But one ugly, deadly and recurrent reality check persists: genocide.
Genocide has occurred so often and so uncontested in the last fifty years
that an epithet more apt in describing recent events than the oft-chanted
"Never Again" is in fact "Again and Again." The gap between the promise
and the practice of the last fifty years is dispiriting indeed. How can this
In 1948 the member states of the United Nations General Assembly --
repulsed and emboldened by the sinister scale and intent of the crimes
they had just witnessed -- unanimously passed the Genocide Convention.
Signatories agreed to suppress and punish perpetrators who slaughtered
victims simply because they belonged to an "undesirable" national, ethnic,
or religious group.
The wrongfulness of such mindful killings was manifest. Though genocide
has been practiced by colonizers, crusaders and ideologues from time
immemorial, the word "genocide," which means the "killing: (Latin, cide)
of a "people" (Greek, genos), had only been added to the English language in
1944 so as to capture this special kind of evil. In the words of
Champetier de Ribes, the French Prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, "This [was] a crime so monstrous, so undreamt of in history throughout the Christian era up to the birth of Hitlerism, that the term 'genocide' has had to be coined to define it." Genocide differed from ordinary conflict because, while surrender in war normally stopped the killing, surrender in the face of genocide only expedited it. It was -- and remains -- agreed that the
systematic, large-scale massacre of innocents, stands atop any "hierarchy
The United States led the movement to build on the precedents of the
Nuremberg war crimes trials, enshrine the "lessons" of the Holocaust, and
ban genocide. Though slow to enter the Second World War, this country
emerged from the armistice as a global spokesperson against crimes against humanity, taking charge of the Nuremberg proceedings and helping draft the 1948 Genocide Convention, which embodied the moral and popular consensus in the United States and the rest of the world that genocide should "never again" be perpetrated while outsiders stand idly by. President Harry Truman called on U.S. Senators to endorse the Convention on the grounds that America had "long been a symbol of freedom and democratic progress to peoples less favored," and because it was time to outlaw the "world-shocking crime of genocide."
The American people appeared to embrace these abstract principles. And
though one wing of the American establishment still downplayed the
importance of human rights and resisted "meddling" in the internal affairs
of fellow nations, even its spokesmen appeared to make an exception for
human rights abuses that rose to the level of genocide. Though Americans
disagreed fervently over whether their foreign policy should be driven by
realism or idealism, interests or values, pragmatism or principle, they
united over the cause of combating genocide. A whole range of improbable
bed fellows placed genocide, perhaps the lone universal, in a category
In recent years this consensus has gained indirect support from the
popular growth of a veritable cult of "Never Again" in the United States.
The creation of a Holocaust industry of sorts has seen the
establishment of a slew of Holocaust memorials and museums -- the
Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. is the most heavily frequented museum
on the Mall -- and an unprecedented burst of Holocaust-related news stories
(be they about Schindler's List, Daniel Goldhagen's
account of the role of ordinary Germans, the contemporary war crimes trials
against aging Nazis like Papon, or Switzerland's fall-from-grace).
There have in fact been more stories on Holocaust-related themes in
the major American newspapers in
the 1990s than in the preceding forty-five years combined.
Though interest in the Holocaust does not translate into a popular outrage
over the commission of contemporary genocides,
it has caused many of us to question the war-time passivity of
great powers and individual citizens. And American presidents
have responded to these lamentations: ever since the Holocaust
first entered mainstream discourse two decades ago, U.S. leaders
have gone out of their way to pledge never again to let genocide happen.
Jimmy Carter said it, Ronald Reagan said it, George Bush said it,
and, most recently, Bill Clinton said it.
But in the half century since, something has gone badly wrong. In Bosnia
the men, women and children of Stupni Do, Srebrenica, Ahmici, Zvornik,
Prijedor, etc., all learned in recent years that the promise of "never
again" counted for little. And they were not alone. Notwithstanding a
promising beginning, and a half-century of rhetorical ballast, the
American consensus that genocide is wrong has not been accompanied by a willingness to stop or even condemn the crime itself.
Since the Holocaust, the United States has intervened militarily for a
panoply of purposes -- securing foreign ports, removing unpalatable
dictators, combating evil ideology, protecting American oil interests,
etc. -- all of which provoke extreme moral and legal controversy. Yet, despite an impressive postwar surge in moral resolve, the United States has never intervened to stop the one overseas occurrence that all agree is wrong, and that most agree demands forceful measures. Irrespective of the political affiliation of the President at the time, the major genocides of the
post-war era -- Cambodia (Carter), northern Iraq (Reagan, Bush), Bosnia
(Bush, Clinton) and Rwanda (Clinton) -- have yielded virtually no American
action and few stern words. American leaders have not merely refrained
from sending GIs to combat genocide; when it came to atrocities in Cambodia, Iraq and Rwanda, the United States also refrained from condemning the crimes or imposing economic sanctions; and, again in Rwanda, the United States refused to authorize the deployment of a multinational U.N. force, and also squabbled over who would foot the bill for American transport vehicles.
