Rescuing endangered peoples: missed opportunities – Rescue: The Paradoxes of Virtue

Rescuing endangered peoples: missed opportunities – Rescue: The Paradoxes of Virtue – Transcript

Barbara Harff

I Recently wrote that “the new world order should emphasize collective responsibility and mutual cooperation and should lay the groundwork for an objective basis on which potential ethnopolitical conflicts and humanitarian crises can be settled in a manner that would satisfy the great majority of international actors” (Harff, 1994a, p. 147). What follows is an elaboration of this argument. At times, I deliberately take an advocacy or non-objective position, for I believe that policymakers’ unwillingness to uphold standards of human decency emanates from a position of moral relativity. Furthermore, I most strongly believe that in order to save lives, one at times has to risk lives, especially in light of what is yet to come.

Let me begin with some statistics: in 1993, 22 serious ethnic conflicts were being fought which were responsible for 25 million refugees and a cumulative death toll of four million people, of whom 200,000 died in 1993 alone. To this we have to add the victims of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, more than 1 million refugees and at least 500,000 deaths. In the near future, we will witness more such wars and more genocides and politicides.

I favor humanitarian intervention as a last resort to correct massive abuses of human rights, that is, to protect people from genocide and political mass murder. Geno/politicide is the promotion, execution, and/or implied consent of sustained policies by governing elites or their agents–or in the cause of civil war either of the contending authorities–that result in the deaths of a substantial portion of a communal, politicized communal, or purely political group. In genocides, the victimized groups are defined by regimes primarily in terms of their communal characteristics, that is, ethnicity, religion, or nationality; in politicides, groups are targeted primarily because of their political opposition to the regime.(1) As a genocide scholar I have changed my position from pacifist to advocate of humanitarian intervention, because I think that inaction contributed to the escalation of some 48 cases of genocide and political mass murder since World War II.(2) What we witness now is that neither regional or security organizations nor individual states were willing to halt the latest slaughters in Bosnia and Rwanda. What, we should ask ourselves, accounts for their lackluster performance? Is appeasement again the norm? And can politicians only mobilize public empathy in the face of direct or imminent threat? Our recent experiences tell us that we should be profoundly skeptical about how outsiders will deal with future humanitarian crises.

I think that lack of response is partially due to an inability to anticipate crises before they evolve, and, thus, policymakers are often faced with late and costly decisions to halt escalation. Moreover, lack of clear cut strategies to the desired end-state of the involvement further hinder global involvement. These are serious problems, but they are not insurmountable. The greater problem is the lack of political will to act in the face of adversity, a malaise that affects politicians and civil society alike. National interests typically are interpreted to suit whatever is best for the country narrowly defined. Democracies are no exception; lacking the ideological zeal of authoritarian regimes, they seldom endorse or use force to solve external problems. And with the end of the cold war and the absence of a clearly defined enemy, no long-term objectives and strategies exist that can effectively prevent escalation of regional crises such as Bosnia. The desirability of moral action is clearly hampered by the lack of clear cut principles guiding foreign policy making but also by selfishness and inward directedness. Leadership demands, I think, a sense of duty and sometimes sacrifices, not decisions primarily based on political expediency.

At the very least, the international community needs to plan joint responses to humanitarian crises, prevent escalation, and cooperate when necessity dictates reliance on force. Ideally, consistent international policies should be able to deter potential perpetrators through peaceful means. Positive sanctions should be deigned to end bloodshed, not install potentially friendly governments. Somalia is a case in point in which quick, poorly thought-out action saved some lives but did little to alleviate the underlying causes of the conflict–and unfortunately added to neo-isolationist sentiments among politicians who in principle were disposed to support humanitarian missions.(3) Ideally, we should develop clear policy guidelines, engage in a systematization of information about past exercises in preventive diplomacy, and be able to anticipate crises before they evolve. However, in cases where preventive and peaceful measures have failed, the international community should muster the moral fortitude to act forcefully.

