The tragic cycle of genocide denial has returned: This time, Nigeria

The tragic cycle of genocide denial has returned: This time, Nigeria
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The Age of Terrorism that is now upon us has proven to be the greatest modern challenge to the legitimacy of all governments and international organizations who claim a commitment to human rights. Nowhere is this more evident today than in Nigeria, where terrorist violence and mass slaughter by Islamist groups are reaching genocidal proportions.

When President Obama famously dismissed the Islamic State as a “JV team,” he set an example that policy elites in the West unfortunately still often employ in dealing with religiously and ideologically motivated violence that they cannot understand. When necessary, deny facts that fail to conform to your view of reality.

Of course, this fashionably post-modern approach to foreign policy has its downsides. In the case of the Middle East, the downsides included an infamously savage reign of terror by ISIS that engulfed the Middle East in barbaric slavery, violence, and genocide


Moreover, because western elites ignored the virulent nature of ISIS ideology — a religious totalitarianism committed to a global Islamist caliphate — they also failed to anticipate the reality that this ideology would inspire both a new terrorist movement and lone wolf actors around the world. ISIS was defeated in the Middle East but the “idea virus” that animated ISIS still lives on — with the mass murder and chaos engulfing parts of West Africa serving as a prime example.

In an earlier era, when the United Nations was confronted with warnings of an impending genocide in Rwanda, experts found bureaucratic reasons to do nothing effective. Specifically, when Canadian Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, the Commander of UN peacekeepers in Rwanda, saw the bloodshed breaking out in that spring of 1994, he sought permission to intervene from UN headquarters. That request was denied — supposedly because there was no United Nations peacekeeping resolution with a mandate authorizing him to enforce peace.

Four years later, former U.S. president Bill Clinton went to Rwanda to apologize for the inaction from the United States and the international community in Rwanda that allowed a mass genocide to take place. President Clinton said, in part: 

“The international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began… We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.”

These exact words describe the situation today in Nigeria. Sunni Islamist militias — apparently often with the active or tacit approval of local military or police — are engaged in the mass slaughter of Christians, Shia Muslims, and local tribal religious groups. But many western policy elites – including some officials at the United Nations – explain these systematic campaigns of mass murder as really being about “grazing rights” or “land and water rights.”


Such narratives, one expert told me, “confuse the international community and provide cover for terrorists to kill tens of thousands and displace millions. How can desert encroachment explain or justify the mass slaughter of innocent civilians?”

The time has come for the international community to stop all pretense that what is happening in Nigeria is anything less than a genocide. Just as the free world united in the struggle against ISIS in the Middle East, every nation that aspires to the term “civilized” needs to join in ending this next international tragedy-in-the-making before it’s too late.

Matthew Daniels, JD, Ph.D, is Chair of Law & Human Rights at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., and the author of Human Liberty 2.0.