Responding to Genocide: mobilising Political Will in Australia

By Deborah Mayersen

Executive summary


  • Australia has demonstrated a strong commitment to genocide prevention rhetorically, but typically this has not translated into robust policy responses to genocide occurring in foreign countries
  • Australia supports the Responsibility to Protect (populations from genocide and mass atrocities) Principle, endorsed internationally at the 2005 World Summit. Despite this support, however, Australia’s policy response to the genocide in Darfur was weak and inadequate.
  • Australia’s responses to genocide can be strengthened through building domestic political will.
  • Robust Australian responses to genocide and mass atrocities can contribute to stronger international political will to respond to these crimes.
  • As a newly elected non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Australia has a unique window of opportunity to exert a strong influence on international responses to genocide and mass atrocities.


‘Never again’, opined Prime Minister Julia Gillard at a 2012 Holocaust Commemoration service in Melbourne, ‘never, ever again’.  Australia has demonstrated strong support for genocide prevention in the international community, where the issue has been increasingly discussed in recent years.  In addition to our commitment to ‘prevent and to punish’ genocide as a signatory to the Genocide Convention, at the World Summit in 2005 Australia endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP or R2P) principle. The R2P principle is defined as a ‘new international security and human rights norm to address the international community’s failure to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Australia also has contributed a significant portion of the funding for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, currently trying leaders of the Khmer Rouge for genocide, and AusAID has funded research into genocide prevention.

Nonetheless, this commitment to genocide prevention typically has not translated into robust policy responses to actual instances of genocide, or the imminent threat thereof.  Even as Australia endorsed the R2P principle in 2005, the government’s weak policy response to the genocide in Darfur continued. Genocide is a problem with which Australia and the international community has repeatedly grappled, and repeatedly failed to resolve, despite the promise of ‘never again’ in the wake of the Holocaust.  Indeed, the meaning of ‘never again’ has itself changed as a result. When H.E. Mr Gary Quinlan, Australia’s Ambassador to the United Nations General Assembly, referred to ‘never again’ in a speech, he referred to Australia’s commitment ‘that never again are we confronted with the horrors of another Rwanda or Srebrenica, Cambodia or the Holocaust.’ Talk of ‘never again’, then, has become again and again, a concept stretched beyond the limits of credulity.

Addressing the issue of genocide is difficult and complex. Genocide, according to the 1948 Genocide Convention, can be defined as acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.  Acts can include killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm, or the deliberate infliction on the group of conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction.  Whereas the scope of the Genocide Convention is limited to genocide, the R2P principle incorporates a much broader range of crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Often these are subsumed under the rubric ‘mass atrocities’.

There can be confusion sometimes between the concept of genocide prevention, and reactive responses to instances of genocide that appear imminent or are already underway.  There are a number of established and relatively uncontroversial tools utilised for prevention of genocide and mass atrocities.  These include preventative diplomacy, mediation, positive inducements, aid conditionality, and longer term measures such as fostering democracy, good governance, and economic growth.  The options to respond when genocide is imminent or already occurring, however, are fewer and often fraught with difficulty. Crisis diplomacy has a high failure rate, arms embargoes may be too late, and often there is scant international support for multilateral military interventions.

Since the terrible events in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s, there has been increased recognition of the need for the international community to intervene to prevent or curb genocide in times of crisis.  As a result, there has been more research and more resources dedicated to genocide prevention and response than ever before. At the international level, this has included the establishment of the United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide as well as the endorsement of the R2P principle. There has been increased international political will to respond to some instances of potential or actual genocide or mass atrocities, including cases in Kosovo and East Timor in 1999, and Libya in 2011. Australia played a leading role in curbing the atrocities in East Timor, earning solid praise from then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Despite this evidence of increased political will, however, the Australian and international response to instances of genocide and mass atrocities has been selective and inconsistent. The genocide in Darfur, which has continued with varying degrees of intensity since 2003, failed to elicit a strong international response. And while the international community responded rapidly and to great effect in curbing the mass atrocities in Libya, the response to similar violence in Syria has been far more divided.  Most recently, the international community has been confronted with the genocide in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. The Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, having successfully perpetrated genocide in Darfur, appears to be utilising similar strategies to destroy his perceived enemies, the Nuba Mountains people, in the Sudanese state of South Kordofan.  To date, there has not been a strong response to this crisis from Australia or internationally.

