People's failure to respond when atrocities occur is rooted in a fear of losing their own humanity when confronting evil, a former judge of the International Criminal Court has suggested.
Judge Maureen Harding Clark said the reason people turned away from appalling attacks such as the Rwandan genocide may lie in a fear of the evil created by the hatred involved, in particular the "chilling ordinariness" of the lives of those carrying out the attacks.
Speaking yesterday at a seminar to mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide, Judge Clark said the international community did rebuilding much better than prevention. People tried to reduce their fear of dealing with atrocities by building “tiny pockets of humanity”.
Schindler’s list , or the work of individual UN workers, priests or doctors were “little islands of compassion” that people latched on to in a bid to engender the belief that “we are not animals, that we’re better than that”.
Passage of time
Judge Clark said it was an "odd feature" of humanity that the greater the distance in time from an appalling atrocity, the more likely people were to talk about it. The propensity of people to discuss past horrors from a distance raised questions for the international community. For example, was the passage of time a mechanism by which blame was dissipated?
In the case of Rwanda, the "easy answer" blamed colonial policy and "glib" assertions about the creation of a Tutsi elite, which had the effect of distancing blame further into the past.
However, this did not and could not explain the “merciless and systematic” killing of one million people. It ignored the advance planning and preparation that went into the genocide and it failed to explain why no one stopped the Interahamwe militias who carried out most of the killing. It also failed to explain why the bulk of peacekeepers were removed.
“The international community doesn’t do collective blame, even though individual world leaders are queueing up to say they are sorry.”
No action taken
Even though the events preceding the genocide were fully reported, no action was taken, she said. Radio Mille Collines, which urged people to join in the killing in its broadcasts, was not closed down and no attempt was made to stop the dissemination of hate information.
She said it remained to be seen whether the International Criminal Court would succeed in deterring crimes of genocide. However, impunity was “no longer a given”.
Minister of State for Trade and Development Joe Costello told the conference the Government was committed to continue learning the lessons of the 1994 genocide to strengthen the global response to humanitarian crises. It had learned that development efforts needed to focus on fragile states and situations. The humanitarian response system needed to be strengthened, and protection and gender-based violence had to be prioritised.
“Irish Aid has comprehensively reformed its internal mechanisms in order to better respond to emergencies,” Mr Costello said.