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Countries must prevent genocide earlier

‘Forgotten’ agreement in international law
05 June 2014

Every country has the legal duty to tackle incipient genocide in the early stages to prevent the worst happening. However, this international agreement, which dates back to 1948, is not being upheld, mainly because there is no body with the mandate to do so. This is the conclusion drawn by lawyer Etienne Ruvebana, originally from Rwanda, in his PhD thesis at the Law Faculty of the University of Groningen. He pleads for more research on international mechanisms that, with this legal basis, can prevent genocides in the future.

Genocide, the ‘systematic destruction of a nationality or ethnic group’, has always existed. In recent decades it has occurred to a greater or lesser degree in many countries, including Bosnia, Rwanda and more recently Sudan and the Central African Republic. The UN often intervenes, but usually far too late, says Etienne Ruvebana. ‘I’m amazed that the world never succeeds in preventing genocide in the early stages.’ Ruvebana was a witness of the war in Rwanda, where Tutsi were slaughtered by Hutu on a massive scale. ‘This undoubtedly played a role in my choosing this topic, but Rwanda is not the only country that has experienced genocide in recent decades. Given the horrendous nature of genocide, everyone should be concerned.’


A search for possibilities enabling the international community to prevent such slaughter led the lawyer during his PhD research to an international treaty, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948). This is an old treaty, whose legal impact was never realized by the signatories. It gives the international community not only the right, but also the obligation to intervene at a much earlier stage.


Preventing bloodlust spreading in a society is a relatively minor intervention that can prevent major crimes. Countries violate international law if they fail to do so. For example, a country could be held responsible for allowing a neighbouring country to stir up an ethnic group via the media to make the lives of another group unbearable. It should intervene legally, economically or militarily in its neighbour’s affairs. Which countries would bear which responsibility exactly depends on several factors, says Ruvebana: ‘Geographical distance is essential, but is not the only parameter. Burundi, for example, was next to Rwanda, but countries like France, Belgium and the United States had at least as much influence in the country and thus the opportunity to intervene. The problem is that countries often don’t immediately benefit from preventing genocide. That’s why they should be obliged to do so.’

Dead in the water

Ruvebana investigated what has been done with this treaty thus far in the field of international law. He thinks that the United Nations is the obvious body to reinstate this treaty, which is currently dead in the water, step by step: ‘The international community and the United Nations should institute an organization designed to prevent genocide, not only by coordinating actions in the relevant states, but also those of the international community. That will naturally require funding. Such an organization is essential in order to prevent genocide in the future. My research should help the international community to draw up proposals for clear and concrete measures.’

Curriculum vitae

Etienne Ruvebana (Rwanda 1977) studied law at the National University of Rwanda and gained a Master’s degree at the University of Groningen in 2007. He then worked as a lector in Public Law at Kigali Independent University in Rwanda. He has worked on his research on international legislation on genocide since 2009. In 2014 he was appointed lector at the law faculty of the National University of Rwanda.

More information

Etienne Ruvebana, or his promotor, Marcel Brus

Last modified:13 March 2020 02.21 a.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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