Given Australia’s commitment to genocide prevention, a key question is whether we can do better in responding to instances of genocide – both in our national responses, and in promoting robust international responses.  On 1 January 2013, Australia commenced a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.  In this forum, it will have the opportunity to directly influence the international response to these crimes.  Almost certainly the Security Council will continue to discuss the situations in Syria and the Nuba Mountains in this period. This is a key time in which a strong Australian commitment to responding to potential/actual genocide and mass atrocities, therefore, could have a substantial international impact.

To explore this issue further, I recently conducted an analysis of the Australian government’s response to the genocide in Darfur. Understanding the factors that impeded a strong response to the Darfur crisis can provide insight into how such barriers might be overcome for future crises.  Examination of the Australian response to the genocide in Darfur is particularly illustrative, as it occurred during the same time period in which the R2P principle was endorsed. Indeed, in 2008 Liberal MP Scott Morrison commented in parliament on the incongruity between Australia’s endorsement of R2P and the lacklustre response to the genocide in Darfur:

In Sudan we have had a critical test of the UN’s resolve on responsibility to protect.  In the face of a continuing and escalating humanitarian crisis, the international community, including Australia, is failing the test.

The response to the genocide in Darfur also is particularly worthy of analysis given the current crisis in the Nuba Mountains, which has many parallels.

The violence in Darfur dramatically escalated in 2003, although the region had experienced low-level conflict since the 1980s.  Janjaweed militia, supported and armed by the Sudanese government, sought to clear the region of ‘African’ tribes through a campaign of extreme violence and forced displacement.  By 2004 the vast destructiveness of the violence was readily apparent, but it took until July before the United Nations Security Council passed its first resolution on Darfur.  This was the first of several weak and ineffectual resolutions.  It was not until 2007 that the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) was authorised.  Even then, the Mission’s lack of resources and an uncooperative Sudanese government substantially delayed deployment, and it has been of limited effectiveness. It is estimated that at least 300,000 Darfuris have been killed in what is widely regarded as genocide, and over 2.5 million have been forced to flee their homes.  The situation remains deeply unstable.

In responding to the genocide in Darfur, Australia essentially adopted a policy response that reflected the wider Western reluctance to become involved. Australia provided humanitarian aid, particularly for refugees and internally displaced persons. The government also made diplomatic representations to the UN Security Council. Australia declined a UN request to provide a ‘heavy support package’ for UNAMID, however, citing its commitments elsewhere.  Direct representations to Sudan were limited, and a very soft approach was taken in addressing China’s ties with the Sudanese government.  In 2005, Labor Member Kevin Rudd commented in parliament: ‘Australia’s response has been slow, it has been hesitant and, I regret to say, it has been inadequate’.

Parliamentary discussions demonstrate a high degree of awareness of the seriousness of the Darfur situation amongst politicians.  Liberal MP Bruce Baird directly compared the Darfur crisis with the 1994 Rwanda genocide: ‘After Rwanda the world promised that it would never again sit on its hands and watch a systemic genocide, yet the Sudan already closely resembles Rwanda’. Democrats Senator Natasha Stott Despoja noted the international community’s ‘apathy’ in ‘allowing another Rwanda to happen’.  Michael Danby also called the crisis ‘one of the most terrible situations that have taken place since the Second World War’.

Within the parliament, there were numerous discussions regarding Australia’s policy response to the genocide.  They reveal a spectrum of opinions and levels of engagement amongst our politicians. Some politicians, such as Liberal Senator Robert Hill, expressed doubt that Australia could have an international impact on this issue: ‘Obviously there is not a response that Australia can take as an individual party that is going to make a significant difference’.

There were numerous calls for Australia to respond to the crisis through the United Nations. Bruce Baird, for example, commented in 2006:

As the parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, it is our moral duty to pressure the UN … to markedly increase foreign aid and to ready a large international peacekeeping force to quell the violence.

At the same time, however, members of parliament were aware of the ineffectual UN response to the crisis, particularly as the genocide continued over time. Labor MP Michael Danby, speaking after Bruce Baird’s statement, commented: ‘I wish I could share the honourable member’s optimism that the UN can or will respond in the way it should’.