Rescue Versus Intervention

One can argue that rescuing people is an act that falls under the generic rubric of humanitarian intervention. Rescue in the international arena has two dimensions: we can open our borders to all in need, or rescue people inside their own borders from savagery through intervention. I argue that neither option is always desirable nor feasible, but sometimes both are needed.

A word of caution: we should recognize that despite good intentions, rescue may in fact have negative effects. If we rescue the select few–the prominent scientists, literary figures, gifted and healthy children–or those who have ethnic ties to us, we may play into the hands of the perpetrators. Rescue based on talent, intelligence, and usefulness mimics the selection rationale of the perpetrators of massive human rights violations–only the motives are reversed.

Recall that before the full onslaught of the Holocaust the United States accepted as refugees Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, and others, but most common people–the artisans, shopkeepers, and clerks–stayed behind. When states closed their borders in the early 1940s and refused to accept refugees from war-torn Europe, their leaders lamented the fate of those left behind. Little has changed today: fifty years after World War II we do not heed the lessons of the Holocaust.

Today, democracies repeat the mistakes of the past. For example, we still select those deemed most worthy. Consider the Vietnamese boat people: after they fled in ever greater numbers in the late 1970s, the United States, among others, redefined their status from political to economic refugees. Arguably, economic deprivation is a lesser evil than torture, longtime incarceration, or the threat of death, but to a Vietnamese peasant, unable to feed his family, it made little difference; for now he had to document that mistreatment was the fate that awaited him upon his return: other deprivations were of lesser importance.

On the other hand, to open our doors to all threatened peoples seldom is economically feasible, may adversely affect the host society, and may generate ethnic tension among newly arrived refugees from diverse political cultures. It may actually induce perpetrators of human rights violations to increase persecution of the unwanted. Or it may lead to an increase in the emigration of those who can afford to leave, leaving whole communities without intellectual and potential political leadership. Helping those in need in their own country makes ultimately more good political sense.

Haiti is a contemporary example. Few Haitian boat people could hope for rescue, especially compared to the Cubans–after all, they did not speak one of our national languages, were members of an ethnic group long suffering inside our own borders, and had no powerful lobby that pleaded their case in Washington. No doubt policymakers wanted to keep Haitians safe but preferably in Haiti. The current situation in Haiti is representative of what we can expect in cases of humanitarian intervention. The United States is determined to install a quasi-democratic government and for some time to monitor internal affairs. We seek greater regional stability and the development of a polity that endorses and defends United States’ interests. The Haitian intervention resembles most other cases of humanitarian intervention: intentions were mixed and rarely ever purely humanitarian, but the outcome is usually superior to the state ante intervention. The alternative “do nothing option” usually encourages perpetrators to further violate basic human rights. The consequences of a “do nothing policy” in Haiti in 1992-94 are quite clear–more human rights abuses, a military dictatorship that prevented democratic participation, and the perpetuation of practices by an economic elite that added to the impoverishment of Haitians.

What we can hope for is that Haitian citizens in the near future can again express their opinions without fearing deadly consequences. One would wish there had been more boldness in Rwanda in response to one of the most deadly genocides since 1945.

The Case for Collective Responsibility

We share collective responsibility for what happened to Rwandans and so many others. Never again, we the “civilized world” promised the few survivors of the Holocaust. The promise has been broken some forty-eight times since World War II. Interventions have been few, if any; in other words, the international community let governments get away with mass murder when it happened in Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, East Timor (Indonesia), Burundi, Rwanda, and many other places. The few interventions that actually took place–Tanzania in Uganda, Vietnam in Cambodia, India in East Pakistan–were largely condemned as examples of self-interest broadly defined. And again, the international community is and was an ineffectual observer in Bosnia and Rwanda.

