The international failure to respond aggressively to the killings in Sudan, and more recently in Kenya, is threatening the spread of genocide and ethnic cleansing in other parts of Africa, a London-based human rights organisation warns.
Mark Lattimer, executive director of Minority Rights Group International (MRG), predicts that "mass killings" will continue in 2008 - if the international community refuses to take decisive action.
He says that over half of the 20 countries in the world where people are most under threat of genocide are in Africa, including Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Chad and the Central African Republic.
Chad, one of the new trouble spots in Africa, has risen 14 places up the rankings table since 2007.
Widening inter-communal violence in the eastern part of the country has seen civilian communities targeted in the fighting between black toroboro militias and Arab fighters -- a cruel replica of the ethnic conflict now familiar across the border in the Darfur region of neighbouring Sudan, according to MRG.
In Asia, MRG singles out three countries -- Burma (Myanmar), Afghanistan and Pakistan -- as potentially dangerous, while Iraq is described as the "most dangerous" in the Middle East.
In its 2008 global ranking of "Peoples Under Threat", MRG says that "alarmingly, states widely described to be stable, such as Kenya, have been catapulted up the table -- disputed elections in December 2007 exposing the tribal fault-lines in Kenyan society where competing political interests overlapped with ethnic differences."
In the rioting and "ethnic cleansing" that followed a contentious election, more than 1,000 Kenyans were killed. But neither the United Nations nor the European Union (EU), both of which expressed concern over the killings, took any concrete action.
Pakistan and Iran, both bordering Afghanistan, have risen significantly in the rankings this year.
"The fallout from military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq continues to spread to neighbouring states," says Lattimer, "and is now engulfing whole new communities in the threat of violent conflict."
The threat of mass killings comes at a time when the United Nations is seeking to implement the principles of "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P), adopted by the 192-member U.N. General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit in New York.
The R2P concept originated in a 2001 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.
William Pace, executive director of the New York-based Institute for Global Policy, told IPS that after the "historic and very surprising endorsement" of R2P by the heads of all states, and the backing of R2P in two Security Council resolutions in 2006, R2P lost momentum in 2007 due to a variety of reasons.
This, he points out, was mostly connected to "the always difficult transition from one (U.N.) secretary-general to a new one"-- from Kofi Annan who ended his term in December 2007 and Ban Ki-moon who took over in January 2008.
However, with the appointment by Secretary-General Ban of Francis Deng from Sudan as the new special advisor/representative for the prevention of genocide, and Ed Luck from the United States as special advisor to advance the implementation of R2P inside the U.N. institutions, "We expect important progress in 2008".
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are also taking important steps forward, said Pace, who is also the Convenor of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC).
He pointed out that the recent launching of the new Global Centre for R2P, with Andy Knight from Barbados as its new leader, is the first of several major NGO initiatives to support R2P, "in what is hoped will become a vital new tool for peace in our new century."
"The first decade, so far, has been as disastrous and unsuccessful in preventing war crimes, ethnic cleansing, genocide and crimes against humanity," said Pace.
However, civil society from all regions are committed to making old peace tools, like the United Nations, and new tools like the International Criminal Court (ICC), and R2P work, so millions of lives will be saved, he added.
The new global institute, dedicated to improving international responses to genocide and mass atrocities, was inaugurated on Feb. 14. It is housed at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York.
Described as an independent research and advocacy organisation, it says it "will make this doctrine (R2P) a reality." In a statement issued during its inaugural, the Centre said: "The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a call to action on behalf of populations at risk, and seeks to eradicate a legacy of inaction that has led to the loss of millions of lives during the Holocaust and in Cambodia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Darfur."
Since Feb. 8, according to Human Rights Watch, Sudanese government troops and Janjaweed militias have attacked and bombed villages in West Darfur, killing hundreds of civilians and displacing tens of thousands more, with little response so far from the U.N. Security Council.
Asked if the U.N. appointments of Luck and Deng would advance the cause of R2P, Lattimer of Minority Rights Group International told IPS: "The U.N. special representative on the prevention of genocide and now the new special advisor on R2P are the first U.N. mechanisms with a specific mandate on genocide prevention and have a great potential to focus early U.N. action to prevent killing".
Their ability to make a difference will of course depend on the availability of accurate early warning information on groups under threat, he said.
Perhaps the first practical example of the United Nations acting to implement R2P is in the current situation in Kenya, he argued.
Although much of the debate around R2P has focused on armed humanitarian intervention, the greatest chance for the United Nations in general, and these two posts in particular, to make a difference is in preventive diplomacy at an early stage to stop mass killing before it starts.
Asked about "unilateral" U.N. interventions to prevent genocide,, Lattimer said: "The United Nations is a multilateral organisation composed of member states, so it can't intervene 'unilaterally'."
But if the question is about armed or forceful intervention, then there have been a number of such interventions, he pointed out.
They are authorised under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter and need to be mandated by the Security Council acting "to maintain or restore international peace and security" -- not quite the same as preventing genocide or mass killings, but the Council has explicitly agreed that deliberate targeting of civilian populations in armed conflict may constitute a threat to international peace or security.
Lattimer also said that past Chapter VII interventions include Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda and East Timor.
In Rwanda and Bosnia, he said, the U.N. missions were unable to stop genocide. By contrast the mission in East Timor was widely seen as successful, bringing to an end a widespread pattern of gross human rights violations by the Indonesian army and by militias.
Some current U.N. peacekeeping missions, which have Chapter VII enforcement powers, play a vital role in preventing ethnic killings, including those in Cote d'Ivoire and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, although their record of success is mixed, he declared.