not for anything they do, but simply for who they are - their national, ethnic, racial, religious, or political identity – is morally as bad as it gets. Yet that was the fate of at least 80 million men, women, and children in the twentieth century, including Armenians in Turkey, Jews in Europe, suspect classes in the Soviet Union and China, communists in Indonesia, non-communists in Cambodia, Bengalis in former East Pakistan, Asians in Uganda, Tutsis in Rwanda, and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia.
The Genocide Convention, adopted on December 9, 1948, in response to the Holocaust, should have been a circuit breaker. It wasn’t. Whether we label their suffering “genocide,” “politicide,” “democide,” or – sensibly, to avoid linguistic and legal hair-splitting – simply “mass atrocity crimes,” innocent civilians have continued to be slaughtered. And they are suffering or fearful still in many parts of the world – particularly the Middle East, Sudan, South Sudan, and Central Africa, and in vulnerable corners of Asia such as North Korea, Myanmar, and Afghanistan.
The United Nations General Assembly has now set December 9 as the International Day to commemorate genocide victims and focus on prevention. It is a good time to take stock of how far we have come – and have yet to go – in translating into reality the moral aspiration expressed seven decades ago.
The good news is that a genuine – and unprecedented – global consensus has emerged over the last ten years: State sovereignty is not a license to kill. Mass atrocity crimes – even those committed entirely within a state’s borders – have become the world’s business.