In the Face of Genocide

On a number of recent occasions, the world has done little more than observe.

For several years now, a human rights crisis of drastic proportions has been unfolding in the Darfur region of Sudan. Intense fighting between Sudan's government and rebel groups demanding greater autonomy has claimed the lives of at least 200,000 and forced many more into refugee camps along the country’s borders. Although a peace treaty was signed in May, government-sponsored militias known as the Janjaweed have continued to slaughter thousands of civilians from ethnic African communities in the region. In recent weeks, the fighting has intensified, with the rebel groups beginning to make inroads against the Janjaweed, causing the death toll to rise still further. Though the United States has officially labeled the situation genocide, so far no decisive action has been taken to intervene.

Following the Holocaust, it was famously declared that the world would “Never Again” stand by as one ethnic group set about systematically eliminating another. But more than a few such situations have, in fact, occurred. Given the seemingly obvious horror and injustice of such “ethnic cleansings,” it is perplexing that the international community does not in each case stamp them out as soon as they become known. But as this collection of Atlantic articles makes clear, in many cases, despite the best of intentions and an explicitly articulated commitment to upholding human rights, those best in a position to act sometimes allow self-interest, inertia, or other considerations to get in the way.

Many have drawn parallels between the current genocide in Darfur and the genocide that took place in Rwanda a little over a decade ago. In her article, “Bystanders to Genocide” (September 2001), Samantha Power made chillingly clear that while the U.S. knew about the atrocities that  Rwanda’s Hutu government was perpetrating against the country’s minority population of Tutsis, minimal action was taken. Instead of intervening, Powers explained, the Clinton Administration made an ostentatious show of deliberating about what to do, thereby appearing to take the situation seriously while in fact avoiding entanglement. It was an approach, she points out, that worked well for the United States, but not so well for Rwanda.

First, [the U.S.] wanted to avoid engagement in a conflict that posed little threat to American interests narrowly defined. Second, they sought to appease a restless Congress by showing that they were cautious in their approach to peacekeeping. And third, they hoped to contain the political costs and avoid the moral stigma associated with allowing genocide. By and large, they achieved all three objectives. The normal operations of the foreign-policy bureaucracy and the international community permitted an illusion of continual deliberation, complex activity, and intense concern, even as the Rwandans were left to die.

The genocide was finally put to an end by the Tutsi-led Patriotic Front forces. But by that time, 800,000 Tutsi had been killed.

The phenomenon of post-Holocaust genocide has not been exclusive to Africa. During the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime led an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Kurds of Northern Iraq, culminating in 1988 with the use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians. In her article “After Saddam” (December 1992), Laurie Mylroie, who had recently visited the region, described “evidence of atrocities … everywhere.” The international community was appalled by Saddam’s actions and sought to punish him. But the steps they took, Mylroie pointed out, were ill considered, and ironically ended up serving only to further victimize the Kurds:

The Kurds’ economic problems are not necessary. Rather, they are a consequence of the mindless application of the UN embargo to northern Iraq. Formally, the embargo exists to force Saddam Hussein to comply with the UN resolutions; the scarcely concealed goal is to oust him. But because he does not control the north, enforcing the embargo there does not hurt him. In fact, it strengthens his position, for the greater the prosperity of areas not under his control, the greater the dissatisfaction inside Iraq proper and the more pressure on the dictator.

Iraqi Kurdistan has oil fields that, were it not for the embargo, could be developed within a year, generating income and much-needed fuel.

Eastern Europe, too, has recently been touched by genocide. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic set out to form a “Greater Serbia” by ethnically cleansing the Balkan states of their Muslim populations. In “Bosnia: Hands Off” (November 1992), Conor Cruise O’Brien made a case against direct military intervention, arguing that the deployment of ground forces would lead to significant casualties, and that troops would end up indefinitely committed to the region. He instead advocated low-risk diplomatic efforts, warning that if Western European governments were to send troops, they would be punished politically since they had no vested interest in the area. Savvy politicians were aware, he explained, that “to send their nationals ‘to die for Balkan peace’ would mean their own political deaths, as soon as the price of peace-with-attrition began to be realized.” He speculated that war weariness and territorial satiety would ultimately cause the genocide to wind down on its own.

O’Brien’s theory proved accurate; by the third year of fighting, Milosevic had responded to international diplomatic pressure despite the fact that peacekeeping troops had never been sent to the region. But five years after the war’s end, in “Midnight in Sarajevo” (April 2000), David Rieff, who had spent time in Bosnia both during and after the war, described the searing anger that many Bosnians felt towards the international community for having put forth so little effort to end the genocide. During the war, Rieff explained, many Bosnians had felt that the world did not care one way or the other whether their people survived to see the year 2000. “I would like so much to be here when the millennium turns,” one embittered young soldier told him. “That would be our greatest revenge on the world that is content to feed us and let the snipers do their work.”

—Zaina Arafat