NEVER AGAIN MUST THE WORLD CLOSE ITS EYES TO GENOCIDE

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Dear Fellow South African,

Thirty years ago, in the space of just a hundred days, one of the worst mass murders in recent times happened on African soil.

Approximately 1 million men, women and children were slaughtered within a period of 100 days in Rwanda in an orchestrated campaign of violence that involved organs of state, civilians, militias, the local media and even churches.

The Rwandan genocide was one of the darkest chapters in human history. It
was an atrocity that unfolded as the world looked on and failed to act. There was little intervention from the international community.

Despite a warning from the head of the United Nations deployment stationed in Rwanda at the time that a mass extermination of Rwandan Tutsi people was imminent, the UN peacekeepers failed to prevent the killings, arguing that their mandate was limited and that they lacked authority to intervene.

Instead, the peacekeepers were ordered to focus on evacuating expatriates desperate to flee the country.

The first big massacre of the genocide was at a school in the capital, Kigali, which was being guarded by UN peacekeepers. Just hours after the UN troops withdrew, the feared Interahamwe militias stormed the school and killed 2,000 people who had sought shelter there hoping the UN would protect them.

Several western countries, some of which had a presence in Rwanda at the time, would later say they were not aware of the extent of the killings. Thirty years later, no country or international body can any longer say ‘we didn’t know’ and use that claim as justification for a failure to act.

The advent of 24 hour news, the proliferation of social and community media and the speed with which information is disseminated in the digital age makes it nearly impossible for mass atrocities to occur under conditions of secrecy.

At the numerous Rwandan genocide 30th commemoration memorials, one finds the words ‘Never Again’.

This phrase, ‘Never Again’, also appears on memorials to the Nazi holocaust, and is evoked as a reminder to the world of the horrors perpetrated by humankind and of the collective responsibility we share to ensure that this dark history does not repeat itself.

The holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has called the phrase “a prayer, a promise, a vow, never again the glorification of base, ugly, dark violence”.

It is because of our stated commitment to never again allow atrocities of this kind, that the world cannot stand idly by as another genocide is carried out, this time against the people of Palestine in the besieged Gaza Strip.

Nobody can claim ignorance about what is happening in Gaza, because, unlike in Rwanda in 1994, these atrocities are being televised, written about, tweeted and live streamed.

It is now close to six months since Israel unleashed a campaign of violence on the people of Gaza in response to the atrocities committed by Hamas.

More than 32,000 Gazans have been killed. According to the UN Children’s Fund, approximately 13,000 of these casualties are children. Civilians, non-combatants, women, persons with disabilities, journalists and even aid workers have been spared.

Late last year, South Africa instituted proceedings against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague for violating its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, with respect to its actions in Gaza.

The International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the UN, pronounced on a set of provisional measures that Israel should take to prevent the commission of all acts falling within the scope of the Genocide Convention. The Court directed Israel, among other things, to ensure that its military does not commit such acts, to prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to commit genocide, and to enable the provision of urgently needed basic service and humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza.

In clear defiance of this legally-binding order, Israel has intensified its violence against the residents of Gaza. These people are now also facing starvation and famine as the delivery of aid continues to be disrupted, including the killing of humanitarian and aid-workers.

Last week, the ICJ issued additional measures, ordering Israel to take the necessary and effective measures to ensure ‘unhindered provision at scale’ of basic services and humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza. The Court accepted South Africa’s argument that, contrary to what Israel claimed, the UN agencies are not being assisted to get aid flowing into Gaza.

The court also ordered Israel to ‘ensure with immediate effect that its military does not commit acts which constitute a violation of any of the rights of the Palestinians in Gaza as a protected group’ under the Genocide Convention.

When the Rwandan genocide unfolded in 1994, the Genocide Convention had been in existence for nearly half a century, having been adopted in 1948 in the aftermath of the Second World War.

In spite of this, the atrocities in Rwanda didn’t just happen, but were allowed to happen in the face of callous indifference by the international community.

It was only several decades later that a number of these ‘bystanders to the genocide’ apologised for failing to act as the killings happened. As they were for the families of those who perished in the Rwandan genocide, for today’s genocide victims, apologies are too little, too late.

It should never be, and must never be, that atrocities, gross human rights violations and genocide should somehow carry less weight because of the race, ethnicity or religious affiliation of the victims.

We owe it to the victims of all the world’s genocides to not betray their memories by looking away, by failing to act, or worst of all, by claiming we didn’t know.

The terrible events in Rwanda in 1994 took place in the year we as South Africans attained our freedom.

We are ever mindful that with that freedom comes a responsibility to work for peace, justice and human rights everywhere. It is a duty and a standard we will continuously strive to uphold, not just for ourselves but for all peoples, everywhere.

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