Connection between racism and mass atrocities addressed by panel

7 April 2008

NEW YORK, United States — The relationship between racism and mass atrocities was the focus of a panel discussion co-sponsored by the Baha'i International Community to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

"Genocide is not a natural disaster," said Payam Akhavan, an associate professor of law at McGill University, whose appearance was sponsored by the Baha'is. "It is a man-made disaster, an instrument through which ruthless leaders exercise power at the expense of millions."

Professor Akhavan and eight others spoke on 27 March 2008 at the Church Center at United Nations Plaza in New York. The event was titled "Eliminate Racism: Prevent Mass Atrocities."

Craig Mokhiber of the U.N. human rights office in New York had a somber assessment: "The struggle against racism is unfortunately not on the forward path many of us thought it was on a decade ago."

Racism is a global phenomenon, he said, made worse by impunity for the perpetrators of atrocities committed under its influence. The concept of "the other" is what perpetuates racism, he said.

Mr. Mokhiber suggested that racism is the result of "us," plus "the other," added to an unequal power structure and hatred inflamed by politicians and the media.

"Defeating this paradigm is the central struggle against racism today," he said.

The Dutch ambassador to the United Nations, Piet de Klerk, agreed that racism is alive in many forms and that making a connection between racism and atrocities is "very appropriate."

Reducing individuals to representatives of specific groups makes it easy to perpetrate mass atrocities, he said.

Among the others who spoke at the event were Raymond O. Wolfe, the Jamaican ambassador to the United Nations; Yvette Rugasaguhunga, a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan massacre; and Mark Weitzman of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The discussion was moderated by Tahirih Naylor, a representative to the United Nations of the Baha'i International Community.

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Payam Akhavan of McGill University said governments sometimes turn a blind eye to events that lead up to atrocities against groups of people.

In his remarks, Professor Akhavan said that in some respects genocide is predictable and therefore preventable.

"There is a long process of cynicism and indifference which in the end erupts into genocide," he said.

Too often, he said, "governments turn a blind eye on the road to genocide. No member state (of the U.N.) will send troops without a pressing national interest. We have to stop thinking the cavalry is going to come. It's not."

Still, he said, there are success stories.

In Macedonia, the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers saved lives in the conflict between the Slavs and the Albanians, he noted.

And in Africa, the Burundi Leadership Training Program initiated dialogue between opposing camps. "This simple but timely initiative (may) have prevented mass killings in Burundi," Professor Akhavan said.

Bringing to justice the perpetrators of atrocity is vital, he said, because impunity sends the message that crime does pay. "We have to make sure that those governments which have spoken in such lofty terms about the ICC (International Criminal Court) begin to deliver on their promises," said Professor Akhavan.

A survivor's story

Yvette Rugasaguhunga, now an investment banking analyst in New York, told how in Rwanda at the age of 14 she watched her older brother hacked to death by a group of men with machetes.

A Tutsi, she survived by masquerading as a Hutu and taking precarious shelter in enemy territory.

She described life with one of the people there: "He would come home at night covered with blood from killing Tutsis all day, but would be sweet to me because he thought I was not one of them. ... He never would have been nice to me if he knew I was Tutsi."

Durban Declaration

Mr. Mokhiber of the U.N. human rights office said the Durban Declaration from the 2001 World Conference Against Racism recognized the need to "remember the crimes of the past and tell the truth about history."

Ambassador de Klerk of the Netherlands said his government was taking measures to put into action several of the goals of the Durban Declaration, including creation of an Equal Treatment Commission, a National Action Plan, and other efforts to create an infrastructure for combating racism at all levels of society.

On an international level, he noted the Fundamental Rights Agency, the Council of Europe, and the work of the International Criminal Court at The Hague. He also cited the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) movement which provides a more preventive approach to racial discrimination.

Briefly ...

-- Mr. Weitzman of the Simon Wiesenthal Center gave a presentation of what he termed "digital terrorism" - computer games with hateful intentions and graphic brutality. "The combination of technology and terror is the greatest danger the world today faces," he said.

-- The U.N. ambassador from Jamaica, Raymond Wolfe, reported that to date, US$80,000 has been contributed by 17 countries to erect a memorial at the United Nations to victims of slavery - a monument to honor their memory and also serve as a reminder.

-- The panel discussion marked not only the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which falls on 21 March each year, but also the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, which is observed on 25 March. The discussion was also part of a series of dialogues on human rights in celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The discussion was sponsored by the Sub-Committee for the Elimination of Racism of the NGO Committee on Human Rights at the United Nations, in cooperation with the Dutch and Jamaican U.N. missions and the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In addition to the Baha'i International Community, co-sponsors were the American Psychological Association, the Church of the Brethren-On Earth Peace Agency, Franciscans International, the International Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, the International Union of Anthropological & Ethnological Sciences, Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and the International Council of Women.