Never again

Legal action against Iran's incitement to genocide would encourage other necessary moves.

ahmadinejad votes 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
ahmadinejad votes 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Last week, a distinguished group of public figures called for the international community, including both states and international organizations, to seek the indictment of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the charge of incitement to genocide. This call should be immediately and widely heeded, regardless of other steps being taken to confront the growing threat from Iran. That such an indictment is warranted should, at this point, be obvious. The group, organized by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and including former ambassadors Meir Rosenne and Dore Gold, Elie Wiesel, former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler, Alan Dershowitz and others, unveiled a report fully documenting the Iranian leader's calls to "wipe Israel off the map." No world leader or human rights organization can be unfamiliar with these calls, which have been proudly trumpeted around the globe. Nor can there be any doubt regarding what the law requires. The Genocide Convention, one of the most venerable and widely ratified instruments of international law, and whose full title is the Convention to Prevent and Punish the Crime of Genocide, explicitly lists "public incitement to commit genocide" among "punishable" acts prohibited by the treaty. Nor can Iran's incitement be considered only a rhetorical or theoretical threat, since Iran already has long-range missiles capable of reaching Israel and is avidly pursuing a capability of arming those missiles with nuclear weapons. Nor is there a lack of calls - following genocide after genocide that the international community has failed to prevent and then sought to prosecute after the fact - for action at the stage of incitement, rather than after it is too late. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide: "We must never forget our collective failure to protect at least 800,000 defenseless men, women and children who perished in Rwanda ... Such crimes cannot be reversed. Such failures cannot be repaired. ... So what can we do?" Back then, months of blood-curdling incitement by the Rwandan government was ignored, as were warnings of diplomats on the ground, before and as the genocide took place. Today, the JCPA report notes, "the critical difference is that while the Hutus of Rwanda were equipped with the most basic of weapons, such as machetes, Iran, should the international community do nothing to prevent it, will soon acquire nuclear weapons. This would increase the risk of instant genocide" with little or no opportunity for international action to stop a genocide in progress. Given the undeniable situation, why has no state or major international organization stepped forward to take legal action? One explanation may be the lack of any efforts along these lines by the Israeli government, which understandably might be considered the most natural party to take the first steps. We can only assume that our government has not launched such a campaign out of fear that it will not be legally successful, and even if successful, will not have an impact on the Iranian regime. We disagree with such a judgment on both counts. The requirements of the Genocide Convention are so clear, the incitement is so unabashed, and the threat is so real that we do not see why it should be assumed that all nations and organizations, including those who champion the causes of peace and human rights, will be indifferent to our cause. Those who fear failure should know that it cannot be avoided by not trying; the failure to defend ourselves diplomatically against such criminal threats is itself a statement of weakness and intimidation. As to the presumed futility of an appeal to international law, we agree that it would be foolish to rely on legal action to address the Iranian threat. But legal action, rather than substituting for other measures, would naturally supplement and encourage other necessary actions, such as the imposition of draconian sanctions, the threat of military force, and support for the Iranian people against their regime. Argentina has already issued international arrest warrants for former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani for ordering the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center. The cases against Augusto Pinochet, Slobodon Milosovic, and Rwandan officials - the latter specifically including incitement to genocide - also demonstrate the positive prospects for legal action. The choice is a simple one: between "never again" and "again and again."