When the Genocide Convention was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, it signaled the international community’s commitment to “never again” stand by in the face of such horrors as the Holocaust. Yet for many years the U.S. Senate was unwilling to ratify this important genocide prevention.
And the successful Senate ratification vote in 1986, followed two years later by the passage of implementing legislation to bring the US fully in line with the treaty, would likely not have happened were it not for one senator’s determined leadership.

Senator William Proxmire, a Democrat from Wisconsin, vowed in 1967 to deliver a speech on the Senate floor every day until the Genocide Convention was ratified, and he kept that promise. He delivered a total of 3,211 speeches over the 19 years until its passage. On February 18, the day that the convention came up before the Senate for a final time before its ratification the next day, Senator Proxmire explained his conviction, stating that “This treaty... seeks to prevent future Holocausts by outlawing genocide as an international crime which each signatory undertakes to prevent and punish."

Despite Proxmire’s successful campaign for U.S. ratification of the treaty, though, the killing has continued. Rather than meeting the aspirations of the Convention to prevent future atrocities, the past twenty-five years have been witness to mass killings of civilians in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Sudan. The United States and the international community failed to prevent these atrocities despite access to intelligence on each escalating crises.  More recently, warning signs of impending violence in places like Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, and Cote d’Ivoire went largely unheeded until violence already was underway. 

In 2008, the bipartisan Genocide Prevention Task Force led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen found significant gaps in U.S. policy and capacities to help prevent atrocities, and offered a blueprint for improvements.

The Obama administration and Congress have taken some steps toward implementing these recommendations. The administration created a new position of Director for War Crimes, Atrocities, and Civilian Protection within the National Security Council to coordinate atrocities prevention efforts across the government. And U.S. commitment to preventing genocide and mass atrocities is now specifically included in the National Security Strategy, Quadrennial Defense Review, and Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. Yet, the practical policy steps needed to transform these words into action and ensure sustainable policy change beyond any one administration have not been taken.  

A quarter century after U.S. ratification of the Genocide Convention, strong congressional leadership is again needed to help make “never again” a reality for millions of innocent civilians threatened by mass atrocities around the world.

In December 2010, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution (S. Con. Res. 71) calling for specific steps to improve US capacities to prevent genocide and mass atrocities. Introduced by former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTransit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal The Hill's Morning Report - Infrastructure vote fails; partisan feud erupts over Jan. 6 panel Senate falling behind on infrastructure MORE (R-Maine), the resolution garnered a strong list of bipartisan cosponsors, including both the chair, Sen. John KerryJohn KerryEquilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Clean power repurposes dirty power No. 2 State Department official to travel to China amid tensions US and Germany launch climate partnership MORE (D-Mass.), and ranking member, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Bipartisan congressional leadership on Sudan is also to be commended. Last month’s peaceful independence referendum in South Sudan may have demonstrated that the U.S. and the international community are finally beginning to develop tools and approaches to help prevent genocide and atrocities. 

However, significant more work needs to be done. The 112th Congress has yet to outline a human rights agenda, and no Proxmire-like leadership has stepped forward to champion the critical next legislative steps on genocide prevention. 

Congressional leadership and an engaged U.S. public paved the way for ratification of the Convention on Genocide. Both are needed again to move from promises to effective policies that make good on the commitment of “never again.” As Senator Proxmire himself wondered in a 1985 speech on the Senate floor, “Will we do what we can to prevent a future Holocaust?”

Bridget Moix, Mary Stata and Alexandra Stark work in the Peaceful Prevention of Deadly Conflict Program at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.