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September 18, 2005

UN Reform Issue Spotlight -- Responding to Genocide
Posted by David Shorr

With all the highly politicized wordsmithing of the pre-UN Summit negotiations, for some issues it's hard to tell whether the text of the resulting Outcome Document represents a step forward, backward, or sideways. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrestled with this problem in his Sunday column on genocide (full disclosure, I provided Kristof with modest help). He gives an almost schizophrenically mixed verdict, calling the statement on genocide (paragraphs #138-40) both "diluted" and "immensely important."Can both be true?

Of course the proper test regarding genocide or ethnic cleansing is action in response to particular campaigns of atrocities. Kristof's critique of the Bush Administration is that while it has called the carnage in Darfur by its rightful name, genocide, it has failed to follow through by pushing for sanctions or a no-fly zone.

So then what's the point of even having a UN statement on genocide? If the most important debates over how to respond to genocide always arise in a particular context (a specific place, perpetrators), they also take place against the backdrop of a broader debate over principles. The most contentious issues of multilateralism are at root about sovereignty -- either encroachment into a country's domestic matters or its obligation to act internationally, or both. For the issue of humanitarian intervention, a blue-ribbon commission in 2001 introduced the idea of the Responsibility to Protect -- which instead of solely granting outsiders a right to intervene, talked about a shift in the onus of protecting the basic right to safety from domestic to international governments if the local authorities prove unwilling or unable.

The statement in the Outcome Document essentially ratifies this concept, and therein lies its significance. For many countries that are either relatively weak internationally or have problematic human rights record, the purpose of the UN is to protect sovereign nations from outside interference in internal affairs. These sovereigntist governments have two concerns -- one valid, and one less so.

We need only look at the post-invasion rationalization of the Iraq War to see how powerful countries can abuse this principle. Recall how Sen. Pat Roberts said the war was justified on humanitarian grounds, or the administration's emphasis on Saddam's mass graves, dating largely from the late 1980s or early 1990s. Human Rights Watch President Ken Roth debunked this premise saying, "'better late than never' is not a justification for humanitarian intervention."

Hopefully the UN summit statement will lay to rest one of the great red herrings of this debate: the idea that humanitarian intervention will be used in cases of less drastic human rights violations. The statement addresses this issue with the unwieldy though precise phrase: "responsibility to protect population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

When Bush Administration officials explained their negotiating position to me, they emphasized that the responsibility to protect should be a moral obligation rather than a legal one. But a closer reading reveals an effort to cast it as a choice rather than any kind of obligation. Now that the statement is part of the UN record, hopefully the larger principles rather than the finer points of language will help shape future decisions about genocide.


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This a very important subject, but the amount of hypocrisy on all sides of the issue seems to be appalling. I have a couple of questions for David:

(1) Would the Responsibility to Protect and the UN summit statement justify a humanitarian intervention in Sudan? If so, why are there no Security Council members pushing for one? If a humanitarian intervention in Sudan is not justified on the basis of the language of these documents, how many more people have to die before it would be justified?

(2) In the run up to the war in Iraq, I would read often in the media that hundreds of thousands of people, especially children, were in effect being murdered by systematic disattention to their nutritional and health needs occuring under the sanctions. At the time, the fact was sometimes used to suggest that sanctions ought to have been abolished, and Saddam left to his own devices. The sanctions regime was not hurting Saddam but was killing the very people already suffering under Saddam's thumb.

The cynical use of the sanctions by Saddam for his own ends led others (for example, Iraqis in exile) to cite their effect as one more unequivocable reason to put Saddam and his regime out of business. If you disagree with this line of argument, please explain why.


The responsibility to protect statement in the UN summit declaration absolutely would justify intervention in Sudan. Actually there is an African Union force on the ground in Darfur, but it is not large enough and doesn't have a tough enough mandate to really do the job -- though the atrocities there have lessened significantly from their peak. As Nick Kristof points out, what is needed from Bush is to rally an international coalition to put stronger pressure on the Government of Sudan.

The key thing on your Iraq question is to keep our timelines straight. Under the UN sanctions, Saddam was certainly letting people suffer and blaming the US, which is what led to the Oil for Food program. But the question for our purposes here is whether Saddam's abuses in 2003 rose to the level warranting forceful intervention. In other words, intervention is reserved for the very worst atrocities, genocide and ethnic cleansing. Saddam did commit such crimes, but he did so in 1988 and 1991, so the humanitarian pretext for regime change was no longer valid.

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