When the Arab Spring began 10 months ago, the world witnessed the transformative power of social media. But since then, individuals across a plethora of disciplines have sought to define its exact role in bringing attention to, preventing, and/or ceasing mass atrocities. To that end, the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies recently hosted a conference, “The Promise of the Media in Halting Mass Atrocities.” At this event, the Canadian International Council interviewed Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, Canadian senator Roméo Dallaire, Dispatches host Rick MacInnes-Rae, and André Pratte, editor-in-chief of La Presse.
In discussing the extent to which social media, and more specifically, Twitter, helped bring about the Egyptian revolution, Mona Eltahawy was hesitant to recast last January’s events as the so-called ‘Twitter revolution.’ Social media is merely an instrument; change on that significant a level is driven by people, by feet on the ground. She went on to say that Twitter was used in Egypt to communicate with and connect to the outside world, not for internal organization. Eltahawy said that SMS played a bigger part, as more Egyptians have cell phones and send text messages than use Twitter. Furthermore, Eltahawy posits that the fact that Mubarak shutting down the internet didn’t affect him being ousted from power further proves that it wasn’t vital to the cause, but just a singular tool.
Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire (pictured above), former commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), believes that the 1994 Rwandan genocide occurred as the result of a lack of both information and political will. There was no interest or expertise in the area, and media and public attention was focused on events unfolding in Cambodia and Yugoslavia. When asked if today’s arsenal of communication methods would have changed the course of events had they been available back then, Dallaire points out that electricity is still a major issue in developing countries. That notwithstanding, more methods of disseminating information would have been crucial. He explains that radio was the culture in Rwanda, not television or even newspapers. Dallaire was also asked about the application of R2P in Libya, a situation in which he feels the international community failed to call Qaddafi’s bluff. Qaddafi used similar language as had been employed in Rwanda and the responsibility was to protect the moderates and prevent a bloodbath. Accordingly, he says the intent of R2P needs to be clarified.
In his interview, Rick MacInnes-Rae says that while Canada may not actually have invoked R2P as a justification for the Libyan intervention, it nonetheless accomplished “what R2P would have wanted.” He then raises the issue of motive, i.e., protecting civilians or protecting access to resources, as he believes that will be raised as part of the aftermath discussion. He thinks that in such situations, social media can be used to activate opposition and that the media has no real role in R2P, only a journalistic mandate.
Also asked about about R2P in Libya, André Pratte says it is too early to say if it was a success. He spoke of assessing the short-term goals in those scenarios, and then addressing what happens when the intervening powers leave. In terms of the role of social media, he sees it as being used for coverage and opening a window, especially where journalists have limited or no access.