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The Teeth to Defeat Genocide

Fall 2010 Features

The Teeth to Defeat Genocide

Changes in law, capabilities and posture – at home and internationally – will inform the new century’s responsible interventions Changes in law, capabilities and posture – at home and internationally – will inform the new century’s responsible interventions

In 1946, the General Assembly of the UN passed the following resolution:

“Genocide is the denial of the right to existence of entire human groups, as homicide is the denial of the right to live of individual human beings; such denial of the right of existence shocks the conscience of mankind, results in great losses to humanity in the form of cultural and other contributions represented by these groups, and is contrary to moral law and to the spirit and aims of the United Nations. Many instances of such crimes of genocide have occurred, when racial, religious, political and other groups have been destroyed, entirely or in part. The punishment of the crime of genocide is a matter of international concern. The General Assembly, therefore, Affirms that genocide is a crime under international law which the civilized world condemns, and for the commission of which principals and accomplices – whether private individuals, public officials or statesmen, and whether the crime is committed on religious, racial, political or any other grounds – are punishable.”

These strong and compelling words condemn the practice of genocide, and promise punishment to those who might conspire to do away with one group based on race, ethnicity, religious or political persuasion. While the words “never again” rang out internationally after the discovery in 1945 of the extent of the crimes against humanity committed during the Holocaust, since that time, the world has witnessed further mass murder in East Pakistan (Bangladesh), East Timor, Cambodia, Guatemala, Bosnia, Rwanda, Zaire (the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe and in Sudan’s Darfur region. This is merely a sampling of modern cases in which violence was unleashed against civilians with genocidal intent on ethnic, religious or national grounds. According to the NGO Genocide Watch, there are 79 countries guilty of genocide and related crimes against humanity, killing hundreds, thousands or millions in order to eradicate a group or those simply deemed a problem because of their very existence.

Governments and individual citizens agree that genocide is evil. Governments and individuals also agree that genocide should be halted when it begins to unfold or, better yet, prevented before it happens. Yet, since 1945, history has shown that the domestic political will to act preventatively is lacking among individual political leaders. The sensitivities about one sovereign state interfering in the affairs of another sovereign state lead to the inevitable response of inaction when the worst occurs. It seems that it is deemed to be diplomatically odious for democratic nations to be proactive on this issue, as it offends the sensibilities of the cautious civil servants who are monitoring the affairs of foreign nations – civil servants who might well be the first to recognize the signs of impending genocide. Often, geopolitical interests, such as oil or regional stability, get in the way of firm prophylactic action before bodies are attacked like cordwood. Sometimes, however, the absence of natural resources or other strategic interests is a comfortable reason to look the other way, as appeared to be the case during the Rwandan genocide. Fatigue with interventions or hostilities elsewhere may also dull a country’s political will to consider forceful action of a diplomatic or military nature. Of equal importance is the fear of top leaders of democracies that they will be embroiled in a quagmire once they commit to intervention, and that they will be punished by voters at the polls should casualties among their soldiers ensue. The costs of such intervention are hard to assess, both in blood and treasure. But the costs of not intervening, as we saw in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda – in terms of strategic instability and endless new structural costs to the international community – are at least as high, without counting the raw cost to humanity of hundreds, thousands or hundreds of thousands killed. Indeed, the stark and horrific reality of a Rwanda or Cambodia is so far out of the realm of the reasonable that admitting its advent or existence in the first place is often unthinkable – as were the death camps of WW2.

Last year, the Will to Intervene Project, based at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, released a report with detailed policy recommendations listed for the Canadian and US governments. The report points directly to the UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which came into force in 1951, and which assures penalties for perpetrators. And yet, the report finds that the obligations outlined in the Convention do not create sufficient personal risk of punishment for those who contemplate ethnic cleansing or genocide. The threat of prosecution has no teeth when the international community itself stands on the sidelines for fear of ‘interfering’ in the domestic affairs of another state, and for fear of whipping up a backlash among the voting public at election time. That lesson was learned in spades when the international community failed to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and subsequently had to deal in a reactive manner with the humanitarian disaster that it triggered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and neighbouring countries. And that lesson is exactly what prompted military intervention, under the aegis of NATO, in Kosovo in 1999. And while the Kosovo intervention was technically illegal, as it violated individual state sovereignty without a prior Security Council mandate, the violation was tolerated based on moral grounds. In that instance, the international community finally admitted that it was not prepared to allow genocide to be carried out twice in the Balkans, and this was absolutely the right thing to do!

