In Britain, train crashes kill on average one or two dozen people every year. Road traffic accidents kill dozens every week.
But a single fatal train wreck can occupy the media for days if not weeks afterwards while far greater carnage on the roads is routinely ignored, even though, mile for mile, rail is six times safer than road.
Something similar happens in popular perception of genocide and big acts of mass murder on the one hand, and steady extinction of much greater numbers from less sensational but no less preventable causes on the other hand. A reason for this may be that the drama, the singular nature of an event, is easier to perceive, if not to comprehend, than the enormity of a continual process.
So, for example, the situation in the Darfur region of western Sudan is forcing its way up the international news agenda in Britain and elsewhere. Here, it is reported, Sudanese government forces and Arab militias (Janjaweed) are killing, raping or driving from their homes some 700,000 black African civilians. On 2 April a report by New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch accused the Sudanese government of complicity in crimes against humanity, and a senior United Nations official urged the world community to pressure the Sudan government and rebels to stop the abuses; the government dismissed the claims as a heap of lies.
The events in Sudan come to global attention on the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, in which some 800,000 civilians were murdered in one of the most efficient genocides in history. Rwanda experienced one of those train crashes. The world may witness another in Sudan (although perhaps with fewer deaths, and different in other important respects).
Meanwhile, the car accidents just go on all the time. Every year, 6.3 million children die of hunger around the world. That is more than 120,000 needless deaths every week, or 17,000 per day. As Mary Robinson, former United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, put it last week, in each case its a personal tragedy. But because the tragedies are seldom concentrated in one place, and because they happen all the time, each individual case tends to be less visible in the media.
openDemocracy published an interview with Mary Robinson, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and co-founder of the Ethical Globalisation Initiative, in December 2003
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda was extraordinary for many reasons, not least its speed. Working largely by hand, the highly-organised genocidaires worked three to five times faster even than the Nazis, who had the technology of one of the worlds most advanced industrial economies at their disposal for their project.
The causes and consequences have been well explored (regarding inattention, complacency or worse on the part of western governments and public opinion, read the veteran Africa reporter Richard Dowden in African Affairs and Prospect).
As for improving the capacity for future international responses, if any, to mass murder, one of the most substantial efforts since Rwanda has been the work of the International Commission on State Sovereignty (Iciss). Its findings, encapsulated in The Responsibility to Protect (December 2001) try to address the tension between state sovereignty on the one hand, and humanitarian intervention on the other.
According to Ramesh Thakur, who was one of the Iciss commissioners, the recommendations include that the circumstances in which international intervention is permissible are narrow, the bar for intervention is high, and the procedural and operational safeguards are tight. (Thakur thinks these principles were disregarded by the United States-led coalition when it invaded Iraq in March 2003, and says: in the real the world the choice is not between intervention and non-intervention. Rather, it is between ad hoc or rules-based unilateral or multilateral, and consensual or deeply divisive intervention).
The Iciss report sets out to identify conscience shocking situations where armed intervention would be justified. Current events in Sudan, terrible as they are (see for example this eyewitness report from the Chad/Sudan border), do not look as if they will meet these criteria. Instead, diplomatic pressure from the European Union, and carefully crafted statements from the US state department, the US Agency for International Development and others, look set to be the main western responses.
According to New York Times reporter and columnist Nicholas Kristof, who published a series of articles on the crisis during March, modest efforts can save large numbers of lives. Nothing is so effective in curbing ethnic cleansing as calling attention to it, thinks Kristof; and President Bush, to his credit, raised the issue privately in a telephone conversation [the week before last] with the president of Sudan.
Will this be enough to deter future genocides? There is little doubt that the international community is more focused on conflict prevention than it was a decade ago, Randolph Kent who served with the UN in Rwanda in 1994/5 and in Kosovo, Sudan and Ethiopia tells Globolog. But in the final analysis it is a question of will. Does the international community care enough to respond to the threatened slaughter of a small community in a remote part of the world? Kent, who leads a UN-supported project on humanitarian futures welcomes as a move in the right direction the recent proposal by Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general (who was in charge of its peacekeeping operations in 1994) for a UN special rapporteur on genocide. But, Kent adds, to be really effective it has to go hand-in-hand with an enhanced UN intelligence-gathering capacity.
Meanwhile, the default settings of the worlds economic and political systems allow for around 24,000 needless deaths from hunger every day (about 17,000 children and 7,000 adults). For many, including Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, this is a conscience shocking state of affairs. Hunger, he says, is the greatest weapon of mass destruction.
How to address this reality is, arguably, the central global challenge of modern times. To be effective, responses need to be multifaceted (see, for example, this Globolog about a part of the British government's proposed strategy, and a discussion of revenue-raising mechanisms in this forum).
A central element in any effective approach is improving the ability of the worlds poorest people to feed themselves. And better agricultural technology (for example new rice hybrids such as the one recently created by a China-Sierra Leone partnership) will play an important role.
But the benefits of genetically-modified crops, frequently touted as a solution to global hunger, are not yet evident. Genetic modification (GM) has not delivered success in the case of sweet potatoes, while hybrids developed with established techniques have produced useable varieties that deliver essential nutrition. The supposed environmental benefits of GM crops are also in doubt. According to reports, eight years of planting genetically-modified maize, cotton and soya beans in the United States has significantly increased the amount of herbicides and pesticides used.
In this context, an 11 March 2004 announcement that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had stopped all food aid shipments to Sudan because the Sudanese government had asked that US commodities be certified free of genetically-modified organisms, looks strange.
As a result, the United Nations warned, Sudans supply of food reserves for millions of people living on the edge of starvation would be exhausted by April or May. USAID itself stated that the potential humanitarian consequences of this pipeline break for the needy in Sudan cannot be overemphasised.
Food aid for people who can no longer feed themselves and are in desperate need is obviously essential, but why should this assistance be made conditional upon acceptance of an agricultural strategy whose benefits are highly questionable?