UN advisor on genocide commends Swat students, illustrates challenges of international action

Dr. Juan E. Méndez, the first UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, spoke yesterday in Pearson-Hall Theatre. His talk was sponsored by the President’s Office, Amnesty International, the Forum for Free Speech, and Swarthmore Sudan.

Méndez began by commending the initiative of Swarthmore’s student body in its active humanitarian efforts and then tried to define his role in the UN, as the head of its newest humanitarian arm, less than a year old. His long term goal is to create an early-warning system for the prevention of genocide by collecting and presenting information about potential genocidal situations in clear, un-ignorable ways. In finding information about potential and ongoing genocide he said he had to both sort through the diverse, voluminous system of information retrieval the UN currently has and find information outside the system in order to alert the international community to unknown genocidal situations. To maintain the trust of the UN and his power to influence action, Méndez stressed the fact that he had to closely examine the veracity of information and also give reasonable, creative suggestions that are both within the limits of what the Security Council will agree to enact and which will not make the situation worse. Using precedent, he said, was only so useful in assessing the likely efficacy of proposed measures, since each situation is contained within a unique cultural conflict. The background research necessary to make such analysis is immense, and Méndez said he relies heavily on the wiling help of many experts. He stressed the necessity of finding a balance between working with the current UN mechanisms, as a team player, and with speaking out dissonantly as an autonomous branch with a duty to push the UN to act when necessary. Among the powers that give him individual sovereignty to fulfill his duty, Méndez said he can announce his opinions publicly and submit mandates to the UN Security Council. Although he expressed a certain regret in being constrained by the UN bureaucracy and its definition of genocide, Méndez certainly communicated his understanding of his great power and responsibility to work through these logistical problems in an effective manner.

When he was finished speaking, Dr. Méndez invited questions from the audience. Asked to characterize the situation in Darfur, he said that, though he can not say whether there has been genocide in Sudan, there were certainly humanitarian crimes as serious as genocide and he is disappointed that the international community has paralyzed in discussing whether genocide had actually occurred; the evidence supporting the existence of humanitarian crimes is enough to compel action. The situation, he fears, could deteriorate easily, being dangerous for displaced persons. The African Union has not been able to prevent the escalation of fighting that was now endangering civilians. Decisive action, he said, was necessary to break the cycle of injustice through what he called “Smart Sanctions,” sanctions targeting individuals instead of general sanctions which tend to hurt the innocent. He spoke of an egregious problem with the position of women in Darfur, who were being raped on a large scale, forced to leave camps to find firewood. Police apathy as regards rape is dismal, and he stressed the need for female troops in the African Union’s forces. As to whether genocide occurred from structural conditions, Méndez agreed but qualified his statement by saying that structural conditions did not make genocide inevitable. Framing problems in such terms, he believed, made them seem too big to cope with, though cowardice and disinterest were also prominent reasons for inaction. Since quick action is of the utmost importance to fulfill his preventative function, he said it was necessary to think of these problems in terms of the immediate situation and to deal with justice and reconciliation as a part of nation building, in which the country itself dealt with its past through negotiations. He closed by saying that he feared the situation should worsen quickly because of the insufficient scale of efforts in Darfur; false impressions of stability, a lack of concern, perhaps partly because of the Tsunami disaster in South Asia, and the lack of incentive from the international community for the government of Sudan to change are some of his most serious concerns.

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