NATO’s New Strategic Concept Committee has been chaired by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She is experienced and respected world-wide, and was an excellent choice to provide a balanced and fair report on the many security challenges that NATO must face in this new century. Albright is, as well, a passionate proponent of the prevention of genocide. In December 2008, she and former US Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, as co-chairs of the Genocide Prevention Task Force, released the report entitled Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for US Policymakers. In it, the authors point out that, still today, leaders within the US and elsewhere debate whether forceful military action in 1994 could have prevented the massacres in Rwanda, or whether international forces in 2003 could have stopped the militia attacks in Darfur. The military actions to protect Kurds in Iraq in 1991, and Kosovar Albanians in 1999, are cited as successful humanitarian interventions. The Albright-Cohen report sums up the art of the possible in its executive summary, which says, in part: “We conclude in this report that preventing genocide is an achievable goal. Genocide is not the inevitable result of ‘ancient hatreds’ or irrational lead­ers. It requires planning and is carried out systematically. There are ways to recognize its signs and symptoms, and viable options to prevent it at every turn if we are committed and prepared. Preventing genocide is a goal that can be achieved with the right organizational structures, strategies, and partnerships – in short, with the right blueprint.”

The problems that the international community faces in preventing future genocides are not insurmountable. However, they must first be identified. First and foremost, the requirement that authorization from the UN Security Council and consent from its permanent five (P5) members are necessary prior to taking any coercive action is a delay that has, and will continue, to cost lives. There is rarely agreement on action of any kind when the current mindset disallows action that is ‘perceived’ as violating state sovereignty. The ‘respect of sovereignty’ requirement has resulted in the UN seldom authorizing operations, even in such cases when a state is effectively killing its own civilians en masse. And, of course, it is self-evident that the requirement for consent is difficult to obtain and impedes possible peace operations when a government itself is complicit in the violence, or has an economic interest in looking the other way – as in the case of Sudan relative to oil, and the Chinese position in the country and on the P5.

Specifically, we need to look at Article 1 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states: “The Parties undertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international dispute in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered, and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.” The strict adherence to the UN Charter’s non-intervention bias when dealing with genocide is far too narrow. Consideration should be given to the addition of a new article to the North Atlantic Treaty dealing specifically with genocide and other mass atrocity crimes. This new article should override all other objections, and should connect directly with the doctrine of ‘the responsibility to protect.’ That responsibility is what brought Canadian troops to Bosnia, and Canadian air assets to the Kosovo engagement with other NATO countries.

The policy recommendations listed in the Albright-Cohen Report and Will to Intervene Report have brought structural changes to the US Departments of State and Defense, with senior officials of rank and reach now formally designated to be on genocide watch, linking defence, diplomacy and intelligence agencies and the White House. This is very much to President Obama’s credit in recognizing that preventing genocide is more than a humanitarian issue. It is also in the national interest of the US to do so, given the security and economic threats that mass atrocities generate.

While the Obama administration is demonstrating leadership on this issue, missing are similar initiatives of other partners in NATO and the broader world community. A global initiative by Canada to first put its own genocide alert infrastructure in place, working cooperatively with, and parallel to, the Obama administration, and implementing the recommendations of the Will to Intervene Report for building capacity in the Government of Canada and the Canadian Forces, and second, to seek similar initiatives in places like NATO Headquarters, the Commonwealth Secretariat, La Francophonie and the UN itself, would be a step in the right direction.

Legitimacy in international politics is about more than sterile definitions of sovereignty. It comes also by clearly indicating those events and actions that are explicitly not to be tolerated – ever! Moreover, those who preach genocidal options, or call for the eradication of UN member states, need to be targeted with intense, proactive international initiatives, sanctions, isolation and pressure, including the threat of military action, if others who stand by idly are not to be responsible for the insanity that transpires. Because when genocide is not confronted, insanity soon follows. And with the unthinkable come the knock-on effects from the commission of mass atrocities in distant lands, to which we are closely connected in a globalized world: pandemics, terrorism, piracy, organized crime, human trafficking, uncontrolled migration, diminished access to strategic raw materials, and the eventual erosion of social cohesion at home when expatriate or diaspora populations seek action that is not forthcoming from their own host governments. The transnational chaos that genocides produce renders it imperative that we put this item higher on our list of foreign policy priorities.


General Roméo Dallaire (ret’d), is a Canadian Senator (Liberal), Vice-Chair of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, and Co-Founder of the Will to Intervene Project.

Senator Hugh Segal (Conservative), is Chair of the Special Senate Committee on Anti-Terrorism and a member of the Will to Intervene Project’s Research Steering Committee.

(Illustration: Henrik Dresher)