How many deaths will it take till we know?
Stopping Genocide: Taking the Lead or Muddling Through?
Zarrin T. Caldwell
“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, Chief Prosecutor, The Nuremberg Trials).
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.
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.”
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 US 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 values.
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