The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

Reflecting on the Legacy and Limitations of the UN Genocide Convention & Universal Declaration of Human Rights 75 Years Later

December 9th and 10th mark the 75 years since the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, respectively.  Born in the aftermath of the Holocaust and shaped by the work of scholars and activists who had bravely resisted its atrocities, these documents marked an important shift in the international system by suggesting that the countries could have obligations beyond their own security goals.  They formally recognized a sense of shared humanity which entitled all people to basic rights and created language to describe and mechanisms to oppose their violation.  These concepts have shaped international movements in support of human rights and shaped the tools these movements used to mobilize institutional power against atrocities.   That legacy is fundamental to the work STAND does, and it is worth commemorating.  However, that is only half the story.

The international community has not lived up to the principles of the Genocide Convention or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and this shortcoming cannot just be explained away by unfortunate circumstances, lack of power, or even errors in resistance tactics.  Despite the ostensible universality of the principles these documents put forth, they have been applied differently to different groups of people, with distinctions informed by geopolitical power and historical systems of oppression.

The history of UN interventions is rife with inconsistencies.  There were UN peacekeepers in both Rwanda and Bosnia when their genocides occurred in the 1990s.  In Rwanda, peacekeepers were instructed to focus solely on their original mission of monitoring elections so as not to intervene in a domestic conflict.  The questions of peacekeepers’ safety and the limits of national sovereignty which were posed here merit discussion.  However, inisting peacekeepers stand idly by while a genocide was committed was fundamentally inconsistent with the UN mission’s initial goal of protecting democracy and with the UN human rights framework.

In Bosnia, the peacekeepers were stationed in the town of Srebrenica with the explicit goal of protecting Bosnian Muslims from the Bosnian Serb military.  However, when the military actually advanced on the town, peacekeepers were ordered to stand down for fear that they were militarily outmatched and that resistance could jeopardize peace negotiations.  In doing so, the UN facilitated the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys.  The bridge from the theoretical commitment to “never again” to implementation, especially when it requires sacrifice, has been difficult, even in cases that the UN has recognized as genocide.

Its decisions of whether or not to actually recognize events as genocide have presented even more oversights, often motivated by the position of the United States.  As a primary architect of the UN and an emerging superpower at the time of its founding, the US has long held disproportionate influence in the institution, even as compared to its fellow permanent members of the UN Security Council.  It also did not ratify the Genocide Convention until 40 years after its adoption, in 1988, which placed serious limitations on the UN’s ability and interest in actually enforcing the convention.  Throughout the Cold War, the US installed and aided regimes around the world (e.g. Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Iran, etc.) that violated the human rights of their citizens, including through political repression, forced disappearances, sexual violence, torture, and more.  When, for example, Guatemala sought recourse for violations of their right to self-determination (as per Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the US and its allies blocked such action.  This type of action was not an isolated incident.

Two notable incidents cast serious doubt on the US’s commitment to the principles of the Genocide Convention, even after it was ratified.  During the early 1980s, the US supported the genocide of Indigneous Mayans in Guatemala.  President Reagan notoriously stated that General Efrain Rios Montt, whose regime had systematically targeted and destroyed Mayan villages and ordered mass killings, had gotten a “bum rap.”  The US worked closely with the Guatemalan government using the justification that it was a necessary measure to defend against violent radical communists, as many Guatemalan leftists were Indigenous.  Then, in 1988, Saddam Hussein carried out his brutal Anfal campaign inflicting extreme violence against the Kurdish population in Iraq, including through the use of chemical weapons.  The US continued to support the regime during this time due to its ongoing war against Iran.  When the US ratified the Genocide Convention only 5 years after the formal end of the genocide in Guatemala and a matter of months after the official end of the Anfal, without so much as an acknowledgement of its actions, it was a sign that its commitment to the document’s principles would be selective at best.

This has proven true over the past 35 years, and even when UN officials have disagreed with the US, they have never actually stopped the US from its actions.  For example, over the past several years, STAND has advocated against active US participation in atrocities in Yemen and domestically.  In 2020, the UN recognized police brutality against Black Americans as a “crime against humanity,” but that was where global pressure stopped.  These examples are by no means comprehensive or an indication of relative importance, but are meant to highlight the enduring limitations of an ostensible global commitment to the ideals of human rights.  Despite their many failures, the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have persisted in foreign policy discussions because they represent an ideal to which people still want to commit, even as the world has faltered.  Their legacy then, is not a global victory of good over evil, but an invitation for us all to continue fighting for our collective humanity and to reflect on our own actions in the context of these principles.