Young displaced Iraqis wait for food distribution at a camp on the outskirts of Erbil. –Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Threats of Genocide Loom Around the Globe

Sixty-eight years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in response to the cataclysmic loss of life in the Holocaust. We recognize that genocide is a rare occurrence. Yet today it is occurring or threatened from Africa to Asia and the Middle East. In northern Iraq, under the self-proclaimed Islamic State genocide is ongoing, while in Burma and South Sudan populations are at imminent risk of group-targeted violence becoming genocide. In Syria, civilians in besieged eastern Aleppo are threatened with total annihilation. These threats demand a renewed commitment to matching words with concrete actions to confront these genocidal threats.

“After World War II, the international community made a commitment to prevent genocide, yet, we continue to fail to heed the lessons of this tragic history,” said Michael Chertoff, chairman of the Museum’s Committee on Conscience. “We are painfully aware of the dire costs of inaction — the consequences of failing to respond early to warning signs or to halt atrocities ultimately undermines our safety and security at home.”

Residents talk outside their tents at a displaced persons camp in Dohuk, Iraq. — Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

At a moment of leadership transition in the United States, parts of Europe, and at the United Nations, the international community must recognize not only these very real threats, but also the dramatic side effects of our failure to address them. We are less safe and the world less secure when millions are violently driven from their homes, when terrorist groups arise in ungoverned spaces, and when innocent civilians are slaughtered.

“Atrocity prevention, if it ever is to be truly realized, must be coordinated among nations and elevated in our policymaking on a par with mutually reinforcing agendas aimed at advancing democratic governance, promoting respect for human rights, combating violent extremism, and countering terrorism,” said Cameron Hudson, director of the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

In March, Secretary of State John Kerry determined that the Islamic State (IS) had perpetrated genocide against religious minorities in Iraq. Yet today, genocide there is ongoing, as an estimated 2,300 Yezidi women and girls are still being held in captivity by IS. If renewed steps are not taken to protect civilians, document the crimes committed, hold accountable those responsible, and prevent future violence, civilians will continue to face violence violence by IS and the use of the genocide label — wherever it is next applied — will have little meaningful or enduring effect.

A Rohingya man looks through a gate in a displaced persons camp outside the town of Sittwe, Rakhine State. –Courtesy of Paula Bronstein Getty Images Reportage for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

In Burma, following an attack on police officers in early October, the country’s military has stepped up a brutal campaign against Rohingya civilians, a Muslim minority in the country’s far west. Witnesses have shared reports of the military firing upon civilians — including from helicopter gunships, raping women, burning villages, and forcing people to flee their homes. Humanitarian assistance has been cut off to areas of northern Rakhine State, whose population is mostly Rohingya, leaving tens of thousands without lifesaving aid and possibly triggering a new humanitarian crisis. This violence was predictable and preventable. For decades, Rohingya have been stripped of citizenship, have faced significant obstacles to basic rights such as freedom of movement, and have been subjected to dehumanizing hate speech.

In recent weeks, state media has referred to Rohingya as “detestable human fleas” and a “thorn…that has to be removed.” Based on reports of collective punishment, increased restrictions on humanitarian assistance, and the intransigence of Burma’s leaders to effectively address crimes against Rohingya lead us to warn, we fear that genocide could be unfolding against Rohingya in Rakhine State.

If left unchecked by the international community, genocide could occur in South Sudan in the coming months. –Lucian Perkins for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

In South Sudan, too, the risk of genocide is alarming. For the past three years, South Sudanese civilians have suffered murder, rape, abductions, torture, and other crimes against humanity perpetrated by members of the military, rebel factions, and ethnic militia aligned with both sides. Political elites have exploited ethnic divisions to turn communities against one another for personal political gain. As a result, tens of thousands have been killed, more than 2 million have been displaced, and more than 4.8 million are facing famine conditions.

Since renewed fighting in July 2016, there has been a rise in state-sponsored hate speech and renewed mobilization of militia along ethnic lines. According to the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, “there is already a steady process of ethnic cleansing underway in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape, and the burning of villages.” If left unchecked by the international community, genocide could occur in the coming months as the dry season enables an increase in fighting throughout in the world’s newest country.

The Syrian regime has targeted its own people for more than five years. More than 400,000 Syrians have been killed. The White Helmets believe that by saving one life they save all of humanity.

In Syria, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and governments directly aiding him, notably Russia and Iran, have escalated their attacks on civilian areas and infrastructure, specifically in In Aleppo, where 250,000 civilians are currently at dire risk of annihilation. Since 2011, more than 400,000 Syrians have been killed and more than half the population of 22 million has been displaced as a result of the brutal crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated by their government.

Today, innocent men, women and children in Aleppo are facing the heaviest bombing to date, according to the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator. Adding to the misery, there remain no functioning hospitals in Aleppo for the sick and wounded and food stocks are dangerously low, suggesting that if the bombing doesn’t kill people, starvation or exposure will. Yet despite these extreme conditions, there are worrying signs the situation for trapped civilians could worsen. Leaflets recently dropped by the government and their allies warn civilians: “This is your last hope….Save yourselves. If you do not leave these areas urgently, you will be annihilated.” It ends: “You know that everyone has given up on you. They left you alone to face your doom and nobody will give you any help.”

The Museum’s founding chairman, the late Elie Wiesel, admonished us that, “A destruction that only man can provoke, only man can prevent.” In that spirit, the incoming US administration, the new UN secretary-general, and leaders in Europe and other parts of the international community should urgently confront the genocidal threats in Iraq, Burma, South Sudan, and Syria. Doing so requires sustaining and reinforcing efforts to institutionalize genocide prevention efforts within the United States and allied nations and broadening the toolkit available to these governments to take preventive action.

The consequences of failing to do so are clear — the loss of innumerable innocent lives to preventable atrocities, massive population displacement, destabilization of entire regions, economic devastation, and the further rise of extremism and terrorism.

“We face a moment of considerable global change, where, sadly, state and non-state actors around the world feel unconstrained in brazenly targeting groups of civilians for destruction,” noted Tom Bernstein, chairman of the Museum’s governing council. “For the sake of the past and for our own future, we have a duty to respond before the vow of ‘Never Again’ is once again betrayed.”

A living memorial to the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. Its far-reaching educational programs and global impact are made possible by generous donors. Learn more at ushmm.org.