Zarrin T. Caldwell

OneWorld US, DC
May 1 2006

Governments have a lot of options at their disposal to stop mass
atrocities, so why don't they always use them?

As the global community mulls critical decisions about the situation
in Darfur, Sudan, OneWorld presents a special series from its treeless
magazine, Perspectives, which offers more background and context on
issues related to stopping and preventing conflict and genocide. The
magazine also presents viewpoints from non-profit organizations and
ways for individuals to get involved. For the whole edition, check
out Perspectives magazine in the Related Links box to the left.

Stopping Genocide - Taking the Lead or Muddling Through?

"The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so
calculated, so malignant and so devastating, that civilization cannot
tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being
repeated." - Robert Jackson, Nuremberg Trials Chief Prosecutor

The incidents of mass atrocities we see on the nightly news--are they
genocide? When large groups are being murdered or driven to physical
destruction because of their race or religion, how could it not be?

But while some say it is, others say no. Should it matter?

In fact, the debate over when to define such incidents as "genocide"
would fill volumes. Today, so much time is often spent discussing
whether to call something "genocide," that valuable time is lost
addressing the conflict itself. Witness the murder of some 800,000
Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in the space of around 6 weeks
in 1994 while the international community tried to decide whether
genocide was really taking place and what to do about it. Although
much soul searching has since taken place at the United Nations on why
the international community was not able to prevent this atrocity--or
the one in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica a year later--many assert
that it is still happening in 2006 in western Sudan, or is at risk
of occurring in places like Cote d'Ivoire.

Historical Roots

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-born jurist who served as an adviser to the
U.S. Department of War during World War II, first coined the term
"genocide" and defined it as "the criminal intent to destroy or to
cripple permanently a human group." Many would argue that genocide is
not a new phenomenon and has been practiced for centuries. According to
the Encylopedia Brittanica, for example, it was common in ancient times
for victors in war to massacre all the men of a conquered population.

It was only about 60 years ago, however, that the UN General Assembly
made the crime of genocide punishable under international law. The
shock of Nazi Germany's mass extinction of some 6 million Jews and
millions more Poles and Soviet prisoners during World War II led to
the Nuremberg Trials from 1945-1949 in which Nazi war criminals were
charged with "crimes against humanity."

Although some criticized these trials because the war's winning
powers took on the role of judge and prosecutor, they nonetheless set
precedents for holding individuals--not just states--accountable for
heinous crimes. And they gave momentum to the effort to codify laws
to combat genocide.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of
Genocide entered into force a few years later in 1951. Genocide is
defined in this Convention as "the intentional physical destruction
of groups in whole or in part." For these purposes, "groups"
can be defined by their national, ethnic, racial, or religious
characteristics. Despite some inherent flaws in the Convention--like
its lack of enforcement provisions--it has nonetheless helped to
establish a body of customary international law against such extreme
abuses. As signatories, 137 states have acknowledged a clear moral
and legal obligation to prevent and punish genocide.

When Is It "Genocide"?

Perpetrators of mass atrocities will often claim that they have not
committed genocide because there was no specific "intent" to annihilate
a group, but that these victims were simply casualties of war, or a
threat to national order. Many Turks would not agree, for example,
that the massacres of Armenians in 1915-16 constituted genocide; the
former Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein would not agree that its use
of chemical warfare against the Kurds in the 1980s was genocide; nor
would the Bosnian Serb Army Commander Ratko Mladic and his supporters
agree that the 1995 massacre of thousands of Muslim men and boys in
the town of Srebrenica was genocide.

Human rights organizations, in contrast, have generally disagreed with
these assessments, have brought attention to the abuses taking place,
and have tried to ensure that perpetrators are not able to commit such
crimes with impunity--through their support of institutions like the
new International Criminal Court in The Hague, for example.

There is still significant debate today about whether to call the
killing of an estimated 200-400,000 civilians in Sudan's Darfur region
"genocide." Allegedly government-supported militias (the Janjaweed)
are carrying out these atrocities, but the Sudanese government claims
these militias are not an instrument of their policy. Non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) like Africa Action, Amnesty International, and
Human Rights Watch--just to name a few--claim, in contrast, that the
Sudanese government and its allied Arab militia are implementing
a strategy of ethnic-based murder, rape, torture, and forcible
displacement of civilians in Darfur.

Contrary to the position of many other member states at the UN that
are only willing to call it a "humanitarian crisis," the conflict in
the Sudan is one of the few that the U.S. government has--at least at
one time--been willing to label "genocide." Using this term implies
an obligation to take action to protect civilians, but such action
by the U.S. on Sudan remains inadequate, say many NGOs.

NGOs and others assert, however, that it is important not to get
bogged down in the debate over whether to call something "genocide."

As Juan Mendez, the UN Special Adviser on Genocide Prevention, stated
in February 2006, "Many times the debate about whether something is
genocide or not has substituted for the decision to act to prevent it,
and that is a paralyzing, very sterile debate." What is more vital,
adds UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, is that the perpetrators of the
violence are held accountable so that "such grave crimes, whatever
they may be called, cannot be committed with impunity."

