Global Policy Forum

Once Again


Nations Agree Genocide Must Be Stopped. Can They Find the Mechanism to Do It?

By Paul F. Diehl *

Washington Post
May 15, 2005

Just over a year ago, on the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan announced a five-point plan with only one concrete element: the appointment of a special adviser on the prevention of genocide. That adviser, he said, would serve as an "early warning mechanism" and would recommend "actions" to prevent genocide.

But just as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin once asked how many divisions the pope had, today's dictators in places such as Sudan must be asking themselves: How many divisions does Kofi Annan have?

The answer, of course, is none. Thus it is unlikely that any dictator is quaking in his boots at the mention of the special adviser's name, or that anyone even knows his name. (It's Juan Mendez, and he's an Argentine human rights activist.) These facts point to the failure of the international community -- whether in the guise of the U.N., NATO or the African Union -- to come up with a credible deterrent to leaders contemplating or engaging in acts of mass murder.

Increasingly, advocates of humanitarian intervention are discussing not only the need for political will to take such action, but the need to have a way to act. Without effective mechanisms, any number of resolutions will be rendered meaningless. And the absence of practical means also makes it harder to marshal the political will.

"The problem with most discussions of political will is that we spend more time lamenting its absence than organizing its presence," Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, said last year. Political will needs to be linked to "having an institutional focal point for prevention," he said, and that "focal point" should be able to deploy force. Advocates of humanitarian intervention can afford to focus on logistics because they have made progress on the politics of intervention. The 1994 Rwandan genocide was chilling because it reminded many people of the Holocaust -- the international community stood by as the slaughter occurred. In the aftermath of Rwanda, much of the reluctance Americans had felt about humanitarian intervention since the U.S. debacle a year earlier in Somalia, where 18 U.S. soldiers were killed, has dissipated. A consensus has emerged that the world has a moral obligation to halt genocide; a 2003 survey found that a clear majority of Americans (and more than two-thirds under some scenarios) favored hmanitarian intervention to stop genocide.

Translating that sentiment into action is another matter. It's been 15 months since a top U.N. official called Sudan "the killing fields of our generation" and labeled the situation in Darfur "ethnic cleansing." It's been 10 months since the U.S. Congress passed a resolution branding Darfur a genocide. Yet by the time the African Union increases the number of its troops in Darfur to 12,300 next spring, nearly three years will have passed since violence broke out. For now, only 2,372 troops are monitoring an area bigger than California.

In his recent book, Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian lieutenant general who commanded the U.N. peacekeeping contingent in Rwanda at the time of the massacres, recalls that "while most nations seemed to agree that something had to be done, every nation seemed to have a reason why some other nation should do it. So there we sat, waiting for a promise to be kept, reduced to the role of accountants keeping track of how many were being killed." Even equipping his tiny force was difficult. Dallaire describes how various African countries willing to contribute troops lacked any logistical capacity, while Britain offered early Cold War vintage trucks and the Pentagon supplied armored personnel carriers stripped of guns, radios, spare parts and training manuals.

Proposals for a standing international force have been around for a long time. The U.N. Charter itself includes provisions for military forces provided by member states, but these arrangements have not been adequate.

In the revised edition of his 1995 book "An Agenda for Peace," then-U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali suggested the creation of a "rapid reaction force," comprised of battalion-size units stationed in their own countries but with common training, procedures and equipment, along with integrated communication. Shortly thereafter, the Netherlands government, whose peacekeeping troops failed to prevent the Serb massacre of 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the small town of Srebrenica, proposed a U.N. Rapid Deployment Brigade that would be a small all-volunteer force.

These forces -- which could carry out an array of different duties -- would speed the U.N.'s response time and allow the organization to get rid of the ad hoc way in which it pulls together peacekeeping operations.

