Global Policy Forum

Responsibility to Protect is a Power Play


The recent French operation in Mali has reinvigorated debates over humanitarian intervention. In this article, independent scholar Diane Johnstone argues that the concept and language of genocide is being appropriated to justify interventionist policies by major powers. Johnstone is concerned that the obviously commendable and uncontroversial desire to prevent genocide has provided a pretext for great power interference in the affairs of smaller states. She also argues that the responsibility to protect undermines the perception that war is an atrocity in itself, and turns war into a legitimate tool for atrocity-prevention.

By Diana Johnstone

January 25, 2013 

Opposing genocide has become a cottage industry in the United States.

An example is a program called "World Without Genocide" at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. The recent commentary by its executive director, Ellen Kennedy ("‘Never again,’ it’s been said of genocide. Do we finally grasp it?" Jan. 19), employs all the usual clichés of that well-meaning but misguided campaign.

Misguided, and, above all, misguiding. The antigenocide movement is directing people of good intention away from the essential cause of our time -- to reverse the drift toward worldwide war.

The Bible of this campaign is Samantha Power's book, "A Problem from Hell." Power's thesis is that the United States is too slow to intervene to "stop genocide." It is a suggestion the U.S. government embraces, to the point of taking on Power as a White House adviser.

The reason is clear. Since the Holocaust has become the most omnipresent historical reference in Western societies, the concept of "genocide" is widely accepted as the greatest evil to afflict the planet. It is felt to be worse than war.

Therein lies its immense value to the U.S. military-industrial complex, and to a foreign-policy elite seeking an acceptable pretext for military intervention.

The obsession with "genocide" as the primary humanitarian issue in the world today relativizes war. It reverses the final judgment of the Nuremberg Trials that: "War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone, but affect the whole world. To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."

Instead, war is transformed into a chivalrous action to rescue whole populations from "genocide."

At the same time, national sovereignty, erected as the barrier to prevent strong nations from invading weaker ones -- that is, to prevent aggression and "the scourge of war" -- is derided as nothing but a protection for evil rulers ("dictators") whose only ambition is to "massacre their own people."

This ideological construct is the basis for the Western-sponsored doctrine, forced on a more or less reluctant United Nations, of "R2P," the ambiguous shorthand for both the "right" and the "responsibility" to protect people from their own governments.

In practice, this can give the dominant powers carte blanche to intervene militarily in weaker countries in order to support whatever armed rebellions they favor. Once this doctrine seems to be accepted, it can even serve as an incitement to opposition groups to provoke government repression in order to call for "protection."

Kennedy blames "genocide" on the legal barrier set up to try to prevent aggressive war: national sovereignty.

For more than 350 years," she writes, "the concept of 'national sovereignty' held primacy over the idea of 'individual sovereignty' ... The result has been an 'over and over again' phenomenon of genocide since the Holocaust, with millions of innocent lives lost in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, Guatemala, Argentina, East Timor ..."

Yet Hitler initiated World War II precisely in violation of the national sovereignty of Czechoslovakia and Poland -- partly, he claimed, to stop alleged human-rights violations against ethnic Germans who lived there. It was to invalidate this pretext, and "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war," that the United Nations was founded on the basis of respect for national sovereignty.

Of course, there is no chance that the United States will abandon itsnational sovereignty. Rather, other countries are called upon to abandon their national sovereignty to the United States.

Kennedy's list includes events that do not remotely fit the term "genocide" and leaves out others that do -- all according to the official U.S. narrative of contemporary conflicts.

But the significant fact is that the worst of these slaughters -- Cambodia, Rwanda and the Holocaust itself -- occurred during warsand as a result of wars.

The systematic killing of European Jews took place during World War II. In Rwanda, the horrific slaughter was a response to an invasion by Tutsi forces from neighboring Uganda. The Cambodian slaughter was not the fault of "national sovereignty" but the direct result of the U.S. violation of Cambodia's national sovereignty. Years of secret U.S. bombing of the Cambodian countryside, followed by a U.S.-engineered overthrow of the Cambodian government, opened the way for takeover of that country by embittered Khmer Rouge fighters who took out their resentment against the devastation of rural areas on the hapless urban population, considered accomplices of their enemies.

Some of the bloodiest events do not make Kennedy's genocide list. Missing is the killing of more than half a million members of the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965 and 1966. But the dictator responsible, Suharto, was "a friend of the United States," and the victims were communists.

A principal danger of the R2P doctrine is that it encourages rebel factions to provoke repression, or to claim persecution, solely to bring in foreign forces on their behalf. It is certain that opposition militants exaggerated Moammar Gadhafi's threat to Benghazi to provoke the 2011 French-led NATO war against Libya. The war in Mali is a direct result of the brutal overthrow of Gadhafi, who was a major force for African stability.

The sole purpose of R2P is to create a public opinion willing to accept U.S. and NATO intervention in other countries. It is not meant to allow the Russians or the Chinese, say, to intervene to protect housemaids in Saudi Arabia from being beheaded -- much less to allow Cuban forces to shut down Guantanamo and end U.S. violations of human rights (on Cuban territory).

Intervention means war; war causes massacres and more wars. The sense of being threatened by U.S. power incites other countries to build up their own military defenses and to repress opposition militants who might serve as excuses for outside intervention.

Today, the greatest threat to the peoples of the world is not "evil dictators," but the militarization of international relations which, unless reversed, is leading toward the unimaginable catastrophe of World War III.


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