Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Darfur and Beyond

What is Needed to Prevent Mass Atrocities

by Lee Feinstein, Council on Foreign Relations, New York, January, 2007

Slow-motion ethnic cleansing in western Sudan is the most recent case of a state supporting mass atrocity and the rest of the world avoiding efforts to end the killing. Preventing and stopping such mass atrocities faces four reinformcing problems.

First and most fundamentally, states of different cultures and economic circumstances continue to pursue ethnic cleansing as a national security strategy. Second, prevailing international rules and practices have been a bar to international action, and an excuse not to respond in cases where states do not believe their national interests are at stake.

Introduction and Overview

The killing and destruction of national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups is a historical reality. So, too, is the dependable failure of the rest of the world to do much about it.

Slow-motion ethnic cleansing in western Sudan is the most recent case of a state supporting mass atrocity and the rest of the world avoiding efforts to end the killing. Preventing and stopping such mass atrocities faces four reinformcing problems.

First and most fundamentally, states of different cultures and economic circumstances continue to pursue ethnic cleansing as a national security strategy. Second, prevailing international rules and practices have been a bar to international action, and an excuse not to respond in cases where states do not believe their national interests are at stake. Third, international cpacity to act, especially regional capacity, is limited and ad hoc, a function of poor planning and deliberate political choices. Finally, public support to take action to prevent mass atrocities is episodic or nonexistent, the result of a historic lack of political leadership around the world, including in the United States.

The profound changes in international security of the last few years, and the related changes in how and what states view as security dangers, have the potential to erode some of these barriers. One year ago the 191 members of the United Nations formally endorsed a principle know as the "responsibility to protect." The responsibility to protect is the idea that mass atrocities that take place in one state are the concern of all states. The universal adoption of this priciple at the United Nations World Summit in 2005 went relatively unnoticed. Yet the adoption of the responsibility to protect is a turning point in how states define their rights and responsibilities, and removes some of the classic excuses for doing nothing.

The UN's role in averting mass atrocities is also being examined, as part of a broader rethink of the UN's purposes triggered by the Security Council crisis over Iraq in 2003. This reexamination has generated reports and investigations, and some improvement. The new secreatry-gneral, Ban Ki-moon, needs to connect management reform to a set of clear mandates for the organization that corresponds to the world's expectations for the institution. Management reform detached from a clear assessment of the purposes of the UN is destined to sputter and fail. The new secretary-general should build a reform program that is designed to implement the responsiblity to protect to begin to translate the principle into practice. Doing so would also fortify the overall push for reforms, which has faltered.

The United States and other capable states and organizations have given a degree of rhetorical support tot he atrocity prevention mission. Yet, Washington and others have not enacted a policy to support their moral claims or to advance the overlapping secutiy interest in preventing state failure, which can create the conditions that make genocide and other atrocities more likely...

Overcoming these structural impediments to action requires balancing effectiveness against expense. Genocide is a historical fact and a present danger. It is possible to identify with a degree of accuracy where it might occur and in general terms that it is going to occur. But it is not possible to say exactly when it will happen or what will precipitate a genuine emergency. For example, there was a thirty-five-year backdrop to the 1994 slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus in and around Rwanda. This history alerted the world to the chronic danger of genocide in the region. It also dulled it to the acuity of the crisis in the weeks leading up to the killings in April 1994.

The failure to intervene militarily in Rwanda and the frustration over inaction to stop mass killing in Darfur has had the unhelpful effect of framing the issue of preventing atrocities around the question of whether to "send in the Marines." Forcible humanitarian intervention cannot be ruled out. Nor can it be held out only as a last resort. Yet the inherent risks of military interventions should limit invasion and occupation to extreme cases. In most instances, political, diplomatic, and a range of military options short of war are preferable and more effective.

State Sovereignty and Atrocities

...Political and diplomatic measures might include restricting or limiting diplomatic representation. They may include restrictions or the threat of restrictions on travel, particularly against specific leaders and their families. Suspending a government's membership in an international or regional body is another option. The African Union (AU), for example, suspended two states in 2005 (Mauritania and Togo) after attempts to overthrow democratically elected governments. The threat of legal action against individuals and leaders responsible for war crimes is another effective policy tool.

Economic sanctions might include targeting the foreign assets of a country, rebel movement, or terrorist group, or the foreign assets of a particular leade, including members of his or her family. Restrictions on income-generating activities, such as oil, diamonds, logging, and drugs, are another important type of targeted sanction because it is often easier to get at the activities than at the hidden funds they generate.

Military measures can include ending military cooperation or military training; arms embargoes on weapons, ammunition, or spare parts; military cooperation with regional organizations or neighboring armies; preventive military deployments ot stanch the spread of a civil conflict; enforcement of no-fly zones; and naval blockades, among many others.

See the full report.
[in pdf format]

Note in particular that Sri Lanka is included in a list of "Genocides Since 1955" taken from Barbara Harff's article "Assessing Risks of Genocide and Politicide" in Monty G. Marshall and Ted Robert Gurr, eds., Peace and Conflict 2005 (College Park, ND: Center for International Development and Conflict Management 2005)