U.N. special adviser on prevention of genocide discusses identity conflicts in Africa

Francis Deng, the United Nations secretary general’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide, delivered a lecture at the NYU School of Law on October 7. The first Southern Sudanese to earn a doctorate in any field, Deng had served as the secretary general’s representative on internally displaced persons; Sudan’s minister of state for foreign affairs; Sudanese ambassador to Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the U.S.; a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he founded and directed its Africa Project; and a professor at Johns Hopkins University and the City University of New York.

In introducing Deng’s lecture, “Managing Identity Conflicts in Africa,” Ryan Goodman, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law and faculty director and co-chair of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, called Deng “one of the most important voices on the issues he confronts,” adding, “I’ve never left the room after Francis Deng has spoken without thinking about ideas differently and in a much more profound way than I had ever confronted them before.... He obviously has an extraordinary insight into the human mind, spirit, and prospects for peace and human rights.”

Goodman also cited a statement Deng had made previously about his mission to prevent genocide: “This is an impossible mandate that must be made possible. Genocide, nearly always the result of identity-related conflicts, is one of the most heinous of crimes on which humanity must unite to prevent and punish. However, for the same reason, it evokes denial from both the perpetrators and those who would be called upon to intervene to prevent or stop it. This is why our strategy focuses on prevention, by responding to situations before positions harden into denial.”

In his speech, co-sponsored by CHRGJ and the NYU African Law Association, Deng recalled his experiences at the Brookings Institution and the U.N. addressing Africa’s problems. He began the Africa Project in the late 1980s; the end of the Cold War entailed a major shift, he said, in the perception of conflicts, which had previously been seen as proxy wars of superpowers that offered support to countries when it was in their strategic self-interest. Post-Cold War, views of the roots of national conflicts became less distorted, but responsibility fell more squarely on individual countries and regional authorities. As a result, Deng continued, human rights became a new primary concern of international bodies, which resolved that the world would intervene if countries did not address their own human rights dilemmas.

In his position as the U.N. secretary general’s representative on internally displaced persons, Deng often utilized the notion of sovereignty, which governments of nations plagued by internal strife often used as a shield against the intervention of the international community, as a double-edged sword: true sovereignty, Deng argued, involved real responsibilities to one’s own people, including conscientious efforts to protect them. To illustrate the arbitrary nature of assigning charged identities to people, Deng recalled asking Burundi’s foreign minister whether he could tell the difference between a Tutsi and a Hutu. Yes, the minister replied, but with a margin of error of 35 percent.

It is a daunting task to prevent genocide, Deng said, but he argued that indicators do exist, and there is a framework of analysis for the conditions that can lead to ethnic cleansing. “For me, the critical factor is to not make genocide became such a forbidden word, a sensitive issue to be avoided.... We want people not to think of the mention of genocide as something we want to get away from. It’s something we can deal with through structural prevention.”

Posted on October 16, 2009

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