Rwanda and Sierra Leone: Confronting Crimes Against Humanity
In the glorious accounts of history books before the Cold War, information about wars and tragedies was often relayed vaguely and subjectively as tradition only recounts the experiences of the victor. However, succeeding the Cold War, the tables have been turned as countries are urged to be inclusive and objective of the major events that are happening around the world. This has been the case for most reports regarding crimes against humanity, which draws on more indefinite terms that the world has been unable to define. Furthermore, the disparity between disseminating information and appropriating action can be observed from the ways in which developed countries like the United States respond to or ignore issues of crimes against humanity, most notably genocide.
The concept of genocide is frequently debated in socio-political discussions ever since its established definition at the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Many wars and atrocities have occurred in impoverished developing nations which borders on genocide, yet most of the alliances that have the power to prevent or minimize these crimes don’t often intervene. Reasons behind the “hands-off attitude” of most of these countries stem from the fact that each has its own national interest to protect. In addition, the encompassing nature of humanitarian intervention and conflict prevention clashes with the sovereign power of a troubled state, creating uncertainty over which policy should be prioritized. Still, one cannot help but wonder; if international organizations and developed countries stand for equality and justice, why is it that when it comes to dealing with reality, they do not live what they preach?
The tyrannical Russian leader Joseph Stalin (1879 – 1953) once expressed that a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic and this speaks much about the millions of lives that have been lost in war-torn countries. The tragedies that occurred in Rwanda and Sierra Leone presents the inconsistencies of the international community to contain the growing violence within both countries because of the hesitation to get involved. Granted that not all tragic events labeled as genocides are stark black and white, the international community could have been more vigilant in upholding human rights (Power 9).
What took place in Rwanda in the 1994 conflict between the government and the Hutu-controlled army wasn’t just a mere civil conflict. It escalated into wiping out almost the entire Tutsi tribe. Prior to that, power struggles seemed to have emerged between the Hutu and the Tutsi as both groups wanted to seize control of the country. The assassination of the then President Habyarimana instigated the mass killings of some 500,000 Rwandans which went on for 100 days. There were countless more deaths after that until the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP) run by Tutsi refugees seized control of the area in Kigali (Uvin 75-99).
With regard to Sierra Leone, the conflict revolved around the 1991 rift between the Libyan backed Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel faction and the government supported All People’s Congress (APC). The tension intensified in 1999 as the RUF forces attacked the area of Freetown for a period of three weeks, carrying out rape, pillage and mutilation.
Much of the information associated with the conflict has something to do with the diamond mining industry as it has helped in fueling the conflict by trading in mined diamonds to fund the war, reeling in more arms and weapons for the warring groups. The conflict was also said to have involved child soldiers on the RUF side, as it captures and trains children to do the group’s bidding. An estimated 120,000 people were killed and thousands more mutilated in the on-going war for power, survival and diamonds. While the war in Sierra Leone doesn’t seem to fit the description of a typical genocide, the presence of numerous crimes against humanity presents a startling notion that civil wars may escalate into genocide (Hirsch 2-175).
The intervention of the international community through the UN Peacekeeper missions and the aid of international organizations such as the Red Cross, Oxfam and Amnesty International among others have only skimmed the surface of both conflicts since it did little to cease the war at the height of the conflict. In the case of Rwanda, the hesitation of the U.S. to intervene had been caused by its disastrous military operations in Somalia, which was neither vital nor important to U.S. national security interests. Limitations to what the U.S. could realistically accomplish were also considered as it cannot be the world’s policeman (Uvin 75-99).
As for Sierra Leone, the involvement of the British military under the auspices of the UN mandate were able to quell the conflict in due time and restore security to the affected areas. The presence of the British forces has reassured safety for the people of Sierra Leone as it pledged to oversee operations in the country for possible conflicts. Another solution that was developed to discourage the funding of the war was the establishment of the Kimberly Process which was a global consumer campaign against blood diamonds. The campaign inhibits the proliferation of diamonds obtained in war-torn countries through the international effort to certify the diamonds of those who are party to it. While the goal of the campaign and its corresponding statistics suggests that it is effective, the process still needs to be re-examined as it cannot seem to guarantee how it investigates the procedure of authentication (Hirsch 2-175).
Despite the differences in the response of the international communities to the two tragic events that eclipsed the 90’s, it is safe to say that the world is now wide awake and it is trying its best to come up with solutions on how to resolve similar conflicts. Today, most of the war criminals that spearheaded the conflict in both countries are now held accountable for it through the International Criminal Tribunal. There are several flaws to the ICT pointed out by humanists but one major drawback in this solution is the lack of funds to deliver the criminals to court since it does cost a lot of money (Robertson 211-230).
Based on the examination of the two countries presented in the paper, one would be able to denote that the international community has failed to prevent such atrocities because it has given much preference to supporting the sovereign power of each voting state rather than promote the value of international cooperation. Although it is understandable that most countries would only involve themselves in the civil conflicts of another country if its national interest is at stake, it should be the duty of every state to uphold what is stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights before anything else (Power 6-7).
Power was right in suggesting that citizens of every country should urge their governments to do something about issues that impinge on human rights as the problems of one country could escalate on an international scale. International cooperation should be the utmost motivation of every state that is in the position to intervene if necessary. Raising public awareness through campaigns and giving continuous support to organizations will help in steering governments to act immediately on such situations. (187).
Governments and international organizations should re-think their strategies in approaching such grave situations as their present efforts are not strong enough to withstand pressures of sovereignty. One of the ways to achieve this is to re-structure the goals and objectives of the United Nations, specifically the Security Council. The reason why the UN body has been unsuccessful in preventing such atrocities in the past is because the voting system is highly stratified and uncooperative. More often than not, two or more countries would not be in favor of any action debated upon in the General Assembly while many would decide to abstain. There’s no point in creating an international body that caters to keeping peace and order within the community if it does not follow through its core objectives, and only directs its actions on the narrow interests of a few countries. Changes implemented should foster cooperation instead of individualism in order to produce a continuous flow of support from countries that are in most need of its services. The UN was created for such atrocities and it should be in the interest of every member to uphold these principles.
Hirsch, John L. Sierra Leone: Diamonds and the Struggle for Democracy. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001. 2-175.
Power, Samantha. Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003. 4 – 611.
Richards, Paul .Sierra Leone. Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. Ed. Dinah L. Shelton. Michigan: Gale Cengage, 2005.
Robertson, Geoffrey. Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice. New York: New Press. 2007. 211-230.
Uvin, Peter. Reading the Rwandan Genocide. International Studies Review, Vol. 3, No. 3. Boston: Blackwell Publishing (The International Studies Association), 2001. 75-99. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3186243>