What are the causes of this gap between American principle and American practice?
During the Cold War, one might be tempted to chalk up America's tepid
responses to real-world geopolitical circumstance. With the nuclear shadow
looming, and the world an ideological playground, every American
intervention in the internal affairs of another country carried with it
the risk of counter-intervention by its rival, and the commensurate danger of escalation. In the same vein, while the United States was embroiled in its war with the Soviet Union, it was said, humanitarian concerns could not be permitted to distract American leaders, soldiers and resources from the
life-or-death struggle that mattered most. Henry Kissinger was one of many who believed it was best not to ask questions about the domestic behavior of states but to focus on how they behave outside their borders. Countries that didn't satisfy vital security needs, or serve some economic or ideological end, were of little concern. And since staging a multilateral
intervention would have required Security Council clearance, the
superpower veto effectively ruled out such operations.
But the end of communism eliminated many of the Cold War concerns
regarding intervention. The superpower rivalry withered, leaving the United States free to engage abroad with few fears of nuclear escalation and often with the backing (and even troops) of its former nemesis. Free of the shadow of the veto, the U.N. Security Council claimed some of its intended function -- as a dispatcher of troops and a proliferator of resolutions.
The war against Saddam Hussein -- himself a packageable panacea for the American Vietnam syndrome -- seemed to usher in an era in which American-led U.N. coalitions would tackle intolerable acts of aggression and patrol the "new world order."
Yet, despite the propitiousness of circumstance, mass atrocity was rarely
met with reprisal. The reasons for this are numerous -- some familiar but
many surprising. The most common justification for non-intervention is
that, while leaving genocide alone threatens no vital American interests,
suppressing it can threaten the lives of American soldiers.
But this does not explain the American failure to condemn genocide or
employ non-military sanction. Moreover, if it was so very obvious that the
story ended there and that, by definition, "mere genocide" could not pass
a Pentagon cost-benefit analysis, it is unlikely that Americans would be so
vocal and persistent in their legal and moral commitments to prevent
American leaders say they are simply respecting the wishes of the
American people, who have elected them, first and foremost,
to fulfill the American dream of equality and freedom for all at home.
Though this claim conforms with our intuitions and with the mounting data that the American public is becoming ever more isolationist, it may be misleading. Polls taken during the Bosnian war indicated that, while most Americans opposed unilateral American intervention or the deployment of U.S. ground troops, two-thirds supported American participation in multilateral efforts -- flying in humanitarian air-drops or bombing Bosnian Serb positions. In the Iraqi case, likewise, a Gallup poll reported that 59 percent of Americans thought the coalition should have continued fighting until Hussein was overthrown and 57 percent supported shooting down Iraqi gun ships targeting the Kurds.
If American leaders ever used the word "genocide" to describe atrocities,
it is likely that this public support would have grown. A July 1994
Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll found that when citizens were asked, "If genocidal
situations occur, do you think that the U.N., including the U.S., should intervene with whatever force is necessary to stop the acts of genocide" - 65 percent said "always" or "in most cases,"
while 23 per cent said "only when American interests are also involved"
and just 6 percent said "never." When asked how they would react if a U.N.
commission decided that events in Bosnia and Rwanda constituted genocide, 80 percent said they would favor intervention in both places.
It is possible that such support is superficial and would fade once U.S.
forces incurred casualties, but it also arose without prompting from
American leaders. In no postwar case of genocide has an American president attempted
to argue that mass atrocity makes military or political
intervention morally necessary. Yet it is notable that when the United
States has intervened for other reasons, its leaders have garnered popular
support by appealing to American sensibilities regarding mass killing. In
the lead-up to the Gulf War, for example. Saddam Hussein was transformed into
American "Enemy #1" not so much because he seized Kuwaiti oil fields but because he was "another Hitler" who "killed Kuwaiti babies." The advancement of humanitarian values in fact appears to "sell" in a way that "protecting American oil interests" in Kuwait or "saving the NATO alliance" in Bosnia do not. When it came time to deploy American soldiers as part of a postwar NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, for instance, two-thirds of Americans polled found "stopping the killing" a persuasive reason for deploying troops (64 percent, CBS/NYT 12/9/95), while only 29 percent agreed with Clinton that deployment was necessary so as to maintain a stable Europe and preserve American leadership.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the modern media is probably not making
intervention more likely. For starters, unlike in cases of famine or
natural disaster, genocide can be exceedingly difficult to cover. Despite
all the "globaloney" about reporters being "everywhere," stories about the
early stages of genocide are often unattainable because the price of
accessing such terrain may be the life of the reporter. And even if
technological advances -- such as Internet television images or flying,
unmanned rescue cameras -- succeed in bringing viewers live genocide, the
"CNN effect" will not necessarily translate into louder or wider calls for
humanitarian intervention, as television images have both attract and
On the one hand, as we saw in Bosnia and Rwanda, the publicity given to
mass atrocity can attract public interest and pull foreign
governments toward intervention. On the other hand, the seeming
intractability of the hatreds, the sight of the carnage, the visible
danger to anyone who sets foot in the region, and the apparent remoteness
of events from American homes can repel American voters and leaders and
keep American troops out. In effect, this very tension may explain the United
States' tendency to deliver a hearty humanitarian response but nonexistent military response to genocide.
