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“The Problem from Hell”

Last week the Genocide Prevention Task Force, of the US Peace Institute, published its report “Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers”, containing a number of recommendations on how future US administrations can actively seek to avoid incidents of genocide. Members of the Genocide Prevention Task Force count, among others, Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was Secretary of State when US-led NATO forces bombed Serbian forces in Kosovo and William Cohen, who served as Secretary of Defence during the same period.

The Report, which is relevant for policy-makers in other countries, argues that genocide and mass atrocities represent a threat to US interests as they fuel other threats in weak countries and may lead to spill-over effects in other countries. Interestingly, the Report notes that the record of the US in responding to threats of genocide has been mixed. This point is equally applicable to other countries and international organisations and was witnessed in the belated and entirely insufficient action taken by the international community with regard to the Rwanda genocide. Likewise, the Report notes that it is important to avoid “definitional traps” and argues, as a result of this, that emphasis ought to be on prevention of genocide and mass atrocities. The problem of definition is all too well highlighted in the current atrocities taking place in Darfur. For instance, in January 2005, the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur, chaired by Professor Cassese, concluded that genocide did not take place in Darfur mainly due to a lack of mens rea among Sudanese officials. However, in 2008, the prosecutor of the ICC argued that President Bashir did actually commit acts of genocide. Moreover, the Report argues that traditional views of sovereignty have presented a hindrance in avoiding acts of genocide. This is again highlighted in the Darfur situation, where international action is hampered by sentiments of non-intervention in, for example, China.

In addition to recommending an increase in funds allocated to combat genocide, the Report contains a number of interesting recommendations:

  • the adoption of a national intelligence initiative estimating the worldwide risks of genocide and mass atrocities,
  • the creation of a new high-level interagency Atrocities Prevention Committee dedicated to responding to threats of genocide,
  • incorporation of genocide prevention and response measures into national policy guidance and planning for the military as well as into defence doctrine and training,
  • the launch of a diplomatic initiative to create an international network for information sharing and coordinated action to prevent genocide, and more interestingly (and perhaps controversial)
  • that the United States should redouble its support for international partners such as the United Nations and the African Union to build their capacities to deploy effective military responses to mass atrocities.

While the prevention and combating of genocide is a cause which usually musters support across all political spectrums, it is worryingly likely that the incoming US administration (and other countries for that matter) will have plenty of other worries to consider. In the US, President-elect Obama will have to address an immense economic crisis while at the same time trying to disentangle US engagement in two wars. The situation remains much the same in other rich countries. Unfortunately, all this is likely to lead to less chance of international intervention in the name of the fight against genocide.



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