American Diplomacy

Highlight map


Support American Diplomacy RSS Mailing-list Subscription Email American Diplomacy Facebook

By Tod Lindberg, editor of Policy Review and fellow of Hoover Institution
Reviewed by William S. Lefes (retired mission director USAID)

Tod Lindberg, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, poses the maxim of all serious questions about mass atrocities: "How do we define genocide?" Achieving a universal understanding of what constitutes genocide, he writes in this Commentary article, is the basis for seeking a solution. The often difficult-to-define difference between settling local conflicts locally and taking extreme measures to thwart the actions or inactions of a government the fails to protect its own people can frustrate any international response.

Despite the persistence of definitional problems, some progress has been made. Influenced by the horror of the Holocaust, in 1946 the UN General Assembly declared genocide an international crime, and in 1948 the organization’s Genocide Convention called for the crime’s prevention and punishment. The 2005 UN World Summit also helpfully criminalized lesser mass atrocities and called upon the international community to protect vulnerable communities – even from their own governments – before political murders or dislocations have become genocide.

The improved possibility of diplomatic or military intervention has nevertheless failed to end all instances of mass atrocities in Africa or Southeast Asia, where they have most often occurred of late. The effort to get NATO to intervene in Darfur in 2004, for example, initially failed due to the objections of France, which argued that NATO should stay out of an area of long-standing French interest. With the UN holding back, an appeal from the African Union (AU) finally prompted NATO to act – though it never provided sufficient training and financing to enable the AU either to end the killing in Darfur or to prepare for countering incipient genocidal activities elsewhere.

Even with genocide better defined and intervention facilitated, it remains to determine who will decide whether on-going murders reflect a mere misunderstanding among tribal or clan groupings or the onset of something more sinister that may eventually develop into a full scale slaughter or displacement of a people. If only diplomatic or military intervention seems likely to stop the killing, who will take action? Lindberg makes clear, that must often be the United States, in at least a leading role.

Resolving genocide issues requires two steps: The first is to recognize that the role of diplomacy is a primary element in any solution to the problem because constant monitoring of potential cases will be necessary. This is called "butting your nose" into the affairs of another nation. Such is nevertheless often necessary to respond to a situation before it escalates into a full-blown disaster. All countries in a region must agree on the need to accept diplomacy and the necessity for monitoring as the foundation for resolving genocide issues. The second step is more controversial because it can involve an outside military intervention, perhaps against the will of a government indifferent to or even sponsoring mass atrocities on its own territory. Without a willingness to take those steps, the UN conventions remain nothing more than “words on paper.”

The logical candidates to intervene in cases of genocide are probably the strongest among us because a rapid deployment of diplomats and troops may be called for. But, who will be willing to support such a move? Let us face it. African and Southeast Asian leaders in whose countries most mass atrocities have occurred in the recent past might see themselves in the looking glass as potential "victims" of such interventions. They would know that if diplomacy fails armed intervention might thwart their local army, police, or militia actions. People tend to be killed during interventions, which could have a chilling effect on decisions to move in with outside forces. In many cases only a military alliance with capabilities like those of NATO or the European Union, perhaps acting in conjunction with local powers, can give meaning to the international responsibility to protect peoples at risk of genocide.

Experience has thus far suggested that effective armed intervention would be more humanitarian than ignoring mass atrocities.  Rwanda, Cambodia, and now Darfur are examples that might have been averted by diplomacy and, failing that, with timely intervention by armed forces. There will be some who will object to the use of armed forces in genocide cases as interference in the internal affairs of other nations. Should those persons prevail, the world will then have to satisfy itself with the thought that the killing will go on due to its failure to take responsibility for ending it.bluestar

white starAmerican Diplomacy white star
Copyright © 2012 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC