This op-ed originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Global Opinion on March 9, 2012.
Once an abstract obligation, stopping genocide has become a political project. Building on the humanitarian interventionism of the 1990s, a vast anti-genocide movement, largely U.S.-based, is stirring students and movie stars alike. Its figureheads are Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister and the architect of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, and Samantha Power, the author of “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” who is now at the National Security Council. It enjoins “us” — that is, the United States and the United Nations — to lead the response to mass atrocities.
High from last year’s interventions in Libya and Ivory Coast, Evans wrote triumphantly in Foreign Policy last December that those missions brought “an end to most of the confused debates” about humanitarian intervention. The vision he, Power and fellow idealists share is to send the cavalry over the hill not only to stop any massacres but also to herald justice and democracy.
If only it were that simple. In the face of “evil,” the idealists tend to turn righteous and forget to ask important questions about what they want to achieve and how. The result is a misrepresentation of history and a misunderstanding of the measures that can most effectively halt atrocities today.
One major problem is that the idealists tend to misconstrue or overlook the fundamental motivations of perpetrators. They typically see the killers as insatiable. This is understandable because they are driven by the memory of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. But the Nazis and Hutus were exceptional for making the extermination of a people essential to their politics. Most mass killers have other goals.
In many cases, the perpetrators simply stop killing when they have reached their goals, become exhausted, fallen out among themselves or been defeated. Take the Nigerian civil war of 1967-70. Despite a blockade of the secessionist province of Biafra and the genocidal rhetoric of some Nigerian leaders, the killing ended when the Biafran rebels finally fell to Nigerian forces. Having achieved their military aim, the Nigerians then began a process of reconciliation and reconstruction under the banner “no victor, no vanquished.”
In Guatemala, the perpetrators of the 1980-83 massacres of Mayan communities suspected of supporting Communist insurgents called an end to the atrocities after defeating the rebels. In Indonesia, the generals stopped killing the Communists in 1966 once the group no longer posed a threat. The soldiers of President Milton Obote massacred tens of thousands of people in Uganda’s Luwero Triangle in 1983-4 — until they were defeated on the battlefield. Likewise, the killings in East Pakistan ended with India’s invasion in 1971 and the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities in Cambodia with Vietnam’s intervention in 1978-79.
In other words, even once they are under way, mass atrocities do not lead inexorably to bottomless massacres. The killers usually have political goals: They are determined to kill until they have achieved their objectives, not until there’s no one else left standing. Their use of violence can be excessive, but more important, it is often instrumental.
This creates an opportunity for negotiating an end to mass atrocities, through peace talks and with financial and diplomatic incentives and pressure. In recent history such deal-making has brought to an end, albeit often an imperfect one, massacres in Burundi, East Timor, Kenya, Macedonia and South Sudan.
Yet the idealists insist on pursuing a more ambitious agenda: nothing short of democracy and justice, imposed by military intervention. And this can undermine simply getting the killing to stop. For perpetrators, the prospect of foreign intervention and prosecution rules out the possibility for compromise. For rebels, it creates a perverse incentive to escalate ethnic violence so as to provoke an international military response.
The idealists’ blind spot about nonideal endings also means they cannot decide what do to when the killings do subside. In September 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that a genocide had occurred, and might be continuing, in Darfur. But by then the level of violence had already begun to drop, and it continued to diminish over the next few years.
U.S. policy stayed stuck on trying to stop massacres that were no longer happening. In 2009, Scott Gration, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, was saying there were “remnants of genocide.” But in 2010, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was still insisting there was an “ongoing genocide.”
Unable to commit itself to either aggressive regime change or a program of reconstruction and reconciliation, the U.S. government hasn’t made any progress on either approach. And its indecision has delayed finding a workable political solution for Darfur.
Western policy makers interested in stopping mass crimes should not overlook tools that can work. Where violence is used as an instrument for political gain, it is negotiable. Some perpetrators can be moderated through diplomacy. Others will stop killing if they defeat a rebellion or realize they cannot. The main aim should be to stop genocidal killing. Holding elections and prosecuting the perpetrators of crimes, however laudable those goals, aren’t the priority.
Today, with civilians in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains threatened by mass hunger and violence, U.S. campaigners are calling for humanitarian intervention. They should remember to keep the political solution firmly in focus. The root of the crisis is a war between evenly matched adversaries who must recognize that they need to live with the other.
The peace talks that stalled last July should be revived. This would require Khartoum to lift the ban against the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in the northern sector and begin an inclusive constitutional reform process. The rebels and their South Sudanese backers, for their part, would have to repudiate the goal of regime change.
Politics are also all-important in Syria. The crisis has evolved from a civilian uprising to a fully fledged civil war, with each side fearing annihilation if it loses. The regime of Bashar al-Assad needs a soft landing, and so the model for solving this crisis is the kind of patient mediation effort that was deployed in Yemen, not aggressive intervention as in Libya.
Responding to mass atrocities, whether ongoing or imminent, is difficult enough, but the idealism of Evans and Power makes it that much more so. They have composed a story, based on ethics rather than evidence, that incorrectly assumes all perpetrators of mass political violence are insatiable killers and that dictates who should respond (Western nations), how (with military intervention) and why (for justice and democracy). It is a morality tale that undermines the best ways to deal with the worst crimes.
Alex de Waal is executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.
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