Those 'Ancient Ethnic Animosities'


London. -- Does it take Human Rights Watch to point out the obvious? In its latest report, it says "the current epidemic of communal violence is today's paramount human-rights problem." Unfortunately, it does have to be pointed out, because our governments and much of our press have failed to analyze the problem thoroughly.

On carnage and relief efforts, the media are often adept, portraying each new disaster with great strokes of verbal and visual color. But on causes, they too often fall back hastily upon simple explanations such as "deep-seated hatreds" and "ancient animosities."

Governments presiding over communal violence connive in this reporting. It is in their interest to persuade onlookers that communal violence is almost a natural phenomenon, which outsiders have no right to condemn and no hope to prevent.

But, as Human Rights Watch points out, "the present-day outbursts of communal hatred are due more to government manipulation than ancient animosities."

Time after time, governments play on existing ethnic, racial and religious tensions to entrench their own power or advance a political agenda. Discrimination and violence against targeted groups, denial of equal political rights and tolerance for private attacks upon minorities can be traced, too often, to official policies.

Often, governments play this card when they are losing popularity or legitimacy. So it was in Rwanda a year ago. A small group of Rwandan politicians, seeking to maintain their precarious control of the government, directed fellow Hutu to kill at random as many of the Tutsi minority as they could.

The commonly-received wisdom, even today after a year of slaughter, is that very little can be done to stop two rival communities intent on mayhem killing each other. Thus for the first six weeks after the slaughter began, both the international press and influential world leaders persisted in ignoring the key fact that the killing was orchestrated by a relatively small group. If this had been properly understood at the outset, then the outside world might more readily have identified the ringleaders and moved to stop them.

Belatedly, the U.N. has recognized that Yugoslavia was a similar story. On Monday the U.N. Yugoslavia War Crimes Tribunal announced that it was naming the Bosnian Serbian leader, Radovan Karadzic, and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, as suspected war criminals.

Some governments tolerate private groups that use violence to pursue policies that the state cannot. Thus the apartheid government of South Africa covertly supported the Inkatha Freedom Party. Israel's government has appeared to tolerate settler violence in the occupied territories. In Sri Lanka, in the 1980s the government supported rival Tamil separatist groups to engage in counter-insurgency activity against the Tamil rebels.

State involvement in communal violence need not always be direct. Romania consistently fails to bring anyone to trial for the torching of Gypsy homes, and India manages not to punish or stop Hindu nationalist violence against Muslims -- providing the militants elbow room to do their dirty work.

The international community has the right and the power to move against communal violence. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which most governments have ratified, clearly mandates international oversight and responsibility.

Human Rights Watch offers a checklist for governmental action, including speaking out at an earlier stage and denying international assistance of any kind to countries that promote communal violence.

Pulling our punches out of some mistaken sense of diplomatic decorum only gives the hard men more room for maneuver. We need to move quickly to expose them. Challenge is a useful first tool. And behind it is now the mechanism of a War Crimes Tribunal. It should be mandated to go into action at the first sign of trouble. Those who play the communal-violence card must be made to realize that the civilized world has had enough. And that they are being watched.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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