At the recent 'A View to CHOGM' event convened by the Royal Commonwealth Society, a prominent panellist described an 'arc of conflict' stretching from North Africa to Eastern Ukraine. In the midst of these conflicts civilians are frequently targeted in massacres and acts of terrorism. Civil war of various kinds, connecting to global networks of 'conflict entrepreneurs' and terror groups, are unleashing violence against populations from Libya to Afghanistan. However, violence is not confined to this region. The Commonwealth is no stranger to conflict. Brutal civil strife has ravaged parts of Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone and the Solomon Islands, all in the last 20 years. Meanwhile, at this time 21 years ago, Rwanda was emerging from 100 days of genocide which killed some 800,000 members of the Tusti ethnic group and moderate Hutus.
Yet Rwanda, more so than many other countries, has shown remarkable progress not only in rebuilding the country but also in addressing the horrific killings that wracked the country in 1994. This week this was the subject of discussion at a short course held by the charity Aegis Trust in Kigali, the capital city. The course has seen a mix of Rwandan and international academics, lawyers and peace building professionals come together to debate the nature of violence and ways of preventing it. Participants have not only shared their professional views on everything from transitional justice to how the genocide should be commemorated, but also many have drawn on their own deeply traumatic experience of the genocide. The objective is to increase understandings of violence and how to prevent it to ensure such atrocities are never repeated.
This approach is one that can contribute to reducing violence and conflict in the Commonwealth. The first aspect to take from the discussions is an understanding of the diversity of types of violence, and yet large similarities in the catalysts for this violence. The use of atrocities against civilians takes many forms, from the acts of genocide in Rwanda to the suicide bombings in London in the summer of 2005. However, many of the catalysts that inform these heinous crimes are the same:
1. Propaganda is used by those with a vested interest in violence and insecurity to try and justify their acts and incite these crimes.
2. This propaganda often seeks to manipulate ethnic, political or religious identity, giving a false narrative that division is inescapable and conflict a necessity.
3. Finally, this manipulation and propaganda is used to dehumanise the potential victims to being seen as something less than human: 'cockroaches', 'traitors' or 'untermench', and therefore something worthy of extermination.
So, are there common solutions to these diverse atrocities? Debates abound about the potential use of international tribunals such as the International Criminal Court, truth and reconciliation commissions such as that in post-Apartheid South Africa, or local quasi-traditional initiatives like the Gacaca Courts in Rwanda. Reflecting from a Commonwealth perspective also brings forward possible solutions. The three Commonwealth principles of multi-lateralism, dialogue, and respect for diversity offer the building blocks of a powerful counter to extremist ideology.
This is not a new conclusion. The report of the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding, chaired by Amartya Sen, emphasised these principles, and the value and role of civil society in promoting them, in their final report articulating 'civil paths to peace'. More recently, London based think-tank Commonwealth Exchange has instead emphasised the utility of military cooperation and multilateral discussions in the realm of security and defence. Both have potential weaknesses yet significant strengths in drawing upon the ready-made Commonwealth network to offer much needed global solutions to atrocities from terrorism to mass violence.