The 20th century has been described as the Century of Genocide. It opened in 1915 with the mass-killing of almost 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turkey, and its apotheosis was the extermination of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. The Nazi Final Solution was not an expression of residual pre-modern barbarity. It occurred in the heart of Western civilization and shook the blind confidence in modernity's promise of progress. In the wake of this unprecedented calamity, and thanks to the relentless efforts of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish jurist who lost his entire family in the Holocaust, the United Nations adopted the 1948 Genocide Convention and undertook to prevent and punish this odious scourge. But the vow to never again allow such horrors to happen lost all credibility as millions became victims of State-sponsored genocide, from the Biafran civil war in Nigeria, to Idi Amin's Uganda, and Mengistu's Ethiopia, from the killing fields of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, to the extermination of Mayan Indians by the Guatemalan military. The end of the Cold War brought with it a promise of a better future. But the euphoric delusion that we had arrived at the end of history was shattered by the horrors of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and the abominable 1994 Rwandan genocide which consumed the lives of almost 1 million in just three months. And while we remember and mourn all these tragedies, yet another genocide unfolds in the Darfur region of Sudan, in the opening years of the 21st century.
Genocide is not a natural disaster. It is not an earthquake or tsunami. Nor is it a spontaneous outburst of primordial hatred, or an inevitable, irreversible clash of civilizations. It is a deliberate political choice, a man-made disaster, instigated by ruthless leaders who use mass violence as an instrument of power. As such, it is a preventable phenomenon, and its prevention is an unavoidable moral challenge to us all. While genocide cannot be predicted with mathematical exactitude, there are indicia, warning signs, that foretell its possibility, and which provide an opportunity to arrest ethnic hate-mongering and violence before it escalates into an all-consuming cataclysm. There have also been efforts to integrate the concept of prevention into global institutions such as the appointment in 2004 of a UN Special Advisor on Prevention of Genocide, entrusted with the task of providing early warning of situations that may lead to such violence. The need for sustainable preemption of mass violence is only magnified by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in an age of global terrorism and the manifest failures of hegemonic militant survivalism as a response. In an inextricably interdependent and volatile world, a policy and cultural focus on human rights is not an expression of naive idealism but rather, the only realistic basis for global governance and long-term stability.
The Global Conference on Prevention of Genocide, made possible by the generous support of the Penny and Gordon Echenberg Family Foundation, and organized by the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism and the McGill University Faculty of Law, is a response to the urgent challenge confronting our generation. It aims to bring together eminent intellectual, political, and civil society leaders from the four corners of the planet, in an effort to explore means of preventing genocidal violence, rather than focusing on intervention after the fact. The Conference is intended as a platform not only for informed dialogue and academic exchange on pressing issues, but also for a broader engagement with a view to shaping public debate and policy, and building networks of solidarity and cooperation among a broad range of actors dedicated to progressive change.
Our transformation from sanctimonious bystanders to fully engaged global citizens requires not only knowledge from academic disciplines and policy-makers. It requires above all a passionate and selfless commitment to humanity, a profound empathy that alone can induce the will to struggle for justice in the face of radical evil. That is why the Conference, beyond bringing together those with expertise, also brings together survivors who can provide us with an intimate glimpse of the horrors of genocide from the perspective of those most affected, and of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of the unspeakable; a resilience that most forcefully demonstrates our inherent dignity as human beings. It is befitting that the opening ceremony of this Conference will give prominence to the voice of survivors, Jewish and Roma witnesses to the Holocaust, a Cambodian that suffered the Khmer Rouge, and a Rwandan that miraculously escaped the génocidaires. It is my hope that the urgency of these stories, the earnestness of these voices, will inspire concerted action, not least by participants in the International Forum for Young Leaders, and that beyond learning and reflection, the Conference will become the crucible for a worldwide network of committed future leaders.
Having served with the United Nations in places as diverse as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Guatemala, and Rwanda, I have witnessed the depth of cruelty that human beings are capable of. But I have also seen the power of human nobility and the immense power of the struggle for justice. As Edmund Burke so aptly said, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. I am greatly honoured to serve as the Chair of this Conference, but more than anything, I feel that it is the sacred duty of each and every one of us, however limited our capacity or means, to unite and make our contribution to this urgent and worthy cause.
Payam Akhavan, S.J.D.
Chair, Global Conference on the Prevention of Genocide