An ambitious proposal in 2005 by the Working Group for a United Nations Emergency Peace Service envisioned a permanent U.N. force of volunteers stationed at designated sites and ready to act in an emergency. Made up of 10,000 to 15,000 personnel, the force would include not only soldiers but police, judges and relief experts. Unlike forces that require approval by its member nations, a U.N. Emergency Peace Service could be deployed by the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Secretary General or regional organizations.

The financial costs of such forces (approximately $1 billion per year after start-up costs) are modest relative to the military expenditures of most major nations. Still, the United States and several other countries have consistently opposed any autonomous U.N. capacity for military action. Alternatives do exist. Canada and several other states have created a multinational brigade for rapid deployment, but each participating state retains, on a case-by-case basis, the right to refuse to go.

An alternative to a U.N. standing force would be for regional security organizations to take on the task of humanitarian intervention. Yet this is hardly an encouraging prospect. Most regional organizations lack the finances, professional military expertise and mandate to carry out actions to prevent genocide. The African Union force sent to the Sudan, for example, is of token size, ill-equipped and too poorly deployed to have any effect on events in Darfur.

The only exception may be the European Union, which has a newly functional Rapid Reaction Force of about 60,000 soldiers. Still, this is not a standing army and EU member states can restrict the deployment of their own soldiers. Furthermore, it is not clear to what extent European states would be willing to deploy such a force "out of area." The recent international parallel is France's military intervention in the Ivory Coast. France acted only after its own nationals were killed, and it acted alone; no other nation had any direct interest there.

Ideally, an international force to stop genocide would intervene prior to the large-scale outbreak of killing, rather than later. This presumes some type of "early warning" system. Yet states committing genocide have great incentives to conceal their deeds, which sometimes are apparent only years later when mass graves are unearthed.

One of the functions of Annan's special adviser is to provide early warning of genocide to the Security Council or Secretary General. Non-governmental organizations, such as International Alert, also play that role. But in the case of Rwanda, Dallaire sent many early warnings to the United Nations without result.

In some ways, the international community has made little progress since Japan's invasion of Manchuria in the 1930s. The League of Nations sent a fact-finding mission to investigate alleged atrocities, but by the time the mission arrived six months later, Japanese control over the area was a fait accompli. In a strikingly similar fashion, the United Nations sent a commission of inquiry to Darfur well after the onset of violence there. The final report, released in January, concluded that genocide had not occurred even though a variety of international crimes had. Would that have been enough to trigger intervention by a standing international force?

International legal authority for action is also ambiguous. Although there is now consensus that nations have a moral obligation to stop genocide, international law isn't so clear. The 1948 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, despite its name, is largely concerned with defining genocide and creating rules for prosecuting perpetrators rather than preventing or stopping genocide before or as it occurs. Article 8 grants states the right to appeal to the U.N. for help, but it gives states no right to take military steps outside the U.N. framework unless it is in self-defense.

It is still not widely accepted that states can intervene in the domestic affairs of other states, even though international courts and other bodies may hold those responsible for any crimes in the aftermath. The United Nations can act when "international peace and security" are threatened, and this could provide a legal basis for action in cases of genocide. But the U.N. has been reluctant to exercise that prerogative, notably failing to bless NATO efforts to protect ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. And when it comes to Sudan, both China and Russia have opposed military intervention because of the precedents it might set for their conflicts in Tibet and Chechnya, respectively. Even neighboring African states have opposed military intervention in Sudan.

Even if a multinational force existed, the U.N. or some other body would have to authorize action. And action comes with risks that no nation was willing to take in Rwanda or Srebrenica. Dallaire believes that a modest number of troops could have stopped the Rwanda killings. "Would we have risked more U.N. casualties?" he asks in his memoir. "Yes, but surely soldiers and peacekeeping nations should be prepared to pay the price of safeguarding human life and human rights."

Given all the obstacles, talk of an international humanitarian intervention force may be nothing more than an academic exercise. But for the people destined to be the victims of the next genocide, the question of how to assure intervention is anything but academic.

About the Author:Paul F. Diehl is Henning Larsen Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois and director of the Correlates of War project, which collects data on international conflicts.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.