Washington, 11 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The international community must transcend political, cultural and economic differences to stimulate worldwide action to prevent and combat acts of genocide and other crimes against humanity.
This was the conclusion reached Thursday by the participants of a three-day conference on genocide held in Washington. The conference, entitled "Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity: Early Warning and Prevention," marked the 50th anniversary of the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was sponsored by the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and featured scholars, government officials, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists from around the world.
Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, spoke at the conference on Tuesday, saying that it was no coincidence that 1998 marks the 50th anniversary of two of the most important international documents in the world.
Robinson said: "Fifty years ago, the international community realized that human rights have to be fully respected, protected, promoted and implemented if we are going to ensure that genocide shall never again be allowed to happen."
But she also said that the last 50 years have shown that the realization and recognition of genocide has not been enough to prevent it. She said that what the world needs now is the firm political support of all governments to heed early warning signals and take concrete preventative action to stop horrific crimes against humanity.
Robinson stressed the need for nations to provide human rights education.
She explained: "If carried out effectively, (such education) can help foster a human rights culture that enhances the sensitivity on the part of all peoples and all individuals around the world."
Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, President of the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague for the Former Yugoslavia, also spoke at the conference. She said the creation of the Tribunal in 1993 was "one of the most important developments" in international law.
But she warned that in order for the Tribunal to be effective, it must have the unequivocal support of the nations that founded it.
McDonald said: "The importance of the Tribunal lies in creating conditions in which it can develop. But we cannot do that without the willing assistance of the members of the international community."
She said the international community needs to fulfill two major conditions in order to make the Tribunal effective.
First, she said the Tribunal needs to grow, and the states which created it need to fund that growth accordingly.
Second, she said that absent any territorial or enforcement agency, it is the states that must imprison the people that the Tribunal convicts; protect those witnesses at risk; provide evidence and investigatory assistance; and arrest the accused.
McDonald said that currently the Tribunal's activities have been hampered by the fact that the government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is still refusing to allow the Tribunal's prosecutor access to Kosovo to investigate alleged violations of international humanitarian law.
McDonald said: "Those responsible for alleged killings, rape and other torture, destruction of property and other offenses must be identified and prosecuted. This Tribunal has been given authority to carry out this task....yet eight months later, the prosecutor remains unable to do her job."
David Scheffer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, told the conference that while it was easy to determine what constitutes crimes of genocide in retrospect, it is a complicated and often difficult process to recognize them while they are in progress.
Scheffer explained: "The U.S. hesitated in 1992 during the worst atrocities in the Bosnian conflict. From 1993 to 1995, we encountered many obstacles to acting decisively in Bosnia. In the meantime, tens of thousands of civilians perished, including at Srebrenica."
He said the "agony" that preceded the U.S.-led Dayton peace agreement of 1995 must serve as a lesson for the future. But he added that while the U.S. intends to do all it can to prevent and combat genocide in the future, it is impossible and unrealistic to promise an effective or immediate response in every case.
Scheffer said there is no single nor correct approach to the "complex madness of atrocities." He said all responsible governments must weigh media and eyewitness accounts with intelligence, diplomatic observations and reports from human rights organizations.
He also warned that genocide is an international problem and the U.S. is "not prepared to combat genocide alone," unless American national security or other critical concerns are at stake.
Scheffer concluded: "This is a challenge for all nations. We must improve the international community's capability to react multi-nationally and rapidly to these crimes."