History shows that the international community's failure to sufficiently punish those responsible for acts of genocide is one of the reasons why war crimes are still committed in the 21st century
The 20th century was an era of gains and losses. Despite overarching technological advancements, the world faced horrific world wars and local conflicts, ideological wars and collapsing empires, ethnic conflicts and economic crises. This gloomy picture also included the most horrific crime of humanity – genocide.
As the prominent expert in genocide studies Roger W. Smith argued, the 20th century has been described as an age of murder – but was "more precisely, an age of politically sanctioned mass murder, of collective, premeditated death intended to serve the ends of the state".
He wrote: "It is an age of genocide in which 60 million men, women and children, coming from many different races, religions, ethnic groups, nationalities and social classes, and living in many different countries, on most of the continents of the earth, have had their lives taken because the state thought this desirable."
Genocide is the greatest sin that humanity can commit, a decadence of the human soul. And as the 20th century proved, the absence of sufficient punitive measures against those to blame, ignorance about the plight of victims, and forgetfulness about the crime pave the way for genocides to happen again. The history of negligence and apparent amnesia about the Armenian genocide is an example of this phenomenon.
The perpetrator of the worst genocide in history, Adolf Hitler, spoke in 1939 about the Armenian precedent: "I have issued the command – and I'll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad – that our war aim does not consist of reaching certain lines, but of the physical destruction of the enemy.
"Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness – for the present only in the east – with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"
Hitler's speech shows that the lack of any real will to prevent, let alone to punish, those behind the Armenian genocide paved way for the Holocaust, as well as for genocides in the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, and Rwanda. It shows that punitive measures imposed by the international community are of paramount importance as a way of preventing further genocides.
Unfortunately though, we continue to witness genocide in the 21st century, in Sudan. Why? Because of the international community's lack of will. "The ghosts of Rwanda," the prominent Sudan researcher and analyst Eric Reeves has concluded, "are stirring ominously in Darfur." What should the victims in Sudan do? Surrender? As the historical sociologist Helen Fein has pointed out: "The surrender of victims in genocidal situations does not avoid their mass murder but expedites it."
That is why it is necessary to act. Darfur, as well as the ongoing conflicts in Syria and elsewhere, must act as signals to the international community to take action and define preventive mechanisms and punitive measures in order to find ways to prevent these horrific events from happening again. As the Pulitzer Prize winner Samantha Power has argued: "Politicians will act to stop mass killing when the political cost of inaction outweighs the risk of acting."
But our world is so interdependent now that inaction truly costs more than a false political calculus. Unpunished killings can be 'contagious' and harm the international community itself. The international community should act as a united body to make the perpetrators of these acts surrender and put a halt to genocidal crimes, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Genocide must become a historical term only.Vahram Ayvazyan is a participant in the Council of Europe's Youth Peace Ambassadors project