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Never Again: A powerful promise or empty rhetoric?


By: Laura Curtis

The phrase ‘never again’ is one of the most historically complicated set of words in existence. Intended as a solemn promise following the horrific events of World War Two and the Holocaust, never again to stand by and allow mass atrocities to occur, it has been used by multiple actors to apply to multiple situations. The complexity of its implications are demonstrated by its employment by a wide variety of actors; How can a phrase which has been used by GW Bush’s Attorney General, the Jewish Defence League and President Obama, concerning events as disparate as 9/11, World War I, missing persons in Argentina and the Holocaust, even be a simple expression? Moreover considering its advent after the events of the Second World War, which were then followed by a century of mass atrocities and genocide, how can such a publicly professed and popular idea, have little impact on the actual act of genocide prevention?

The importance of the words ‘never again’, despite being in existence since the Armenian genocide and the First World War, grew to real prominence in the aftermath of the Second World War and the discovery by the public of the existence of the Nazi death camps. The phrase sums up an international feeling at the time, and since, that such wide scale atrocities are impermissible and that the international community has some responsibility in ensuring they are not repeated. However this supposed global norm was belied by the progression of multiple acts of atrocities in the post 1945 period. Frequently cited examples are Rwanda, Cambodia and Srebrenica, but mass atrocities have also occurred in China, the USSR, Lebanon, Burundi, Iraqi Kurdistan, the DRC and Equatorial Guinea as well as a host of other places[1]. Genocide continues to this day, with the Genocide Watch List currently claiming 10 countries as undergoing ‘current massacres’ and 11 as in the ‘preparation’ stage as a precursor to full scale genocide[2].

At the beginning of the 21st Century, the international community strengthened its resolve to ensure that ‘never again’ in relation to genocide became a reality rather than just the meaningless phrase it is so often accused of being. This resulted in the establishment of an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001 which investigated the issue of mass atrocity prevention particularly when undertaken by legitimate governments against their people. It developed a doctrine that allowed for foreign intervention, overthrowing the concept of territorial sovereignty in the face of humanitarian crises, under the logic of sovereignty as responsibility rather than a right. This theory was introduced as the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle.

R2P has supposedly become ‘a broadly accepted international norm’ according to Gareth Evans[3], yet its implementation has been patchy at best. 2011 was a perfect demonstration of how the R2P doctrine, like the Never Again phrase, consists of words not always backed up by action in the international sphere. Although the international system used the R2P principle in Libya in a UN sanctioned NATO attack to overthrow Muammar Ghaddafi, they have refused to employ this principle in the temporally and geographically similar Syrian case, where death tolls are even higher and fighting still ongoing but with no international engagement.

Not only does the successful intervention in Libya distract from multiple occasions when the international community has not stood up to its principle of ‘never again’ it also contributes to the widely held misconception that both ‘never again’ and R2P can only employ the use of military intervention in the prevention of genocide. In actual fact, a key part of the R2P doctrine, which is rarely emphasised, is the multiplicity of action available to the international community in halting genocide, at various stages in the timeline of mass atrocities. The report of the ICISS emphasises the importance of early warning coordination and attempts to prevent genocide before it begins, the importance of diplomatic capacities and sanctions measures as a means of control over rogue governments. All too often the emphasis is placed upon the military facets of intervention, which in many cases, certainly in Libya; result in largely elevated civilian casualty rates.

Partner to the loud shouts of ‘never again’ has always been its twin – political pragmatism. Just as the cry of human rights abuses or mass atrocities can encourage intervention by the international community, too often political wrangling and technicalities have stood in its way. This cautious side to the international community is the dominant consideration the majority of the time, especially in the lead up to a situation of genocide or mass atrocities and proves that most of the time, mass atrocities are secondary in importance to political goals. It is easy to declaim ‘never again’ in the aftermath of genocide, but less easy to do so during or before. The African Union, like the rest of the international community has made a commitment to 'never again' allow genocide to occur on it's continent[4], but in reality has fallen foul of some of the political machinations common to the international community. The decision by the AU to not enforce the arrest warrants held by the International Criminal Court for Omar al-Bashir and Muammar Ghaddafi[5] on multiple counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide citing sovereignty issues, was a big step back for the region's approach to mass atrocities. It was well known that the previous AU Commission Chairman, Jean Ping had serious reservations about the ICC[6] but there are hopes that this will change under the new leadership of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who lauded the arrest warrant for both al-Bashir and Laurent Gbagbo of Cote D'Ivoire[7]. Hopefully the leadership of Dlamini-Zuma will usher in a new period in which previously empty words are given a new lease of life.

Laura Curtis is an MSci student of International Relations and Global Issues at University of Nottingham. She is currently interning for Justice Africa (

All views expressed in this article are strictly the authors own and do not necessarily represent the views of

[1] Piero Scaruffi, “Wars and Genocides of the 20th Century”, World History: A knowledge base of history, [accessed 19 July 2012]
[2] Genocide Watch, “May 2012 Countries at Risk Report”, [accessed 19 July 2012]
[3] Gareth Evans, ‘Preventing mass atrocities: Making ‘Never Again’ a reality’, International Crisis Group, 12 April 2007. [accessed on 19 Jul 2012].
[4] Jean Ping, “Address by his excellency Dr. Jean Ping Chairperson of the African Union Commission on the occasion of the commemoration of the 18th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide”, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 7 April 2012's%20Remarks%20-%2018th%20Anniversary%20of%20Rwanda%20Genocide%20-%207%20April%202012.pdf [accessed 20 July 2012]
[5] Alexis Arieff, Rhoda Margesson, Marjoei Ann Browne, Matthew C. Weed, “International Criminal Court Cases in Africa: Status and policy issues”, Congressional Research Service, 22 July 2011, [accessed 20 July 2012]
[6] International Criminal Court Cases in Africa,
[7] Gitau Warigi, “AU to change course with Dlamini-Zuma at the helm”, 18 July 2012, Africa Review, [accessed 20 July 2012]
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