We can stop killings before they happen

The discovery of mass graves in Burundi shows how close we are to the brink.

Wednesday March 9 2016

Neglected Genocide memorial sites in Rwanda. PHOTO| CYRIL NDEGEYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Neglected Genocide memorial sites in Rwanda. PHOTO| CYRIL NDEGEYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By GREGORY H. STANTON

I have spent a lifetime working on the study of genocide and what causes it. Remember Rwanda and 100 days in 1994 that left more than 800,000 dead and the world in shock?

There have been many other genocides: Biafra in the 1960s when over one million died in Nigeria, or when Siad Barre’s army machine-gunned people in what is now Somaliland.

And here is the tragedy. Whether it is Adolf Hitler killing six million Jews or Stalin and Mao, who between them slaughtered 20 times that number, or Robert Mugabe and the Gukurahundi massacres in southern Zimbabwe in the 1980s, the threat of genocide was there long before anyone had died… and nothing was done to stop it.

In East Africa today I see those signs. And Kenya, as one of the continent’s great powers, should sound the alarm.

 The discovery of mass graves in Burundi shows how close we are to the brink. But it is also a garland of shame around the African Union, which has only talked when warnings have been around for months, if not years. The jump from violence to full-on genocide happens very fast and, like a bush fire, once started it can be hard to contain.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram has murdered thousands. In Libya, Isis is establishing strongholds just across the Mediterranean from Europe.

The government of Sudan has killed over three million of its own people and continues genocides in Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan. South Sudan is gripped by a civil war that could see thousands more lives sacrificed on the altar of political power.

So, how do we make sure there is no return to the horror of Rwanda? First is to look for warning signs. Like cancer, the earlier you intervene, the better your chances of stopping it.

Diplomacy and economic pressure are the first resort. But diplomacy has to be backed by genuine willingness to intervene with regional force if it fails.

RISING TENSIONS

When the East African bloc of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania speak in unison, it is not just the AU that listens, but the Commonwealth and the United Nations.

Forget the so-called “non-interference in domestic affairs”, so loved by dictators. This is irrelevant when lives are at risk and even the AU Charter rejects it.

In Africa, the former colonisers have a role, along with China as a trade partner and the United States as the largest supplier of aid.

Our greatest opportunity may be on the Horn of Africa. Just last week Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta and Yoweri Museveni joined leaders at a meeting of the African Mission in Somalia in the capital of Djibouti, but rising tensions in that country were not on the agenda.

Just a few days before Christmas, troops loyal to President Ismaïl Guelleh gunned down civilians in the capital.  Elections are due next month. Political space is almost non-existent. Torture and beatings are standard and there is every sign we could face the kind of instability in Djibouti that leads to chaos.

As an American, I am ashamed to say my country has been silent on all this, perhaps because the US has its only military base in Africa near the capital, Djibouti City. From there we fly drones in the war against Al-Shabaab, a battle where Kenya is our staunch ally, but that does not mean we should ignore the suffering of people in Djibouti.

South Sudan is a big place with a difficult history and it will take a lot of work to end the war. Same in eastern DRC. But Burundi and Djibouti are both countries where obstacles to peace could be overcome. The problem is all about unpopular presidents refusing to step down.

Freedom and democracy are not about being in power. They only mean something when the governing party shows that it is not afraid to spend a few years in opposition, regrouping and putting up a better show at the next election.

All too often, the response of a tyrant is to over-react, to hold onto power at all costs and, in the wake of this rigidity, violence, war and, ultimately, genocide destroy the country.

We lament massacres in their aftermath, but not in the lead up when something could have been done. Well, here we are, with the red flag of danger flying high in Burundi, and flapping to a softer but equally menacing breeze in Djibouti. History will not forgive us if we look away from those still at risk or in chains.

Dr Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch, is an anthropologist and professor of law. He wrote the UN resolutions that created the Rwanda Tribunal.

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