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Value of UN Genocide Convention questioned

A Bosnian Muslim at the memorial centre near Srebrenica, where as many as 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Serbs

(Keystone)

The effectiveness of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains unsatisfactory, according to experts at an international conference in Bern.

"Never again!" said the world after the atrocities committed by the Nazis, as a result of which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the UN Genocide Convention on December 9, 1948.

To mark the occasion, experts from around the world gathered in the Swiss capital on Monday to assess the possibilities and limits of this instrument of genocide prevention 60 years on.

Questions addressed at the conference, which was organised by the Society for Threatened Peoples, included: why have genocides occurred after 1948, for example in Rwanda? What role does the UN play in the prevention of genocide? How can genocide be prevented in the future? And what are the roles of states, the UN, civil society and other actors in the prevention of genocide?

Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold, president of the Society for Threatened Peoples, admitted with regret that the "never again" promise hadn't been kept.

"I've looked at the list of all the genocides of the past century. One just follows the other," she told swissinfo. "The international community has failed to prevent genocides, which is the main aim of the convention."

Vermot-Mangold, a former parliamentarian for the centre-left Social Democratic Party, cited the genocides and crimes that had elements of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Darfur.

Must be developed

So is the UN Genocide Convention nothing more than a scrap of paper?

"I wouldn't put it like that. I certainly believe the convention enables intervention in conflicts," she said.

"Mediation and peace initiatives with rebels, government and getting the various parties sitting round a table – the convention, despite everything, is still an instrument for that."

Vermot-Mangold added however that the convention must be developed and taken more seriously.

Juan E. Mendez, who served as a UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide from 2004-2007, was also in Bern and has a similar view: "The convention calls for the prevention of genocide, but it doesn't say how."

For the Argentinian lawyer, currently President of the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York, the following are vital: punishment of those responsible for genocide by the International Criminal Court (ICC); humanitarian aid and compensation for the victims, and the negotiation of peace between all parties.

Swiss role

Switzerland signed the UN Genocide Convention in 2000 and has since been legally bound and responsible for improving its effectiveness and significance.

Although Vermot-Mangold believes not all countries are doing enough in this respect, she praises Switzerland.

"We are very active in Darfur – and not just diplomatically," she said. "There are people acting as mediators and doing excellent work. Switzerland can do that as a small, neutral country – we have a lot of experience of that. This important work must be supported and recognised."

Creativity

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has pursued a policy of negotiating with all sides in a conflict – even with leaders who it is known have committed crimes against humanity.

Carla Del Ponte, the Swiss lawyer who was previously chief prosecutor of two UN international criminal law tribunals, had a completely different view – arrest now, talk later.

Vermot-Mangold backs Calmy-Rey's policy, citing an example from Darfur. There, she said, women's organisations talk with offenders' mothers to try to get them to talk some sense into their sons.

"Various ideas and creativity are needed in conflicts to have a conciliatory effect and to stop genocide," she said.

"The UN Genocide Convention can be an instrument for that."

swissinfo, based on an article in German by Jean-Michel Berthoud

The Society for Threatened Peoples (STP)

The STP is an international human rights organisation advocating for ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples who are threatened by genocide, displacement, persecution or discrimination.

The STP documents these human rights violations, informs the public and represents the interests of the oppressed groups with authorities and politicians.

The STP works together with the international community and has a consultative status at the UN and the Council of Europe.

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Conflicts

Just over five years since war broke out in Darfur, the situation remains grim. Peace talks have failed to get off the ground, only 9,000 of the 26,000-strong hybrid United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission have been deployed and two-thirds of the region's population are dependent on the world's largest aid operation.

The conflict, which has claimed over 200,000 lives and displaced 2.5 million people in Sudan and 400,000 into Chad, has become more complex and seems to have entered a new phase.

The unrest in eastern Congo has been fuelled by festering hatreds left over from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which half a million Tutsis were slaughtered. More than a million Hutu extremists fled to Congo where they regrouped in a militia that helps fuel the continuing conflict in Congo.

Laurent Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi and former general, quit the army several years ago, claiming the government of President Joseph Kabila was not doing enough to protect minority Tutsis from the Hutu extremists.

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