Knowledge of both the severity of the crisis and the ineffectual UN response produced calls in parliament for Australia to strengthen its response. In 2005, Kevin Rudd commented ‘Australia should be doing more … Our government can do more and it should do more, and it will have the support of the Australian people if it accepts its responsibilities to do more’. In 2008, Senator Stott Despoja called for Australia to provide peacekeepers and helicopters for UNAMID, highlighting that ‘we all have a responsibility to respond in some way’.  This was a call echoed by Judi Moylan, who noted that ‘if we want to see peace restored in the region… we need to consider providing more peacekeeping support’. Michael Danby regularly discussed the issue in parliament and advocated a stronger Australian response.  In 2007, for example, he commented that ‘it is a shame that Australia is not taking stronger action along with other Western countries’, and that ‘We must take action to see that the murder of hundreds of thousands of people, the destruction of entire villages, and the raping and pillaging of the innocent people of Darfur ceases immediately’.

Overall, however, Australia’s politicians were not deeply engaged with the crisis.  Only a few MPs consistently spoke in the parliament about the issue, repeatedly advocating a stronger Australian response. Of those who did, there are only glimpses of their motivations evident in the parliamentary record.  Party politics seems to be of limited importance, with advocates for a stronger Australian response from across the political spectrum.  Several members, including Michael Danby, Cameron Thompson, Graham Perrett and Sharon Grierson, referred to Sudanese refugees within their electorates in their speeches.  For some MPs, too, their statements can be interpreted within a wider context of consistent support for human rights issues, refugee issues or similar. There is not enough evidence from the parliamentary record alone, however, to fully determine the motivations that impacted upon political engagement with the genocide in Darfur.

Understanding what motivates politicians to engage with issues surrounding genocide is an important issue. Mobilizing the Will to Intervene, a recent high-profile Canadian report examining international responses to genocide, found that individual members of parliament can play a substantial role in building national will to respond to genocide. This in turn contributes to international political will.  Evidence suggests that in this way parliaments are a key locus in which political will to respond to genocide can be mobilised.

To explore this issue further in an Australian context, I recently conducted interviews with two members of parliament. Michael Danby, the member for Melbourne Ports, has regularly advocated in parliament for a robust Australian policy response to the Darfur genocide. Bruce Baird, the former member for Cook, also spoke on the issue in parliament a number of times before his retirement in 2007. In explaining their personal engagement with the genocide, each referred to an intrinsic, ideological motivation or inspiration.  For Danby, it was the personal tragedy of grandparents killed in Auschwitz.  For Baird, an interest in human rights issues generally, combined with experience on the Human Rights Committee in parliament, motivated his engagement.

Both Danby and Baird agree that the parliament lacked a critical mass of MPs to advocate for stronger policy on the genocide in Darfur. Several factors appear to have contributed to the relative lack of engagement.  These include a lack of media coverage in Australia about the crisis, Australia’s orientation towards events in Asia rather than Africa, a lack of engagement with the genocide amongst the wider public, and the reality of competing priorities and time pressures experienced by members of parliament.

Mr. Danby and Mr. Baird both expressed the opinion that, had a critical mass existed within parliament to advocate strongly on this issue, it could have substantially influenced government policy.  Each also indicated that there were many opportunities to increase the engagement of politicians with an issue such as a genocide occurring in a foreign country—opportunities that were not utilised in response to the genocide in Darfur. The suggestions they offered contribute to a blueprint, outlined below, for promoting engagement.

With concerted effort from relevant parties, achieving higher levels of engagement is a practical and achievable goal. At least five key actions can be taken to promote the engagement of Australian politicians with a genocide occurring in a foreign country, in turn increasing the pressure on government to adopt a robust policy response.  These are:

  1. Members of Parliament can exercise their individual initiative to raise the issue in parliament regularly, knowing it will contribute to mobilising the political will for a robust response.
  2. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can lobby members of parliament to take action on the issue. Lobbyists seek influence for all sorts of causes in Canberra.  There is ample space for human rights NGOs to mount a campaign promoting engagement with a particular genocide, something that occurred only to a very limited extent in response to the genocide in Darfur.  NGOs can address concerned groups in parliament, such as the Amnesty International Parliamentary Group or the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship. They can organise, for instance, lunches/events with guest speakers who can speak from personal experience about the crisis, personalising it to facilitate stronger engagement.  They can organise meetings for receptive MPs with refugees from the crisis, and provide briefings.
  3. NGOs can directly seek to build a critical mass of parliamentarians engaged with the crisis.  They can provide supporting material for MPs who demonstrate engagement, facilitate networking and group organisation amongst those MPs, and particularly provide support for MPs that emerge as strong champions for the cause. This will promote higher levels of engagement, more sustained engagement, and more widespread engagement.
  4. The role of the media in promoting both public and political engagement with a genocide is critical. Media organisations can facilitate this engagement by giving wide media coverage to the genocide.  NGOs can promote higher levels of media coverage of a crisis by providing relevant media organisations with easy access to the material they require.  Ideally this includes footage of the crisis, access to expert opinion or appropriate people to interview regarding the crisis, and background briefing material. Individual reporters often develop reputations for being willing to engage with human rights issues, and targeting reporters likely to be receptive could be an effective approach.
  5. Concerned members of the public can be very effective in lobbying members of parliament to advocate about an issue such as genocide.  MPs are likely to be receptive to requests for meetings from refugee groups, human rights advocacy groups, student groups and concerned citizens.  Whilst groups and individuals within a member’s electorate are likely to be of greatest influence, receptivity can also extend well beyond electoral boundaries. Social media actions, phone calls and contact via email can also be effective.  MPs are reactive, and if they are hearing expressions of concern about an issue within their electorate, this is likely to be passed on at the national level.

