By Andrew Beiter
Around 20 years ago, when most Americans were engrossed in the drama of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, buried in the back of most newspapers were warnings about the potential for mass violence in a small African country that many could barely pronounce. Fast forward six months later, more than 1 million Tutsi and moderate Hutu Rwandans were killed.
Bill Clinton once said that not taking small steps to intervene in Rwanda was one of the biggest regrets of his presidency. Since then, scholars have identified that genocide often has several warning signs, including leaders who are losing power who pit one group against another, a history of previous conflict between those parties, and a society in turmoil that is inclined to look for a scapegoat.
These ingredients are in ample supply in the Central African Republic, one of the poorest countries in the world. After Muslim rebels known as the Seleka overthrew the government last March, there has been rampant religious infighting between them and Christian militias known as anti-Balaka, or “anti-machete,” with door-to-door killings common. More than 1,000 people have been murdered since December.
Given this powder keg, President Obama recently acted upon several suggestions of the Atrocities Prevention Board (AFB), a relatively new federal panel whose job is to recognize and act upon the warning signs of genocide. The AFB recommended that the administration take several steps, including Obama taping a radio address that encouraged both sides to find common ground, pledging $100 million to assist African Union peacekeepers and authorizing a high-profile trip of our U.N. ambassador to its capital, Bangui.
Despite these moves, it must be cautioned that the specter of large-scale human rights abuse still looms large. What can average citizens like you or I do? Learn more through friending groups on Facebook like the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo, put pressure on our federal legislators to be mindful of the situation by calling 1-800-GENOCIDE, advocate that your child’s school district include human rights education, lead your church or synagogue to build a school overseas and, lastly, donate to agencies like the International Rescue Committee that assist refugees.
History shows that when our neighbor’s house is on fire, it quite often ends up burning our own. As the chief prosecutor of the 1945 trials of the Nazis, Western New York’s own Robert H. Jackson, said at Nuremberg, “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”
Andrew Beiter lives in Hamburg and is the director of the Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies of Buffalo.