Twenty-two years ago today – November 4, 1988 – the 40-year Senate battle over the ratification of the United Nations’ Genocide Convention culminated in the signing of the Proxmire Act by President Ronald Reagan at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. The Proxmire Act, officially the Genocide Convention Implementation Act of 1987, bound the United States to the provisions of the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. As a non-self-executing treaty, the passage of implementing legislation was required even after the Senate voted to ratify the convention in 1986.
Senator William Proxmire (D-WI), for whom the act is named, was an ardent proponent of ratifying the convention. In 1967, Proxmire vowed to deliver a speech each day on the Senate floor until ratification was achieved. Calling the Senate’s failure “a national shame,” Proxmire presented a total of 3,211 speeches over 19 years. The convention’s ratification and subsequent passage of implementing legislation was a hard fought victory for many of the human rights upstanders like Proxmire, who overcame opposition from those fearful of its implications for civil rights, those worried about its potential to tread on national sovereignty, and those concerned about its effect on the U.S.’s execution of the Vietnam War, It marked a symbolic moment for American foreign affairs and solidified American commitment to the pursuit of human rights.
Denoting the United States’ commitment to the ‘never again’ mantra, the legislation provided an important foundation for activists working to end genocide throughout the world. However, as history has shown, the Genocide Convention has done little to push states to prevent or stop instances of genocide. In the years following its implementation in the United States, 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda, and in Bosnia hundreds of thousands more perished. During these tragedies, the U.S. government seemed to be more preoccupied with avoiding labeling the violence genocide – and thus triggering its obligation to respond – than actually preventing deaths. On one notorious occasion in April 1994, spokeswoman for the State Department Christine Shelly, floundered when asked if the violence in Rwanda constituted genocide. She skirted the question saying that “acts of genocide” were occurring, but was unable to answer how many “acts of genocide” constituted genocide.
In contrast to these earlier instances of inaction and convoluted messaging, in 2005 Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the Government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility.” The toll of 300,000 dead and the displacement of nearly 4 million civilians had finally prompted the U.S. government to take a firm stance in the face of genocide.
However, five years after Powell’s genocide declaration and the U.S.’s subsequent obligation to act under the Genocide Convention and the Proxmire Act, the situation in Darfur is still unstable. With the January 9 referendum in South Sudan quickly approaching, and the international community’s demonstrated inability to multitask, it’s likely that Darfur will be overlooked. In addition, the top U.S. intelligence chief earlier this year identified South Sudan as the place where “new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur.”
However, in order to ensure a real and lasting peace in Sudan, attention must remain on Darfur, on the North-South dynamic, and increasingly on inter-South tensions.
The Proxmire Act bound the United States to the U.N.’s Genocide Convention and charged it with “preventing and punishing” genocide. It is encouraging to see that the Obama administration is alert to these early warning signs for potential violence and has ramped up its engagement in Sudan. But the risk of violence will by no means subside once the historic referendum has come and gone. In fact, the potential for mass violence may even escalate once the vote is finished, outside attention to Sudan fades, and the country comes to grips with its post-referendum circumstances. The U.S. and other international actors will need to remain vigilant for many months and years to come.
Photo: A survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda prays over the bones of victims. (AP/Sayyid Azim)