Preventing genocide through activism

Genocide: moving on whilst looking back
An interview with Alice Wairimu Nderitu, for the UN’s International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda
1 Apr 2023

Alice Wairimu Nderitu of Kenya is the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide for the United Nations. Her career has been dedicated to peacemaking and championing human rights in her many positions on a national and international level.

On the 7th April, UNESCO reflects on the monstrosities that occurred in Rwanda during 1994. Extremist Hutu leaders enforced genocide on the Tutsi population, leading to more than 1 million deaths and years of heartbreak. To remember the lost lives, the work of the UN Genocide Prevention unit strives to uphold freedom- as seen below.

Do you feel that the strategies in place by the UN Office on Genocide Prevention are fully equipped to protect populations from genocide?

Since the establishment of the position that I now hold, of Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide in 2004, my predecessors and myself have worked tirelessly to tackle emergent risks and challenges, acting as an early warning mechanism within the UN system and a catalyst for action to prevent genocide and related crimes.

This year, we shall be marking the 75th anniversary of the 1948 Convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. On this day, the world committed to its very first convention, whose article 1 says that the contracting parties confirm that genocide – whether committed in time of peace, or in time of war – is a crime under international law, which they undertake to prevent, and to punish. 153 countries (out of 193 UN member states) have ratified the Genocide Convention. Several initiatives are underway to have more countries ratify.

I recognize that the ability of human beings to make war can be turned into an ability to make peace. I also know that states have the primarily obligations to prevent and protect their populations from atrocity crimes and I must work harder to ensure they do and that they also hold perpetrators to account. Our office has a global mandate, and we remain strongly determined and aware of the importance of our work.

How do you work with other establishments (charities, governments, etc.) to protect communities vulnerable to genocide?

Outreach to external actors to the UN to prevent risks of atrocity crimes is a major component of my mandate. My office provides capacity building and technical assistance, including for national committees on the prevention of genocide to up governments. We also allow external actors to promote greater understanding of the causes and dynamics of atrocity crimes and of the measures that could be taken to prevent them. We raise awareness among member states, regional and sub-regional organizations, civil society, religious leaders, and other actors about their responsibility to protect.

Prevention at the community level is also a priority that I hold close to my heart, given my extensive career in striving to have community concerns reflected in national policy. Whilst engaging political leaders on atrocity prevention remains essential, I strongly believe that intervention at the community level can be extremely effective, as that is mainly where genocide and related atrocity crimes happen, particularly when communities experience tensions or hold unresolved grievances.

What are the steps to identifying threats of genocide/crime against humanity?

Threats to genocide and atrocity crimes are assessed first and foremost through data. Timely and reliable data is essential for decision-making at all levels of the UN system, as outlined in the Secretary-General’s “Data Strategy for Action by Everyone, Everywhere”.

The data received is verified and processed by our analysts and then interpreted in light of the Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes developed by my office. The framework indicates risk factors, that is, the conditions that increase the risk of or susceptibility to violence. They can include behaviors, circumstances or elements that create conditions conducive to the commission of atrocity crimes. Our aim is to provide early warning to the Secretary-General and, through him, to the Security Council for data-driven decision-making.

Prevention of genocide and related crimes is measured in achieving the expected result. It is possible to prevent genocide, as clear early warnings linked to early response can result in averting the crime. We work on a tested risk factor-based methodology which includes gross human rights violations; structural discrimination against certain groups and intergroups and social exclusion; and shrinking democratic and civic spaces.

Does the hugely emotional subject of your work impact you outside of your job?

Your question is very important because the trauma of experiencing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, or the indicators thereof, has a strong emotional impact on victims of those egregious crimes. Also by those exposed to it indirectly, as staff of international organizations, medical personnel, peace builders, humanitarians, human rights advocates, and journalists.

The advice I often give my colleagues, who like me are working on such a hugely emotional subject, is to be a sieve, not a container. This is how I deal with this hugely emotional subject. My advice is for us to retain that which helps keep us grounded and invested in working in the service of humanity and let go of what may stop us from being functional. 

* Prisca Chaoui is the Editor-in-chief of UN Today.
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