I argue that citizens should judge others peoples’ actions against the standards they set for themselves. Minimum standards of justice can be achieved by affirming through our actions essential goods such as the right to live. Living is a right claimed at the moment of birth (or, as some would claim, at the time of conception). The denial of life through genocide is a crime awaiting punishment. People in general set survival as a goal, but the desirability of life does not mean that such a norm is endowed with a set of rules by which the norm safeguards itself. Life needs reaffirmation through rules and other social arrangements. Rules exist as documented in the Genocide Convention and the Human Rights Convention. But if and when there is no punishment attached to a crime, rights essentially are unprotected. The optimal realization of all other rights rests upon the right to live. Survival thus is one, if not the only, pure collective good, and by allowing perpetrators to go unpunished, we continue to preserve an international order that tolerates attempts to destroy the foundations of collective survival.(4)

Individual altruists, such as Raoul Wallenberg, risked their lives to help others. Such heroism is seldom asked of us. Most often we are asked to support our governments’ rescue attempts or interventions, gestures that cost us little. Thus, we can ask armed forces under collective international control to act on our behalf. Because genocide is a crime under international law, the law is on the side of the defender of its norms. International collective action should be directed against those who breach international norms and abuse standards of basic human decency. Policeman, firemen, and military personnel have pledged to risk their lives to defend and thus reaffirm our basic rights. Law not only determines rightful conduct, it simultaneously obliges us to defend its provisions.

Yet, most of us choose to be bystanders. A bystander is the person who sees a crime and looks the other way. Is this negligence, and should we blame him? In domestic situations we are told that it is wiser not to intervene directly, and many international lawyers consider intervention in cases of genocide equally unwise, that is, neither particularly desirable nor absolutely legal, despite the criminal nature of the act of genocide.(5) The bystander tacitly approves of wrongs by doing nothing; responsible citizens report a crime. International civil society should be equally willing to recognize crime, leaving action to those who are trained and willing to take the challenge. In other words, our responsibilities can be delegated to others who would fight crime aggressively.

Moral relativism plays into the hands of the perpetrators. For example, when we are told that one American soldier dead is one too many, what are we hearing? The message is that there is really no cause worth dying for, that despite Bosnia and Rwanda, American citizens should mind their own business, that the United States claims no moral leadership, that American lives are worth more than those of others, that we should look the other way and perhaps accept the moral standards of the perpetrators. By maintaining relations or giving favored nation status to violators, democracies endorse their legitimacy and accept the perpetrators’ motives for the persecution of the victims. At worst, we justify our inaction by assigning guilt to the victims, especially when it comes to politically active contenders who do not subscribe to our political views.

Yet at times we rise to the occasion. When Iraq crossed Kuwait’s borders in 1991, it became cause enough to justify military intervention. Upholding Kuwait’s sovereignty, and bolstering a regime that was neither democratic nor especially concerned with observing human rights, became a cause for which it was worthwhile to die. If anything, the Alliance should have stopped Iraqi aggression long before Saddam Hussein decided to cross territorial borders, at the time when Hussein chose to cross the boundaries of civilized behavior and turn against his own people by killing and torturing tens of thousands of Kurds and political opponents.

Beyond Sovereignty

According to some international lawyers, humanitarian intervention should not be elevated to the status of intervention by right. When a state, regional organization, or the United Nations intervenes in the internal affairs of another state, it challenges the sovereign rights of another collectivity. As a rule, legal scholars have regarded the state as the sole protector and guarantor of civil and economic rights; by implication, each state has the right to exercise its authority and obligations as it chooses. Over time, the state became a mystical entity that appeared to have a life of its own. When murderous state elites embodied and defined what the state stood for, as in Fascist Germany and in the Soviet Union under Stalin, nobody claimed individual responsibility for wrongs committed, blame was heaped on the state machinery, obedience to a higher authority, or the leader who encapsulated state authority. Justice, morality, and law, then, were not a derivative of social forces but a derivative of the utilitarian objectives of a few. International legal acceptance of absolute sovereignty only enhances the self-righteous claim of those abusing their power in the name of the state. International relations specialists also have given special credence to the state as the wielder of coercive power and generally have treated the state as the primary actor in the global system.

