Yom HaShoah: Remembering the Holocaust and Preventing Future Genocides

Today is Yom HaShoah, the start of the Week of Remembrance of the Holocaust. It also should be a time of clarity and commitment to do all in our power to prevent a recurrence of that horrific evil and other crimes against humanity. Each year at this time, I recall my visits to the Terezin concentration camp, to Yad Vashem in Israel, and to the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s powerful exhibits of the gas chambers and the Nazi genocide that killed 6,000,000 Jews during its reign of terror.

A few years ago, I saw the movie In the Land of Blood and Honey at the Holocaust Museum. The movie was about Bosnia in the 1990s. It depicted a woman being raped—as more than 20,000 Bosniak women are estimated to have been raped as an instrument of war in that conflict. It showed a child murdered and unarmed men and boys lined up, shot, and their bodies bulldozed into a mass grave.

Despite the demand “never again” after the Holocaust, in places like Bosnia and Rwanda in the early 1990s, in Darfur in the last decade, in the Central African Republic, innocent men, women, and children have been the victims of mass murder. In Syria alone, some 470,000 have been killed since 2011. South Sudan’s internal conflict in the past few years has seen more than 50,000 dead and 1.6 million displaced. There have been rampant rapes of Nuer and Dinka women as their towns were overrun by competing forces. As a result of the violence and conflict in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen, an estimated 20 million men, women, and children are facing famine.

The Days of Remembrance are a time to focus on how the United States and the international community can do more than lament and condemn mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. Yes, it is a time to remember the extreme nature of anti-Semitism and the Nazi doctrine that denied the humanity of Jews. It also is a time to rededicate ourselves to ending genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity against any specific group of human beings.

There have been attempts to establish early warning systems to identify atrocities before they occur and to collectively demand responses. But we have yet to achieve the kind of effective, long-term approach that puts genocide and mass atrocity prevention at the top of our national security agenda. And that is even with the assertions by the Obama administration in 2011 that preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a “core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” The Atrocity Prevention Board established at the time has worked to pull together an interagency focus on early warning triggers. However, the link between warning and response too often has been missing.

An attempt at the international level was the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine at the World Summit in 2005. It came after a remarkable civil society coalition across the globe came together to press for its approval. It aimed at assuring that national sovereignty could never again justify ignoring when governments failed to act, were unable to act, or were complicit in the face of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

The Responsibility to Protect has three foundational pillars:

  • Pillar One confirms that the primary responsibility lies with the state to protect its own citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity;
  • Pillar Two affirms the international community’s responsibility to assist states in building critical capacities to protect their populations and addressing drivers and triggers before the commission of mass atrocity crimes;
  • Finally, Pillar Three asserts that the international community has the responsibility to take timely and decisive action using appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, and other means to prevent and halt genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity when a state is manifestly failing to protect its population. This obligation may be even more critical today—when ISIS and other violent nonstate actors are carrying out the atrocities.

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine has been cited multiple times by the Security Council when there was a consensus for collective military and noncoercive action to halt ethnic or other atrocities. And there have been some successes. But where other competing interests intervened, as in Syria, Yemen, or South Sudan, the responses have fallen short and the list of victims continues to grow. And too often when there has been intervention, the responsibility to rebuild after the intervention—as in Libya—has been absent or inadequate. In this environment, there is an urgent need to rethink and revitalize the Responsibility to Protect doctrine to deal with a wide range of threats from state and nonstate actors.

Yom HaShoah is a time to remember. It also is a time to act.

Mark L. Schneider is a senior adviser with the Human Rights Initiative and the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. His career spans government, international organizations, civil society, and academia, and his areas of expertise include post-conflict reconstruction and nation building, U.S. foreign policy in the twenty-first century, human rights, and Latin American and Caribbean issues.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Mark L. Schneider
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Americas Program and Human Rights Initiative