What barriers are there to the effective prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity?
There is no issue that garners as much global consensus such as preventing genocides and crimes against humanity. Genocide is no doubt the most extreme form of crime against humanity yet international response to such kind of phenomena has proven to inefficient with a number barriers that seem to have undermined prevention efforts. Episodes of genocides and mass atrocities have cost lives of at least 12 million and as many as 22 million non-combatants. Yet rarely has human suffering mobilized policy makers into action.
This paper examines some of the barriers to the effective prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. The paper first highlights important initiatives that have been undertaken by the international community to prevent genocide and atrocity crimes and then it outlines some of the setbacks that have contributed to the recurrence of these phenomena.
Barriers identified include lack of capacity by the security council to enforce indictment in a host country, attachment to the “national interest”, lack of political will to intervene, routine delays due to squabbles and trade-offs, and absence or inaccuracy of warnings. Finally, the paper provides suggestions of what can be done to strengthen prevention efforts.
There is no issue that garners as much global consensus such as preventing genocides and crimes against humanity. Many of us are aware of the tragedies and damage that has resulted from mass atrocities and genocides in the past. Episodes of genocides and mass atrocities have cost lives of at least 12 million and as many as 22 million non-combatants (Aussenpolitik 2009). As pointed out by Kofi Annan, UN secretary general, nothing is more important or has a binding obligation than the prevention of genocide (USIP 2008).
Atrocities, ethnic cleanings, genocides and war crimes have punctuated human history and are recurrent phenomena. Since the World War II, nearly 50 of such events have occurred yet rarely has human suffering mobilized policy makers into action (Aussenpolitik 2009). Since the 1990s, we have witnessed a list of mass atrocities including genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, Somalia and Darfur (Jones 2008). This raises a fundamental question: why have genocides and crimes against humanity persisted in our era?
In order to address the above question, this paper examines some of the barriers to the effective prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. The paper first highlights important initiatives that have been undertaken by the international community to prevent genocide and atrocity crimes and then it outlines some of the setbacks that have contributed to the recurrence of these phenomena. Further, the paper provides suggestions of what can be done to strengthen prevention efforts.
The term ‘mass killing’ was initially used to describe the true atrocities committed during the Holocaust. However as Yacoubian (2000) notes, the scale of atrocities was too large to be termed as ‘mass killing’ and as a result Lemkin (1944) devised the term ‘genocide’. Thereafter, in 1948, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide (UNCG) adopted this term, making genocide as a crime under international law (Kintish 2011).
Genocide is distinct from other forms of crime in that the masterminds and core perpetrators of atrocity crimes often have the legitimacy and authority of the government (Mahmood 2009). Since inception of the UN in 1946, following the World War II, prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity has been its core goal (Mayersen 2010). During the inaugural session, genocide was declared as a crime under international law and member states of the General Assembly were invited to enact domestic legislation against genocide (Mayersen 2010).
Currently, the UNCG provides for both the prevention and punishment of genocidal crimes. Focus is, however, placed more on the later rather than the former. Nonetheless, the punishment of those accused of genocides and the threat to punish those likely to be involved ranging from incitement to planning to actually committing genocide, is meant to have a preventative effect.
Strategies and instruments adopted to prevent genocide
In the quest to prevent the recurrence of genocidal regimes, various strategies have been adopted. One way through which the international community has made effort to prevent genocides is by deterrence through trials. Criminal law, and to a lesser extent tort law, have set out certain activities which are considered unacceptable (Totten 2011). By attaching sanctions such as imprisonment, fine, hard labour and death to those responsible for war crimes, the international community signals to specific offenders of the unambiguously negative consequences of participating in such activities.
Ad hoc tribunals have been established by the international community to help deter genocidal crimes. These include International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) (Totten 2013). The International Criminal Court, an independent permanent court of last resort, has also been established to try persons accused of war crimes and genocides.
A number of other instruments have been adopted by the UN to help prevent genocides. These include: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the rights of the child (1989), torture (1987), Security Council Resolution on Women, Peace and Security (2000) and the Conventions on racial discrimination (1969) among many others (Alan 2001). More recently, at the world summit in 2005, the international community unanimously endorsed the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (RtoP) which reaffirms them of their responsibility to prevent war crimes, ethnic cleansing, genocides and all crimes against humanity (Mayersen 2010).
Despite its commitment to prevent genocide, the record of the UN has been abysmal. While the UN has been consistent at the rhetoric level, their commitment to preventing genocide has not translated into meaningful preventative action as shall be discussed below (Mayersen 2010). Despite efforts that seek to prevent genocides and crimes against humanity, episodes of massacres, mass rapes and forced displacements have persisted in our era.
A prime example of this can be seen with the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the ongoing Darfur crisis in Sudan. For years, the janjaweed militia in Sudan and the government has committed systemic mass-murders, ethnic cleansing, gang rape and frequent cross-border incursions to kill refugees (Milliard 2008). Even with the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006, yet another offensive was unleashed by the Government of Sudan to ‘cleanse’ the region (Milliard 2008).
