The Problem with “Justice and Democracy”
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.