Genocide? So What

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

President Bush has shown a clear faith in the ability of American troops to fight for a purely ideological cause- free elections and the spread of democracy. Although the War on Terror was initially sold as a war on WMD’s, it is now being unabashedly peddled as a war not of material proportions, but of philosophical ones- a War on Tyranny. Although we still hear the claims of ‘fighting them abroad so we don’t have to fight them here’, one gets the distinct sensation that this war is being waged to spread democracy.

I’m not unsympathetic to that, but I’ll leave commentary on that goal for another time. This shift in language, more than just an admission of false prewar claims of causality, marks a major change in American foreign policy (who would have imagined Governor George W. Bush committing so many American lives in the name of Spreading Democracy, and, dare I say it, Nation Building?), and has direct implications on other aspects of American foreign policy. For if a War on Tyranny is so valiant, surely we should engage a War on Genocide.

In the face of a 2005 United Nations report claiming that the atrocities in Sudan fall just short of genocide, Washington recommitted to its previous claim that genocide did, in fact, occur, and may be ongoing. The response to the UN report was an increase in pressure… for the UN to label the atrocity a genocide and impose sanctions. It’s nice to see a country these days put so much faith in the power and judgment of the United Nations.

Many who have argued for intervention in Sudan (see for a good history of the situation) cheered when, on September 9th of 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced to the UN Security Council that genocide was taking place in the Darfur region. Many hoped that the actions required by the Genocide Convention would finally be taken. But in a deeply disturbing shift away from the long-standing policy of intervention in proven genocidal situations (even if a theoretical policy), the administration decided to strip the word of all obligations that accompanied it, be they moral, economic (by way of sanctions), or military.

President Clinton and his predecessors avoided the word genocide as anathema, fearing those very obligations. For those being massacred in Rwanda in 1994, Clinton’s strategy of denial and inaction was no better than President Bush’s approach of acceptance and inaction. Despite how clearly we failed the victims in Rwanda (between 500,000 and 800,000 murdered), Mr. Clinton, by avoiding the term itself, tacitly admitted that if genocide were to take place, it would require intervention. Rwanda, in Clinton’s eyes, just didn’t pass muster. President Bush has now shown the world that our commitment to the Genocide Convention is all but evaporated, and there is no crime against humanity that should require our immediate intervention unless American interests are at stake.

In the middle of the past century, a man named Raphael Lemkin made it his life’s purpose to create an international law that would prevent and punish the crime for which, until he invented one, there was no name. As a former student of linguistics, he was fully aware of the power of language, and wanted to create a word that would instill memories so powerful as to overwhelm the senses and immediately spur the world to action. He succeeded, and the Genocide Convention was born. Must we now create a new word to replace that which President Bush has destroyed? The United States has admitted that genocide occurred in Sudan, and has done nothing. If this doesn’t merit action, what does?

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