At present, international relations and legal specialists are reexamining the role of the state as the decisive force shaping human interactions. But many questions are left unanswered. Even in the most critical analyses, the supremacy of the state is rarely questioned; instead, we find volumes of work dealing with the assessments of (ideal) systems, that is, democracy versus autocracy. A substantial body of work exists that attempts to explain why and under what circumstances states use their coercive power internationally, for example, research on causes of war. But not enough effort has been spent on examining the merit of claims to unbridled (absolute) territorial sovereignty versus the rights of other collectivities, such as ethnic groups and other states, to breach or challenge that sovereignty, especially when the state turns against its own people. And even fewer efforts have been made to delineate the types of responses necessary and appropriate to combat massive human rights violations, that is, genocides and political mass murder.

On Safe Legal Grounds, or Intervention by Right: States, Groups, and Individuals under International Law

In my opinion, too much ink has been spilled on the incompatibility of armed intervention threatening the sovereign personality and political independence of states versus the right of unilateral or collective intervention for humanitarian purposes. What kind of legal system would guarantee one claimant–the state–inviolability of political sovereignty and territorial integrity yet simultaneously deny another claimant–groups or individuals–the inviolability of dignity and bodily integrity? International law is concerned with both the rights of states and the rights of individuals and groups. Judgments emanating from the European Court of Human Rights and similar institutions broke the barrier: for the first time, citizens could claim restitution from their own government. As I have written elsewhere, “only with the emergence of laws that granted individuals rights vis-a-vis their states has this invisible threshold of inviolable national boundaries been crossed to allow for third-party intervention” (Harff, 1994b, p. 140).

Hersch Lauterpacht, one of the great scholars of international law, once asked whether law can promote the realization of socially obtainable justice (Lauterpacht, 1975). The United Nations Charter, a model of obliquity, gives an affirmative answer. Whereas Article 2, paragraph 7 prohibits intervention, chapter VIII and article 51 allow for self-defense or collective action. Article 35 empowers the Security Council to investigate disputes that endanger peace, and article 46 should assist them to take action when needed. Some scholars argue that the Human Rights Convention, which guarantees the global citizen the right to life and security of person, supersedes the rights of states. International law is common law and reflects the changing mores of societies. Consensus does exist on what constitutes right from wrong in the treatment of civil society. Signatories to the Human Rights and Genocide Convention(s) testify to the validity of acceptance of basic standards by international civil society, and I know of no domestic law that allows for the wholesale slaughter of a people.

But some problems remain. With the emergence of laws granting rights to individuals, groups now seek greater legal recognition. In 1992, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights approved a draft declaration on the “Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities,” which seeks to give special status to groups under international law. The draft unfortunately gives states the responsibility for fulfilling obligations for protecting the rights of minorities.

The Bosnia-Herzegovina case illustrates that ethnic groups can take political actions that lead to humanitarian disasters. In civil war situations, or in cases where groups seek autonomy from existing states, the state’s authority is questioned; its legality challenged. When such groups commit atrocities against members of competing groups, we confront crises that require special legal attention. Groups that challenge established states are responsible for many protracted conflicts and may themselves be the perpetrators of genocides and political mass murder. If such groups could attain legal status, which would spell out both their rights and obligations, blame for violations of rights could be assessed and dealt with commensurate with that of the obligations of states.

Morality Revisited: Lessons from the Holocaust

When journalists first described the Bosnian prison camps in the summer of 1992 and compared them to Nazi concentrations camps, Europeans responded with indignation. The more cautious pointed out that the Holocaust after all was unique, and one should not use symbols reminiscent of that episode. Other responses ranged from outright denial to contrasts based on the number of dead. Any comparison to the Holocaust, the argument went, was misleading since the number of dead in Bosnia never crossed a critical threshold. Serbian atrocities were condemned nevertheless, but few policy makers considered drastic actions. When United States Secretary of State Eagleberger officially labeled Bosnia a genocide in 1992, his European counterparts were still careful to avoid the label, despite the ongoing carnage. Why?

The tendency exists to avoid comparison to the Holocaust. On the extreme fringes, there are those who deny that the Holocaust ever took place, but, without exception, the scholarly community has exposed such charlatans. Others feel that comparison takes away its unique characteristics. But many scholars have come to accept what is well expressed in the following passage:

For remembrance to be truly effective, however, it should not be

isolated from the rest of human experience . . . if we dwell on

the unique components of the Holocaust, if we do not learn its

lessons and apply them to contemporary events, we will be

`forgetting’ the Holocaust in another sense. We must remember

not only what happened but why and how it happened . . .

