by Gustavo Capdevila
(IPS) GENEVA -- Governments do not usually welcome visits from United Nations special rapporteurs on human rights. But what they really fear is a call from the Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Juan Mendez.
Mendez has only visited the east African nation of Sudan since UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan made him his special advisor on the question of genocide last August. And on that occasion, he joined a UN mission led by High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour.
Since then, Mendez's concern has focused on the case of Darfur, the western region of Sudan shaken over the past two years by violence that claimed the lives of around 300,000 members of black ethnic groups in that area.
In an interview with IPS, the UN official discussed the situation in Darfur as well as other aspects of his job.
IPS: What is your evaluation of the situation in Sudan?
JUAN MENDEZ: I think it's getting worse. Since September the threat has grown for those displaced by the violence, and there is a greater danger of massive attacks. The military presence of the African Union (AU) has increased, but the local forces that are fighting are getting used to the presence of foreign troops, and are largely able to avoid them. In some cases they have even attacked them.
There have also been attacks on aid workers from humanitarian groups, which is bad enough in and of itself, besides giving rise to the possibility that humanitarian workers could withdraw and leave the people they are helping at even greater risk.
I believe this is a very important time for making decisions, because if we fail to curb the spread of violence, another catastrophe in Darfur could occur, as serious as the one the region suffered from mid-2003 to early 2004, and with unpredictable consequences.
IPS: Have you classified the situation in Darfur as a case of genocide?
JM: No, because my task is prevention. It is not up to me to decide on definitions. I am to act when I observe a situation that can lead to genocide if something is not done. If I were to classify the situation as genocide, that means I have arrived too late.
Besides, the task of determining whether or not what is occurring in Darfur amounts to genocide was assigned by the UN Security Council to an international commission of inquiry.
IPS: Are you in favour of a military intervention in that region?
JM: Despite the gravity of what I have seen, I'm not convinced that a non-consensual military intervention will improve things. On the contrary, it could make them much worse.
I do believe that in some cases the only solution is to send troops. But it must be a last resort, and the possible consequences must be gauged.
IPS: Have you recently focused on Nepal?
JM: We have been observing the situation and analyzing events, without taking public or private actions. The case of Nepal reveals that it is not clear whether my mandate allows me to act when the violence is not related to ethnic, religious or racial questions, but is merely ideological.
IPS: What about the Genocide Convention?
JM: The definition of genocide in the 1948 Convention does not specifically exclude violence generated by ideological or political causes, but it doesn't include it either.
Apparently, when that international treaty was negotiated, (Soviet Union leader) Stalin opposed proposals to include what can now be called "politicide," and to reach a consensus, the definition was limited to situations in which the group at risk of suffering genocide was in danger because of questions of race, religion or national origin, but not political or ideological identity.
IPS: Is there any recent case of "politicide?"
JM: The case of Cambodia, which under the Convention's strict definition did not amount to genocide. I mean the killings of around one million Cambodians by the Pol Pot regime in 1978.
That is why I feel a moral responsibility to not be extremely tied to an overly technical definition of genocide. If something like what happened in Cambodia were to occur and a year went by while we decided whether political persecution amounted to genocide, and one million people died, I think I would have failed in my job.
I don't mean we should ignore the Convention, because it's the instrument that we all agree on. But I do believe that since the task is one of prevention, you have to act even before all of the elements of the definition fall into place.
IPS: Are there legal precedents on classifying "politicide" as genocide?
JM: Yes, there is a ruling by the "Audiencia Nacional," Spain's highest court, after it heard an appeal against the order for the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet issued by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garz—n.
A prosecutor had appealed, and the Audiencia Nacional upheld the arrest warrant, ruling that the charges that Garzon could bring against Pinochet included genocide. And he said the concept of genocide had evolved and now included "politicide."
That is clearly an emerging viewpoint, an important precedent in Spanish law.
But in Britain, when the House of Lords decided to extradite Pinochet to Spain (the decision was later overruled by Home Secretary Jack Straw), it denied extradition on the grounds of genocide, on the argument that British law had not evolved in that direction yet.
Another case is a 1971 episode in which the Mexican government ordered the security forces to open fire on a group of student demonstrators. Luis Echeverria, who later became president, was interior minister at the time.
The special prosecutor named by current President Vicente Fox to investigate the case accused of Echeverria of genocide, arguing that "students" are a social group entitled to protection under the definition of genocide. But the courts rejected that argument, and the case has been appealed to the Supreme Court.
According to the special prosecutor, the definition of genocide has also evolved in Mexico.
IPS: Why do you say that what occurred in Argentina during the 1976-1983 dictatorship was not genocide?
JM: For the same reason, because the definition of the enemy to be eliminated was political, not racial or religious. I don't mean it shouldn't be considered genocide. I mean that under the definition of the 1948 international Convention, it would not be classified as such because it was motivated by purely political or ideological reasons.
IPS: In recent weeks, some international organizations have mentioned the possibility of a case of genocide in Laos.
JM: This business about Laos refers to the Hmong hill tribe. The Hmong are historically enemies of the Laotian government, because they cooperated closely with the CIA (the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) during the Vietnam war.
There is a group of them, not all of them, who have gone to live in the jungle. They are described as armed Hmong, because they apparently have some weapons, although it is not clear whether that is for self-defense or banditry.
It doesn't look like they're trying to overthrow the authorities, but anyway they are armed. The government's policy towards the Hmong is to make them come down from the hills and concentrate them in places where they can receive food and health care. But it's not at all clear whether the relocation is voluntary or forced.
There are Hmong exile communities in several places in Asia and in the United States, and some of those groups allege that what is happening (in Laos) involves forced relocations, amounting to genocide. The Laotian government denies this, obviously. We are trying to find out more, but for now there haven't been large numbers of deaths.
IPS: How do you see the situation in the Great Lakes region of Africa?
JM: With much concern, especially with regard to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). We have addressed a letter to the UN Security Council through the secretary-general, insisting on the need to establish protection zones for civilians. Especially in the east, near the borders with Burundi and Rwanda.
But the UN has a very small peacekeeping force on the ground there, and after our letter was sent, troops forming part of the international force were ambushed, and 11 soldiers from Bangladesh were killed.
I worry about asking for measures that would put the foreign troops in danger, but at the same time I believe it is an indication that there are civilians at imminent risk of violence, and something must be done.
IPS: Do you believe that after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which cost the lives of around 800,000 people, the climate in the region has improved somewhat?
JM: That depends on which country we're talking about. In Rwanda the risks have been reduced, but the conflict has shifted over to the DRC, and to Burundi as well to some extent.
We are closely following the situation in those countries, and unfortunately I believe that we are far from being able to say that the conflicts there are not going to get worse. To the contrary, especially in the eastern part of the DRC it can be said that "quasi-genocide" is occurring.
IPS: And in Chechnya?
JM: We are trying to keep informed, as far as possible. We have not yet reached any decision or taken any action, but it is one of the conflicts that we follow, and if we see any tendency towards deterioration, we will suggest that the international community take some action.
IPS: Is there any part of Latin America at risk?
JM: I am worried about the situation of certain indigenous peoples and communities of people of African descent in Colombia, located in very specific areas, which are obviously conflict zones, and subjected to acts of violence by both the paramilitaries and the guerrillas.
The UN Commission on Human Rights special rapporteur on indigenous people, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, has called my attention to some of these groups. I am trying to inform myself better in order to see if some suggestions can be offered to protect these communities, which according to the special rapporteur are at risk of disappearing entirely.
March 9, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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