Part of the problem in galvanizing a firm response lies in the instruments
that were intended to serve as the solution. The Genocide Convention,
which will celebrate its fifty-year anniversary in December, never received
either the commitment of the United States or the teeth for enforcement that
it needed to become "law" in any meaningful sense.
Despite the indispensability of the United States in drafting the 1948
Convention -- and some 3,000 speeches by Senator William Proxmire on the Senate
floor on behalf of it -- the Senate did not pass the Act until 1988 -- a full forty years after President Truman signed it. American
law-makers were petrified that African- or Native Americans would haul the United
States before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on genocide
charges, or that other states would infringe upon American national sovereignty. By the time the Convention had finally become U.S. law, the Congress had attached so many reservations that ratification was rendered largely meaningless. For instance, by requiring that the United States would never be brought before the ICJ on a genocide count, the Congress barred the United States (under the legal rule of reciprocity) from filing charges against other nations -- such as Hussein's Iraq or Pol Pot's Cambodia. The United States has tended to further international law, only so long as it does not find its sovereignty impinged or its practices or officials called before international judiciary bodies.
When it came to enforcing the convention's provisions, the drafters
envisioned that a standing International Criminal Court would come into
existence almost immediately. Ironically, that court may very well
established this year - the very same year that the Convention celebrates
its fifty-year-anniversary. And, already Washington's insistence that the
United States (via the UN Security Council) retain prosecutorial authority,
indicates that, as with the Convention itself, Washington's reluctance to
have its own citizens and soldiers held accountable under international
law may well impair the legitimacy and effectiveness of the new body.
The Convention's half century of impotence highlights the importance of
retaining an independent arbiter of which cases should appear before the
new International Criminal Court. Thanks to international and national
politics, and the demands of individual member states over the last fifty
years, the word "genocide" itself lost salience - misused, overused and
generally abused. To begin with, the Convention, which defined the crime as
"a systematic attempt to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic,
or religious group as such," was both under-inclusive (excluding Pol Pot's
attempted extermination of a political class) and over-inclusive
(potentially capturing a white racist's attempt to cause bodily injury to
a carload of African-Americans). But, because it was drafted in order to
satisfy all the major powers, it also ended up with wording so imprecise
that the genocide label quickly became a political tool. For instance,
President Truman labeled the North Koreans as genocidal perpetrators;
France was charged with genocide in 1956 for its bloody involvement in
Algeria; and the potent Asia-Africa block within the UN frequently charged
Israel with orchestrating genocidal killing. American leaders in the
fifties and sixties both levied the charge (usually against the Soviets),
and found itself accused of such acts. In 1951 the Civil Rights Congress,
an activist organization, published a book called "We Charge Genocide,"
which asserted that "the oppressed Negro citizens of the United States,
segregated, discriminated against, and long the target of violence, suffer
from genocide..." And, two decades later, philosophers Bertrand Russell
and Jean Paul Sartre established their own war crimes tribunal to try the
United States for committing genocide against Vietnam. Tribunal President
Sartre compared American intervention in Southeast Asia with Hitler's
chosen means of conquest of Europe. In Hitler's Europe, "A Jew had to be
put to death, whoever he was, not for having been caught carrying a weapon
or for having joined a resistance movement, but simply because he was a Jew;" likewise, in his day, Americans were "killing Vietnamese in Vietnam for the simple reason that they are Vietnamese." Far from representing the ultimate "stain" on a nation, galvanizing swift and stern retribution, the genocide label has been applied to everything from desegregation in the United States to birth control and abortions in the developing world. And no impartial body exists to restore the word's intended meaning and use.
In the last fifty years, nothing has gone quite as planned. The Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, which will also celebrate its fiftieth
birthday in December, has become a bedrock document in international law,
outlining the basic rights that individuals all over the world are
entitled to claim. The Genocide Convention initially succeeded in
articulating a post-war international consensus that genocide was a
monstrous evil. But, as Pol Pot, Hussein, Karadzic and the Rwandan Interahamwe
discovered, neither it nor the rhetorical commitments of the American
leaders have translated into a willingness to halt the masterminds of genocide.