(Mattes, 1992, p. 1985).

The Holocaust is one of the most horrendous episodes of human suffering in modern history, albeit not the only one. We can only discover the distinct features of the Holocaust through comparison to other cases. When scholars compare genocides, they do not equate them; they seek to learn from them. The eventual goals of those studying genocides comparatively are to prevent them from ever happening again, to effectively deter would be perpetrators from considering genocide a policy option, and to establish an early warning system that would enable us to foretell that a genocide is in the making.

The difficulties in living up to the standards dictated by morality are enormous and can be costly in material and human lives. But let us recall episodes in which the moral obligation was evaded.

Munich 1938: Britain and France gave in to Hitler’s intent to take over Czechoslovakia. Who could have imagined that the elected leader of a civilized country was to unleash terror throughout Europe? Bosnia 1993: Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, came to London to talk peace. What were Western leaders thinking? Both promised peace and meant war. Did we really think we could use moral persuasion to halt the chain of events? Leaders like Karadzic and Hitler were directly responsible for what happened in Bosnia and Nazi Germany, at least as guilty as a Hutu soldier who killed ethnic Tutsis. Often we prefer not to see the link between the politicians and the executioners. Most war criminals habitually deny either direct responsibility or knowledge of the crimes. Once mass murder begins, it is too late to politely ask them to act responsibly. The longer we wait to assess the criminal nature of their acts, the easier it is for perpetrators to fabricate their own story of innocence and place guilt elsewhere.

If the Europeans had sent a credible warning in 1992 of a full-fledged invasion, many lives would have been saved. Appeasement is not just an example of moral bankruptcy, but as 1938 should have taught us, not a policy option, especially not in crises that are provoked by leaders touting neo-fascist ideologies.

International civil society still needs to remind the Europeans of their special responsibility in facing up to a humanitarian crisis that had all the dimensions of a genocide. Mired in pacifist traditions, few of the post-war generation, including human rights activists, could see themselves as part of a movement to advocate military solutions to a grievous situation. In their defense, few may have envisioned that another genocide would take place so close to the European heartland, less than 50 years after the last.

NATO’s powerful military establishment, the bastion of the Western cold-war defense strategy, was a paralyzed bystander in the face of outright aggression; its European citizens remained at a safe distance from the slaughter. European leaders failed in the face of the first major crisis since the end of the cold war. No strategic lessons from the Holocaust were heeded.

Policy Choices: Nonintervention, Intervention, and Prevention

What to do about humanitarian crises? The most obvious choice in the face of humanitarian crises is to do nothing (nonintervention) or, in scholarly terms, to respect the absolute sovereignty of a state to conduct its internal affairs without fear of outside intervention. The principle of nonintervention in humanitarian crises was until quite recently the modus operandi for the majority of states and regional organizations. What are better choices?

At the very least, policymakers need to consider feasible alternatives (soft forms of intervention) to military solutions in the face of imminent crises, yet should consider military solutions when all other efforts fail. Strategists need to consider long-term consequences of special actions for the people they propose to save and plan missions carefully. Despite what some may consider a recent failure–Somalia–that intervention also saved lives. Yet the United States came in too late and without clearly delineating its objectives and motives. At present, we have no clear definition what constitutes national interest but frequently invoke it to deny obligations and conversely to endorse questionable ventures. Morality is often invoked but seldom delineated; thus, what principles apply to cases like Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda?

Today’s fashionable trend is to see democracy as the cure all of societal ills. Skepticism aside, the claim is not so far-fetched. By and large,-contemporary democracies do not fight each other, nor do they commit genocide and political mass murder. Yet democratization cannot be superimposed; instead, democracies like the United States should lead by example. Democratic leaders should make it clear to all states with whom they have relations that massive human rights violations are not acceptable means to quell oppositions; that no government should claim the right to treat its citizens or residents below the minimum standards that are accepted by the majority of states, and issue credible warnings that violations will be punished. Unfortunately, democratic forces are not triumphant as was suggested on the eve of the implosion of the former Soviet Union. To the contrary, we see the reemergence of tyrants, xenophobia, and new brands of fascism in several world regions, and sometimes murderous regimes are our neighbors.

