Neal Riemer (ed), 'Protection Against Genocide: Mission Impossible?'

IssueDecember 2000 - February 2001
Review by Andrew Rigby

Genocide, according to the UN Convention of 1948, is defined as any acts committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. This book represents a review of the various dimensions of a strategy that might lead to a genocide-free world.

The key strands identified include 1) Strengthening the institutions and actors like the UN and NGOs that are dedicated to the monitoring and the protection of human rights - including the establishment of an international criminal court; 2) Encouraging the emergence of mature constitutional democracies; 3) Establishing the means to deter potential genocidaires by means of an array of political, economic, judicial and military sanctions; and 4) Clarifying the theory of just humanitarian intervention to guide the use of sanctions.

It is this fourth element that is problematic for pacifists and those committed to nonviolence. When is it “just” to go to war in order to prevent or halt genocide? Traditionally pacifists have rejected the notion of a “just war” as an oxymoron - no war can be legitimate.

But what about those situations where a group, a community, a nation, are being targeted for extermination? We cannot stand aside, there is the impulse to do something. And there is much that can be done short of military intervention. But there is no nonviolent equivalent of the kind of threat of punitive military assault upon the perpetrators of the killing that can cause them to reconsider the wisdom of continuing with the slaughter. The truth is that once the killing has begun it is too late to halt it by nonviolent means.

Much of the strength of nonviolent resistance to oppression rests on the claimed power of non-cooperation. This is based on the profound insight that in the final analysis regimes depend upon the cooperation, forced or otherwise, of the oppressed. If sufficient numbers of people, including those in strategic institutional positions, summon the courage to say “No” and are prepared to suffer the consequences of their defiance - then, it is argued, the capacity of tyrants to impose their will can be undermined. The problem is that in too many conflicts the dominant group does not require the co-operation of the target group. In fact they want to eliminate or remove them - hence the impulse to genocide, and hence the weakness of nonviolent resistance to genocide, once the killing has begun.

Of course we should not be deluded into thinking that military might represents a quick fix to the problem and this is recognised by the contributors to this book. Protection Against Genocide makes a valuable contribution to the literature insofar as it is based on the premise that it is possible to achieve a world without genocide, and that significant steps can be made to realise this goal by a number of “do-able” reforms of a non-military nature. Thus, the contributors advocate the strengthening of effective human rights monitoring agencies; the development of “smart” sanctions that would avoid the genocidal consequences of the current sanctions against Iraq; the creation of a standing anti-genocidal police force under the auspices of the UN; and the establishment of a permanent international criminal tribunal.

But the work to achieve a world without genocide needs to go deeper than the kinds of institutional reforms and innovations envisaged by the authors, significant though they would be.

I had a colleague once who taught a course on genocide. She would start off by asking her students to consider the different ways of coping with people begging on the street, and how some folk avert their gaze, ignoring the beggar. The point she was trying to make was that the seeds of the most horrendous crimes against humanity start with the basic denial of the full humanity of the stranger, the non-recognition of the other as a human being. It is at this level of every-day life that we can all work, even while we hold up our hands to admit - however reluctantly - that nonviolence does not have an answer to everything that is wrong with the world, at least not in the short-term.

Topics: Human rights
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