An international conference on preventing genocide began on Jan. 26 in Stockholm, and in the keynote address U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the world had the capability but lacked the will to prevent the mass slaughters of the 1990s, particularly in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
"The events of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda are especially shameful," Annan said. "The international community clearly had the capacity to prevent these events but lacked the will. Those memories are especially painful for the United Nations."
Annan said a small outside force - perhaps as few as 5,000 soldiers - could have stopped the Rwandan slaughter in the early stages, but that there was a failure of the U.N., the U.S.A. and other powers to act. "In Rwanda in 1994 and in Srebrenica in 1995 we had peacekeeping troops on the ground at the very place and time where genocidal acts were committed. But instead of reinforcing the troops we withdrew them."
Up to 1 million Tutsis and Hutu moderates were massacred in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. More than 7,000 Muslim men and boys were killed when Serbian forces captured the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995.
Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson invited representatives of some 60 governments to attend the three-day conference in Stockholm. Its aim was to gain an overall understanding of the problem of genocide and pave the way for preventive action. The meeting is the first conference of this format at government level to be held since the U.N. adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948.
Persson emphasized the aim of the conference in his opening remarks: "The task is ours. There is no one else. We together must take action. We are here to discuss what action: How do we prevent future genocides?"
The main work of the conference will be conducted by panels consisting of prominent participants, as well as in a number of workshops within four key areas - threats, responsibilities, prevention and awareness. Persson said he decided to host the conference due to his outrage over anti-Semitic incidents that have occurred in Sweden. He says a large percentage of Swedish youth are prepared to believe those who assert that the Holocaust did not happen.
As a response, Persson has launched a comprehensive education campaign about the Holocaust. "Whether we lack economic resources or not, when priorities are set, genocide prevention has to be on the list," Persson said. "We do not lack political means - legal tools such as legislation and courts, sanctions, humanitarian aid, diplomatic channels, international arenas for political decision-making or, as a last resort, military forces," Persson said.
This is the fourth and final conference in the Stockholm International Forum series. The first, which focused on the Holocaust, took place in January 2000. Political leaders from around the world adopted a declaration promoting holocaust education, remembrance and research. Two other conferences - on combating intolerance and on truth, justice and reconciliation - took place in 2001 and 2002.
One of the fundamental ideas of the present conference is to create a forum for exchange between leading politicians, decision-makers and experts. Issues due to be discussed include how to detect the threat of an impending act of genocide, mass murder or ethnic cleansing, and how the international community's diplomatic, legal, humanitarian, economic, military and other tools can be better used for the prevention of genocide.
Paul A. Levine, a lecturer in Holocaust history at the University of Uppsala, has remarked that the genocide conference is taking place at an interesting and troubled time for Sweden, Europe and the world at large.
"A very different atmosphere characterizes affairs today than when the inaugural forum convened in January 2000," Levine said. "The specter of international terrorism casts a shadow over our daily life and liberties. The invasion of Iraq and its baleful aftermath is causing international anxiety. And in Europe, not least, we are witnessing a deeply disturbing outburst of anti-Semitism."
Persson reiterated this concern in his opening remarks today. "The failure of governments to break unemployment, to reduce poverty and social gaps, to stop corruption and organized crime, make people turn their back on democracy. Democratic forces must be prepared to address this despair," he said.
In Stockholm, an anti-war coalition is criticizing Swedish officials for failing to invite representatives of the Palestinians, Chechens and Kurds. Joergen Hassler of Network Against War said it is "ridiculous that a conference on genocide does not touch on current situations where genocide could arise."
In connection with the Stockholm conference, an extensive international cultural program is being arranged, including a film festival, exhibitions, music events, discussions, seminars, and many other cultural activities.
wrote this for Radio
Free Europe/Radio Liberty.