Civil society should preserve minimum standards of human dignity, lead by example, and help those in need. Freedom from arbitrary governmental interference in the exercise of minimum individual rights are internationalized, but perpetrators seldom face serious consequences. Sanctions attached to violations enhance the quality of law. Thus, we should elevate humanitarian intervention as a rule of law in cases of genocide and political mass murder. Foremost attention should be given to specifying the condition at which this last-resort sanction ( punishment) should be imposed. States that claim moral leadership must rise to the task of helping those who cannot help themselves. Civil societies, ours above all, have an obligation to live up to shared ethical values.

Crisis Prevention and Responses

Preventing crisis or conflict assumes that we know what kind of crisis is likely to emerge and have at our disposal the right mix of positive inducements and threats to prevent conflict altogether or halt escalation. Different pressures should be applied to different stages in the ensuing conflict. Preventive diplomacy includes formal and informal good offices, mediation, and arbitration procedures, which may involve nongovernmental agencies as well as seasoned diplomats. These measures are well established and need no elaboration. Ideally, outside helpers need to create a climate that lowers hostility and builds the kind of confidence that increases willingness to negotiate. But these are not critical issues–the greatest problems are situations like Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda that are simmering and quickly escalate. If we were able to forecast such events, we could buy time to consider appropriate responses.

Without an adequate information system that alerts policy makers to impending humanitarian crises, responses are likely to be late, ad hoc, and very costly. Crisis prevention, early initiatives, and crisis management require reliable assessments of the likelihood and sequences of events. Thus, we are in dire need of an effective early warning system. Forecasters are only able to anticipate likely occurrences of phenomena through the systematic comparison of documented cases of massive human rights violations. Identifying differences and similarities and the tracing of patterns are essential to specifying the conditions under which such events are likely to take place in the future. What is needed now is to coordinate information from multiple sources, such as the United Nations, non-government organizations, the intelligence agencies, and universities, establish communication networks, identify key variables on which information should be gathered, work on a common language for classifying information on early warning of specific phenomena, and develop models that enable us to interpret information about emerging and ongoing crises.(6)

Lacking such ability at present, we are left with fewer alternatives. Coercion and credible threat are at the extreme range of response but are likely the only ones that matter to regimes willing to support mass slaughter. In an age of instant communication and rapid deployment, sustained and costly build-up is seldom necessary for humanitarian military missions. A show of force and a consistent policy of response may halt escalation. But a credible threat in extreme cases of human rights violations is still the best form of prevention of mass slaughters.


The post-cold war period offers new challenges to policy makers. Unstable new regimes may transition to liberal or authoritarian governance depending on which states offer what kinds of material and political support. Democratic states cannot expect others to smoothly shift from authoritarian rule to democracy; there are simply no perfect models or pathways. Diplomatic strategies should encourage such transitions by aiming to increase stability but not at the cost of tolerating violations of basic human rights. The legacies of colonialism and slavery have prevented many Western democracies from establishing equitable and harmonious relations with minorities within their own borders. Thus, it is within our national interest to encourage mediation instead of hostility and to promote freedom and civil liberties, but we should resist the temptation to sanction those who fail to meet lofty standards not yet attained in our own societies. The fine-tuning of positive inducements should be an essential part of the democratic world’s diplomatic arsenal. Essentially we need to maintain flexibility, and rather than restructure societies, we should emphasize the humanitarian aspects of our involvement.


(1) See Harff, 1944c, p. 25. (2) Forty-five cases through 1989 are identified in my chapter, “Recognizing Genocides and Politicides” in Fein, 1992. Research in progress has identified another half-dozen cases. (3) See Sahnoun, 1994. (4) For an elaboration of this argument, see Harff, 1984. (5) A comprehensive review of the literature on the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is Harff and Kader, 1991. (6) See Gurr and Harff, 1994.


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