Actions such as those described above need the dedicated commitment of a range of parties, but they are realistic and achievable in the Australian context.  They are likely to ensure that members of parliament raise the issue of genocide in the parliament and the party room.  When a sufficient number of parliamentarians do so, the government is likely to be responsive and promote a robust response to a genocide.

Sometimes governments are reluctant to become involved in responding to genocide due to a perception that massive military intervention is necessary, with its associated expense, and risk to the lives of defence force personnel.  Potentially infringing the sovereignty of another nation is another matter of great concern. When governments are willing to take a robust policy response, however, there is a surprisingly broad range of actions they can take.  Soft power options include making direct representations to the perpetrating government, representations to its trading partners, representations to the UN or regional organisations addressing the crisis, and working collectively with an alliance of nations to ensure strong and regular diplomatic pressure is being applied in concert.   In the Darfur case, the arrest warrant issued against the Sudanese president by the International Court of Justice provides ongoing opportunities for Australia to campaign for his arrest. Other options include the provision of humanitarian aid, providing assistance to countries neighbouring the crisis zone to manage refugees, and contributions to multilateral peacekeeping forces.  Australia, for example, could have materially assisted UNAMID through the provision of a small number of helicopters.  None of these actions are onerous.  Each has the potential, however, to build Australia’s reputation as a nation that responds robustly when genocide is occurring.  Australia can cement a place as an international leader in protecting the human rights of those vulnerable to genocide. Furthermore, when Australia responds decisively, it contributes to mobilising international political will for other western nations to similarly respond.

There is a clear path to promote robust policy responses to genocide by the Australian government.  While Australia hasn’t always responded adequately to genocide in the past, there is solid bipartisan support for genocide prevention, and formal commitment to the Genocide Convention and the responsibility to protect principle. Australia’s seat on the Security Council offers a unique opportunity for the country to take a leading role in promoting strong international responses to genocide.  In doing so, we can make a real contribution to ‘never again’.



I would like to thank the Australian Policy and History Network/Copyright Agency Limited for providing the internship during which this article was completed.  My special thanks to Dr Tony Joel for mentorship during the project.  I would like to sincerely thank The Hon Bruce Baird AM and The Hon Michael Danby for generously agreeing to be interviewed for this project.  I would also like to thank Thomas Galloway for research assistance.



Selected Further Reading

Flint, Julie and de Waal, Alex, Darfur: A New History of a Long War (London: Zed Books, 2008).

Genocide Prevention Task Force, Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, The American Academy of Diplommacy and the Endowment of the United States Institute of Peace, 2008, Available at: http://www.ushmm.org/genocide/taskforce/pdf/report.pdf

Grzyb, Amanda (ed.), The World and Darfur: International Response to Crimes Against Humanity in Western Sudan, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009).

Hamburg, David, Preventing Genocide: Practical Steps Toward Early Detection and Effective Action, (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008).

International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), The Responsibility to Protect, (Ottowa: IDRC, 2001).

The Will to Intervene Project, Mobilizing the Will to Intervene: Leadership and Action to Prevent Mass Atrocities, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, 2009, Available at: http://migs.concordia.ca/W2I/documents/ENG_MIGS_finalW2IAugust09.pdf

United Nations, Convention on the Prevention and the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

United Nations, ‘2005 World Summit Outcome’, A/RES/60/1, 16 September 2005.



© APH Network and contributors 2011. All rights reserved.


Citation: Deborah Mayersen, Responding to Genocide: Mobilising Political Will in Australia. Australian Policy and History. February 2013.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/files/articles/respondingTo.htm

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