What is most surprising is the routine delays to respond to the Darfur crisis. Rather than a rapid reaction, the wider response to the crisis reflects a recurring pattern of routine delays and the dubious promise of “never again” (Langille 2009). With the Darfur crisis, and the Rwandan and Srebrenica genocides, it is obvious that the existing arrangements are not sufficient enough to save succeeding generations from scourge of genocides and crimes against humanity.
This leads us to pose a range of vexing questions: why is that even after the international community vowed to prevent and punish perpetrators and masterminds of war crimes (after the holocaust), this challenge has not been fully metWhat have been some of the barriers/impediments to effective prevention of genocides and crimes against humanityAlso, given the consistent failure to mitigate or prevent the recurrence of atrocity crimes, what can be done to strengthen prevention efforts?
Barriers to effective prevention of genocide
A quick glance at episodes of atrocity crimes committed since World War II seems to suggest that trials do not act as a deterrent to future atrocities. According to Harff (2003), in between periods 1955 and 2000, close to thirty six cases of atrocity crimes occurred, most of which are politically motivated. The fact that atrocity crimes have been a recurrent phenomena tend to suggest that domestic trials, at the very most, have been modest in terms of deterrence (Totten 2013)
This is evident with the ICTY which was created in 1993 to stop the atrocities committed in the Balkans. Despite the ICTY, a recurrence of the worst atrocities still occurred including the siege of Sarajevo and genocide targeting of Muslim men in Srebrenica in 1995 (Totten 2013). Further, the ICTY, did not seem to have had a wider deterrent effect on the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
Similarly, the ICTR has not dissuaded the genocidal regime in Darfur. This leads one to question: why has this been the caseWhy has the influence of the IMT, ICTR, ICTY and many other domestic trials been modest in terms of deterrenceOne explanation that can be put forth is the lack of sufficient enforcement capabilities. Whilst a robust set of laws and procedures has been developed by the international community for trying perpetrators and masterminds of genocides, it still lacks the means to enforce indictments against these individuals (Totten 2013)
While the UN Charter mandates UN forces to enforce indictments, there operations are only limited to their territory. Also, other regional security organizations such as the African Union and the NATO can enforce indictment but only across limited territorial boundaries (Totten 2013). The UN forces cannot operate in the territory of another unless it has obtained consent from the host state, which is highly unlikely in areas of genocidal and abusive regimes.
Even if the host state consents to the presence of the UN and regional forces, they may not receive the much needed cooperation and may be over-stretched by many facets of complicated missions, hence may be unable to enforce indictment of individuals accused of war crimes (Totten 2013). Prime case examples where such a situation has occurred can be seen with the UN/AU tenure in Sudan and NATO’s experience in Bosnia.
Under such circumstances, the only option to enforce arrest warrants would be to violate state’s sovereignty. However, there are no examples of this and it seems highly unlikely that a new zeal for transgressing the principle of state sovereignty will be found, not to mention risking millions of lives (Totten 2013). The overall lack of enforcement capability impedes effective prevention of genocides and crimes against humanity.
Although the traditional views of sovereignty have always been used by genocidal regimes as a means of preventing international forces from indicting individuals accused of war crimes, there is a growing understanding that sovereignty implies rights and obligations (Albright & Cohen 2008). This implies that states have a fundamental responsibility of protecting its citizens from mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. Therefore, national sovereignty should not be used by governments as a shield of protecting indictment of individuals accused of atrocity crimes. However, despite this recognition, the challenge remains for the international community to implement this principle.
Another factor which seems to have impeded effective prevention of war crimes is the attachment to the “national interest” especially among the great powers (Aussenpolitik 2009). Often when there are incidences of war crimes, the international community is supposed to deal with it through its security council. However, where one or more of the veto powers of the Security Council have political, economic or strategic interest in the host country where atrocities are likely to occur, then preventing such an action from happening may be impossible in practice.
A prime example of this can be seen with the ongoing Darfur crisis in Sudan. Chinese oil interests and the support of genocidal regimes in Khartoum by Russia and the Arab league have led to the ongoing Darfur crisis which has caused over 400,000 deaths (Langille 2009). A small genocidal attrition is continuing as women are targeted for sexual assault, children killed, and more than 2.7 million people evicted from their homes to languish in displaced persons’ camp (Langille 2009). The ongoing crisis in Darfur has led to many people questioning the will and the capacity of the international community to intervene and prevent acts of genocides from reoccurring which brings me to yet another factor which seems to have impeded efforts to preventing genocides.
The lack of political will to intervene in a crisis situation is evident in many cases. For example, in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the US which is arguably the most influential of all member states in the Security Council dictated the response to the genocide. The US State Department continually resisted using the term “genocide” and instead insisted on occurrence of only “acts of genocide” in Rwanda (Bradshaw 2004). This signaled to the extremist Hutu’s that international intervention was highly unlikely.
Further, this argument was reinforced by information presented to James Woods, US assistant secretary of the state, by his supervisor. In the information, issues concerning Rwanda and Burundi were viewed as silly humanitarian issues which the US national interest could not be involved (Kentish 2011). Clearly, the lack of political will to intervene is a major impediment to preventing genocides and acts of atrocities.