Peacekeeping Revisited

Many of those working in international organizations or with civil
society groups have long suggested that rapidly deployable--and more
effective--peacekeeping operations would go a long way to helping
to stop mass atrocities such as genocide. The key term in this
phrase is "rapid." With rare exceptions like the UN Operation in the
Congo in 1960, it usually takes several months to put forces on the
ground from the time the UN Security Council decides to establish
a peacekeeping mission. Denmark, the Netherlands, and Canada have
been at the forefront of proposing "high readiness brigades" that
could move into an area much more quickly to both secure the peace
and prevent atrocities.

Since 2000, such a State of High Readiness Brigade (SHIRBRIG) has come
into existence, but deployments focus more on the peaceful settlement
of disputes than on taking robust action. Sensitivities about command
and control arrangements, training problems with multinational forces,
and a lack of willingness to foot the bill have hampered progress
to date. United Nations member states are often concerned about
any initiative that may be perceived to infringe on their national
sovereignty; hence, there are many political hurdles to overcome
before forces can be dispatched.

But views about peace operations have also gradually been
changing. A report released by the U.S. Institute of Peace in June
2005, for example, noted that a fundamental shift is underway in UN
peacekeeping. More robust methods are being used to protect civilians
and go after those who are considered "spoilers" of peace agreements,
notes the report, which also calls for the creation of a rapid reaction
force. A Christian Science Monitor article on the report's release
notes that UN peacekeepers are getting a stronger mandate and are
"pushing the boundaries of impartiality in an effort to restore lost
credibility" after a string of failures in the 1990s.

While the UN has prided itself on being an impartial body, there
have been growing questions about the appropriateness of maintaining
neutrality in all circumstances. As a UN peace operations panel noted
in their Brahimi Report released in 2000, "No failure did more to
damage the standing and credibility of United Nations peacekeeping
in the 1990s than its reluctance to distinguish victim from aggressor."

The Brahimi report was a catalyst for changing UN thinking on these

The Duty to Protect

In commenting on the massacre in Srebrenica, UN Secretary-General
Kofi Annan noted that a "deliberate attempt to terrorize, expel or
murder an entire people must be met decisively with all necessary
means." These means can include a variety of political carrots and
sticks, public condemnation, economic sanctions, or, as a last resort,
some form of military intervention.

While some NGOs, like the American Friends Service Committee,
advocate a nonviolent approach to such conflicts, others believe that
military--or at least policing--solutions may sometimes be necessary.

Refugees International has recommended to the U.S. government, for
example, that it should prepare "for the necessity of taking a hard
line against perpetrators of genocide."

This stance underlies a growing recognition in international
circles that there is "a responsibility to protect" civilians from
terrible atrocity crimes. An independent International Commission
on Intervention and State Sovereignty--established by the Canadian
government in 2000--tried to forge a consensus on these ideas. They
also proposed clear guidelines to ensure that interventions--military
or otherwise--were not politically motivated. Among others, crimes
have to be widespread and systematic to warrant intervention, said
their report.

Although international law has traditionally supported a "hands off"
policy regarding a state's domestic affairs--and states continue to
accept few limits on their perceived national sovereignty--humanitarian
intervention has occasionally been justified in exceptional
circumstances, such as interventions in Somalia and Kosovo. Human
rights law has also evolved a great deal over the past 50 years, with
far more attention paid to protecting individuals from violations
committed by erring governments.

And, as International Crisis Group President Gareth Evans noted in
August 2004, "There has been an increased willingness to challenge the
'culture of impunity' through new international criminal courts,"
a "greatly increased reliance on peacemaking initiatives and
negotiated peace agreements," an "equally dramatic increase in complex
peace operations focusing on post-conflict peace building," and "a
significantly greater Security Council willingness to authorize the
use of force, which has helped deter aggression and sustain peace

He adds that these efforts have made a difference and that, contrary to
conventional wisdom, the number of people killed each year in violent
armed conflicts has significantly declined from a high point in the
late 1980s and early 1990s.

Calling All Leaders

Governments have a lot of options at their disposal to step in to stop
mass atrocities, including drawing from a range of political, legal,
economic, and military sanctions. The reality is, however, that they
are not always willing to employ these options in deference to their
own perceived interests. Absence of political will and resolve among
UN member states, combined with a lack of effective and centralized
enforcement, has generally been a recipe for inaction.

Responses usually end up being very ad-hoc in nature--or, in the
words of some commentators, the international community simply
"muddles through."

Speaking at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2004,
Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem
from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, offered several
prescriptions for addressing genocide more effectively. Among
these were avoiding the semantic debate, for governments to apply
a much broader range of options from the policy toolbox, equipping
decision makers to see the human faces involved, and to have more of
a conversation across borders about alleviating such tragedies.

In reference to the role of citizens, she added "for the most
part, we haven't succeeded in convincing our policy makers and
our politicians that they would pay a political price for being a
bystander to genocide....A non-response to genocide doesn't occur in
a vacuum. A non-response is affirmed by societal silence. It becomes
an excuse. It is the excuse that political leaders point to."

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For more on genocide, viewpoints from organizations working in the
field, and ways you can get involved or join in the global discussion,
check out Perspectives magazine in the Related Links box above. /1/4536