Say ‘never again’ — and mean it

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said on Monday the world had the capability but ”lacked the will” to prevent the mass slaughters of the 1990s, in opening remarks in Stockholm to the first international genocide conference in more than 50 years.

”There can be no more important issue, and no more binding obligation, than the prevention of genocide,” Annan told 10 heads of state and officials of dozens of nations gathered for the three-day conference hosted by Sweden.

The UN chief honed in on ”especially shameful” cases of the international community’s inaction, including ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

”The events of the 1990s, in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, are especially shameful. The international community clearly had the capacity to prevent these events. But it lacked the will,” Annan said.

He said those memories ”especially painful” for the UN.

”In Rwanda in 1994, and at Srebrenica in 1995, we had peacekeeping troops on the ground at the very place and time where genocidal acts were being committed,” he said. ”Instead of reinforcing our troops, we withdrew them.”

Annan himself has been criticised in the past for allegedly failing to act on warnings of impending mass killings in Rwanda in 1994, when he was head of UN peacekeeping operations while up to one million Tutsis and Hutu moderates were killed in an organised campaign by Hutu extremists.

Among the delegates at the Preventing Genocide conference, called by Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson, to discuss ways of acting against future genocide threats, are representatives from nations with experience of mass killings, including Armenia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Rwanda.

Sweden’s Persson, however, is the only western European leader attending the conference.

The conference is the first major inter-governmental conference focusing on genocide since the adoption of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, conference spokesperson Stig Berglind said ahead of the meeting.

Some governments sent justice ministers, whose portfolio include international law, and others have dispatched specialised academics and researchers.

The European Union is represented by foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

Security was tight in the centre of Stockholm as police cordoned off streets around the Norra Latin conference centre and put up barriers and tape to prevent cars from parking nearby.

Organisers stressed that the talks are to focus on the future, and will be based on ”the principle of the international community’s joint responsibility for preventing genocide”.

”’Never again’ must not become a mere incantation,” Persson said in a statement released ahead of the conference.

Israel, whose creation as a state followed genocide against Jews, is taking part in the conference. The country’s presence is, however, low-key, after it came near to cancelling altogether following a full-scale diplomatic controversy with host country Sweden over an art exhibit a week ago.

The conference closes on Wednesday, and organisers said they hoped for a final declaration and follow-up mechanisms and conferences. — Sapa-AFP

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