There is also the challenge of early warnings which are often dismissed as alarmist. The recent-post election skirmish in Kenya is a prime example of this. Whilst most analysts had anticipated the likelihood of some sought of violence occurring, none imagined its scale and ferocity (Albright & Cohen 2008) . As a result, policy makers scrambled in a crisis response mode without any contingency plan.
Surprisingly, the collective response to the crisis was impressive, but far from assured due to inaccurate warning (Albright & Cohen 2008). The accuracy of warnings depends on the extent to which analysts can identify indicators of atrocities and genocides. Whilst there has been some success in identifying the long-term risk factors, finding generalizable triggers or accelerators of genocides has proven much more difficult (Albright & Cohen 2008). .
For instance, pervasive hate speech has been cited on many instances as a sign of potential atrocity. The hate radio in Rwanda and the Nazi propaganda machine are two prime examples where pervasive hate speech has resulted in genocide (Albright & Cohen 2008). However, there are many other observed cases where the pervasive hate speech did not result in genocide. Nonetheless, research into the dynamics of escalation of mass atrocities and genocide is warranted. Analysts should consider how atrocity crimes manifest themselves in a particular context and they should generate a set of case-specific indicators (Albright & Cohen 2008). .
The slow pace of decision making is yet another impediment which has prevented effective prevention of genocide. Efforts to put to a stop or prevent genocides have often been plagued by routine delays resulting from squabbles and trade-offs among the member states of the Security Council (Sriram et al. 2009). The ongoing Darfur crisis in Sudan is a prime example where the Security Council has failed to provide a reliable, effective and rapid response.
In the ongoing crisis in Sudan, it took nearly three years for the UN Security Council to intervene. Years of ongoing deliberation, squabbles and trade-offs led to a slow response by the Security Council (Sriram et al. 2009). Given the threat of a veto from China and reluctance from Russia, the Security Council took long to intervene in the Darfur crisis.
Strengthening prevention efforts
Having said the above, what then can be done to strengthen prevention effortsThe first major element which needs to be taken seriously is assessing risks and generating accurate early warning of potential atrocities. In most cases, such early warnings have been dismissed as alarmist. Whilst some preventative strategies such as advancing global norms and institutions can be adopted without having to analyze when and where risks are greatest, most of the strategies must be directed at specific situations (Albright & Cohen 2008). Early warning would help policy makers to take effective preventive action. But it must be recognized that effective early warning may not necessarily guarantee successful prevention. Nonetheless, in the absence or inaccuracy of warning, failure is virtually guaranteed.
The problem of political will must also be addressed in order to strengthen prevention efforts. A viable solution to this problem would be to force national leaders to address issues of genocide or else face consequences such as being removed from office (Kentish 2011). National interests should not supersede the need of humanity. Traditional views of sovereignty are no doubt the biggest hindrance to the collective efforts to prevent genocides. It represents a normative challenge to the UN: the principle of ‘international responsibility to protect’ is yet to truly overcome the tension between competing claims of state sovereignty and right to intervene (Langille 2009).
Lessons should also be learnt from previous late failed intervention efforts and the Security Council should expedite their deliberations. In a connected and interdependent world, there is need to establish a deeper level of global cooperation on international issues such as genocides and crimes against humanity (Langille 2009). There is need for prompt and immediate response to avoid recurrence of genocides. Perhaps, an independent United Nations Emergency Peace Service (UNEPS) with capacity to respond to crisis promptly and in a reliable and cost-effective manner can be established.
To further strengthen prevention efforts, there is the need to promote reconciliation, an idea proposed by a number of authors including Kennedy (2008) who suggested the need for raising awareness and educating people against genocide. As pointed out by Mendez (2007), the focus should shift from punishment to prevention. Often, the focus of UNCG has been on punishment rather than prevention. Whilst such an approach is meant to have a deterrent effect, there is need to also focus on preventative measures such as promoting reconciliation as opposed to punishment. The civil society thus has a role to play by engaging in educational outreach worldwide. The civil society has to mobilize support and propel previously stalled efforts in order to effectively prevent genocides.
Indeed, nothing is more important or has a binding obligation than the prevention of genocide. Since World War II, we have witnessed a recurrence of mass atrocities and genocides including the Rwandan genocide, Bosnia, Somalia and the ongoing Darfur crisis. The recurrence of such phenomena can be attributed to a host of factors including the lack of capacity by the security council to enforce indictment in a host country, attachment to the “national interest”, lack of political will to intervene, routine delays due to squabbles and trade-offs, and absence or inaccuracy of warnings.
To strengthen prevention efforts, there is an urgent need to go beyond national interests and to provide humanitarian aid in areas of genocidal regimes. Robust risk assessment and accurate early warnings should help policy makers to take preventative actions. The Security Council also needs to act promptly in a crisis and in a reliable and cost-effective manner. The civil society also has a major role to play by engaging in educational outreach and mobilizing support and propelling stalled efforts.
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