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Preventing the misuse of power


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June 21, 2011

By Jennifer Myers

Zimbabwe and Sudan are countries that political science professor Dr.
Maureen Hiebert has had her eye on for a long time. The ruling governments
there are displaying what many scholars consider to be worrisome symptoms that
could result in human rights violations of their own citizens.

Hiebert studies atrocity crimes—brutal violations of human rights such as
genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing—and the
international community’s ability to intervene.

“The way a state conceptualizes certain groups can help us to make
predictions,” says Hiebert. She says the primary factors that have led to
atrocity crimes in the past include a long set of historical circumstances,
fragmented or exclusionary forms of social interaction between defined groups,
and an exclusionary understanding of who the “real members” of the society are.

In Zimbabwe, the authoritarian regime is ramping up. It has rigged
elections, committed violence against opponents and created membership cards
for “citizens”, which have allowed food distribution centres to ignore certain
members. The separation of North and South Sudan has caused tensions over oil
reserves and religious freedoms resulting in attacks on some populations. The
situation in Sudan’s Darfur region has been described as a slow-motion genocide
aimed at the African population by the Arab-dominated government.

Hiebert says the potential for human rights abuses are all there. Atrocity
crimes happen when the regime sees the victim group as an overwhelming threat
to the survival of those in the powerful, dominant group. They believe the only
way to protect the wider community is to destroy the other group.

“Once the perpetrators come to think this way, genocide can become the only
policy,” she says. “The threat of punishment by the international community
pales in comparison.”

For Hiebert, careful pro-active study of government regimes may be the only
way the international community can deter atrocity crimes.

“In addition to diplomatic pressures, the key is convincing larger citizen
populations within the country and the international community that morally,
atrocity prevention is the right thing to do and is in the interests of safety
and security. The media can be instrumental in bringing atrocities to light, if
they so choose.