The Problem with “Justice and Democracy”

by Julian Ku

There is much to admire in Alex Waal’s criticism of the international community’s kneejerk response to mass humanitarian atrocities.

Once an abstract obligation, stopping genocide has become a political project. Building on the humanitarian interventionism of the 1990s, a vast anti-genocide movement, largely U.S.-based, is stirring students and movie stars alike. Its figureheads are Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister and the architect of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, and Samantha Power, the author of “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” who is now at the National Security Council. It enjoins “us” — that is, the United States and the United Nations — to lead the response to mass atrocities.

High from last year’s interventions in Libya and Ivory Coast, Evans wrote triumphantly in Foreign Policy last December that those missions brought “an end to most of the confused debates” about humanitarian intervention. The vision he, Power and fellow idealists share is to send the cavalry over the hill not only to stop any massacres but also to herald justice and democracy.

Waal points out that most mass atrocities do not always lead to endless mass atrocities.

In other words, even once they are under way, mass atrocities do not lead inexorably to bottomless massacres. The killers usually have political goals: They are determined to kill until they have achieved their objectives, not until there’s no one else left standing. Their use of violence can be excessive, but more important, it is often instrumental.

This creates an opportunity for negotiating an end to mass atrocities, through peace talks and with financial and diplomatic incentives and pressure. In recent history such deal-making has brought to an end, albeit often an imperfect one, massacres in Burundi, East Timor, Kenya, Macedonia and South Sudan.

Yet the idealists insist on pursuing a more ambitious agenda: nothing short of democracy and justice, imposed by military intervention. And this can undermine simply getting the killing to stop. For perpetrators, the prospect of foreign intervention and prosecution rules out the possibility for compromise. For rebels, it creates a perverse incentive to escalate ethnic violence so as to provoke an international military response.

Waal is no doubt attacking neoconservative idealists like Senator McCain, but they are not the only targets.  Waal doesn’t point the finger at the international criminal justice advocates.  He doesn’t point out that codifying the justice into legal obligations makes his preferred solutions, negotiated peace, much, much harder.  But he doesn’t have to.

This is not to say that demanding democracy and justice is always wrong. But both conservative and liberal interventionists (and “justice” advocates) need to remember that it is not always the right goal, either, if the pursuit of democracy and justice prevents the end of mass violence.

3 Responses

  1. Interventionists have usually their own hidden agenda. It was one of the Clinton’s policy documents that suggested to cloak wars for natural resources in humanitarian interventions. After all, most of the resource rich countries are dictatorships or replete with atrocities. What the interventionists want is just replace the dictator with a friendly dictator, that delivers the resources on ‘reasonable’ terms, especially in exchange for weapons. According to Ha’aretz, Rep. Tom Lantos, ranking Democrat on the House International Affairs Committee, soothed Colette Avital, a visiting Knesset member, with this assurance: “My dear Collette, don’t worry. You won’t have any problem with Saddam. We’ll be rid of the bastard soon enough. And in his place we’ll install a pro-Western dictator, who will be good for you and good for us.”

    Many of those atrocities could be stopped if the powerful states wanted. The example given above about East Timor is one such example. U.S. has brought Suharto to power, kept him in power and that’s why he could do whatever he wanted. But then, suddenly Clinton succumbed under public pressure and threatened the Indonesian army with a stop of the military aid. And thus within no time they stopped the atrocities on East Timor. It was not the negotiations but a simple threat to stop backing up the criminals what helped.

  2. Of course, the difficulty with mass atrocities is that – in all cases and in all times – the people being killed more than likely have an objection to dying before their time.  I am very suspicious of R2P precisely because of its manipulability and doubt – as many other have – it is a legal rule as opposed to  a political mantra.  At the same time, the problems of negotiated peaces can not be minimized.  Jeremy Levitt has a new book out since January 2012 precisely about the problems with these negotiated peaces entitled “Illegal Peace in Africa: An Inquiry into the Legality of Power Sharing with Warlords, Rebels, and Junta.”

    Syria is the current example – intervening or not intervening – we are doing something.  Intervening without structure makes me fear us spinning toward world war.  But, haven’t we seen this before with a blocked Security Council/GA Uniting for Peace dynamic being pulled to the fore as happened with Korea.  Another way is with consent into Uganda after Joseph Kony.  Different images of how mass atrocity can be addressed.

    The families of dead Cambodians received cold comfort I imagine from the words of the non-interventionists of another generation.  The families of the dead Vietnamese receive cold comfort I imagine from the words of the interventionists of another generation.


  3. The dilemma is not really a dilemma. It is the result of the fact that the powerful want to commit their crimes with impunity. Otherwise we would have had the means by now to prevent abuse during humanitarian interventions. Imagine for instance that U.S. wants to put her own dictator in Syria and succeeds. After a while the documents of this policy might get declassified or leaked. The Syrians should be able to sue U.S. in an international court.

    Another possibility is that U.S. goes to ICJ and sues Syria for gross human rights violations. If U.S. wins and Syria does not stop that shit, U.S. might go back to ICJ and ask permission to enforce the decision by military force. If ICJ grants that permission, U.S. should be free to implement the decision. If U.S. oversteps her mandate, the Syrians should be able to go to ICJ and sue U.S.

    It is obvious. But why is that not possible? Because U.S. (together with the other powerful states) just don’t want to give ICJ the power to stop their crimes.

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