Monday, February 20, 2006

Rolling Genocide

Senator Barack Obama's latest podcast is devoted to the topic of Darfur. (Obama's appearance on the NewsHour with Senator Brownback was covered by Eugene. See also Brownback, Biden Urge President to Act to Stop Genocide.) It seems that the Senators are still all together on this, urging the President to do more. In the previous week Vice President Dick Cheney had said that he was satisfied that the United States is doing everything it can do with regards to Sudan. That position has been politely rejected by leading Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, and, now it would seem, President Bush as well.

For the past year it's been my impression that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has had more say than Cheney on the conduct of foreign affairs in the Bush Administration, but Rice's failure to obtain emergency funding for the African Union mission last December raised doubts in my mind. However, as with the case of the McCain bill to prohibit torture, evidently some daylight exists between the Vice President and the President. Cheney's opinions on matters of foreign affairs should thus not be taken as definitive statements of U.S. policy. Be that as it may, the Admisitration's position has not been consistently unambiguous. The Administration's ambivalence was vividly on display recently when Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer (a member of Rice's team) avoided committing to the position that the genocide in Darfur was ongoing. Eric Reeves characterized this as "mendacity," wishful thinking of the worst sort. Since then, Rice has reiterated the view that genocide is ongoing, and President Bush has reaffirmed the use of the word "genocide."

Eddie's recent misgivings about the use of the term "genocide" prompt me to say a few words about why I describe the situation in Darfur as a genocide, and why I think it's important to describe it that way. My view of the situation's historical development is generally consistent with Alex de Waal's (who has also informed my view, it should be said. See his Counter-Insurgency on the Cheap and Tragedy in Darfur). In deciding whether the terms of Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide apply, I have examined reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, various United Nations bodies, Doctors without Borders, USAID, the International Crisis Group, and others. Of these groups, only Physicians for Human Rights, I believe, has uniquivocally stated that the Genocide Convention legally obliges its signatories to intervene to prevent an "unfolding genocide" in Darfur.

Were I sitting in judgement, charged with the duty of punishing the crime of genocide, I would want to give even those accused of the gravest offenses, such as Musa Hilal or Salah Abdala Gosh, the presumption of innocence. Obviously, then, I cannot say with absolute certainty that a genocide has been committed or is in the process of being perpetrated. However, the evidence that has been made public is compelling enough for me to conclude that if the Convention is ever to become an instrument for preventing genocide, as it promises, it must be called upon in the case of Darfur. The situation in Darfur of course differs in many of its particulars from the Holocaust, the 100 days of Mayhem, or other genocides that are, in retrospect surely, easily definable as genocides according to the Convention. Any genocide will be, as an event, historically unique, involving a mixture of motives and social forces that will tend to obscure genocidal intent. Because the nature of the crime is so shocking, it is to be expected that many people will want to believe that subsidiary, secondary, parallel, or closely intertwined motives are in fact essential.

For instance, what motives underly the systematic campaign of rape in Darfur? Amnesty International, in its report on rape in Darfur, clearly sees that "[v]iolence against women is occurring in a context of systematic human rights violations against civilians in Darfur" and that "rape and other forms of sexual violence in Darfur are not just a consequence of the conflict or of the result of the conduct of undisciplined troops." In all likelihood some of the attackers do have well understood criminal motives, but these cannot explain the overall pattern of violence. Nevertheless, Amnesty finds that evidence of an intent to exterminate a group is inconclusive, even though attackers are reported to have frequently used racial insults during attacks, sometimes while expressing a desire to exterminate the racial group to which they assign their victims. Collective punishment and humiliation are surely motives for rape in this case, but only by brushing aside evidence of stated intentions can we reasonably view these as primary motives.

Amnesty, in its report on rape, entertains a similar argument with respect to the looting of livestock. I think it's quite remarkable for them to note that attackers may have pecuniary interests in stealing cattle, while avoiding the conclusion that systematic destruction and theft of livestock is evidence of an intent to deliberately inflict conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the targeted group. So clearly the problem of systematic rape is but one of many secondary issues raised by the genocide in Darfur. In all cases it seems that "pure" genocidal intentions are difficult to discern while the genocide is unfolding, as there appear to be no shortage of other reasons to commit mass murder and grand scale atrocities.

If United Nations peacekeepers, led by NATO forces, were to intervene in Darfur, augmenting and eventually taking over peacekeeping operations by the African Union, and if it turned out, in hindsight, that the United States had been incorrect in deeming a genocide to have been occuring, what then would be the real consequences? One might expect that immediately the incidence of war crimes and various crimes against humanity would be greatly reduced, that aid agencies would have more security and freedom of movement, and thus more people who need assistance would recieve it, and that, in time, some semblance of peace and order might return to the region's inhabitants. Against that one can weigh the damage that would be done to the United States' credibility, and secondarily that of its NATO allies, and the repercussions of any potential loss of stature in the international arena. On the other hand, one must consider the consequences of failing to prevent a genocide from unfolding. In the balance, those who take the position that the situation may or may not be a genocide, but surely involves grave crimes against humanity, ought not be overly concerned with the credibility issues that would arise from taking concrete action to prevent genocide, because in either case one may put a stop to grave crimes against humanity, and that would hardly in itself set a bad precedent for the advancement of human rights or international law. And past experience teaches us that if we wait around for every scrap of evidence to come in before acting, we will find ourselves in the position of sometimes being able to punish genocide after the fact, but never being able to prevent it. That position patently does not inure to the credibility of the international system or any of its leading players.

A clumsy analogy. If police officers are called to the scene of a homicidal confrontation, and it turns out in fact to have been merely a case of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, we generally wouldn't fault the person who called the police, or the police officers who responded to the call. Police departments, perhaps especially large metropolitan police departments, are faced with constant challenges to their credibility, effectiveness and legitimacy. Responding to outbreaks of violence is one of the few things most citizens expect the police to be able to do. Failure to respond adequately or quickly to "serious" crimes is one of the frequent complaints citizens have against their police departments. In large measure good community relations depend upon the police meeting the public's basic expectation that police will respond quickly and effectively to outbreaks of violence.

Genocide is the most serious crime on the books, but so far the obligation to prevent genocide has been "in force" without being enforced. This is untenable. Either the community of nations will act to prevent genocides from occuring, or, relinquishing any serious claim to lawfulness, it will cease to exist as a community.

posted by Fido the Yak at 4:51 AM.


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