How do we adress the limitations of the international community?

One day, a great friend of mine asked me what the international community should do regarding the crisis between Hong Kong and China (the former being a semi-independent state from the latter). At first, I gave him a personal and emotional answer, but then I realized that passionate responses are mostly useless in these kinds of discussions. I should have based my arguments on a more solid foundation and considered the principles of international law. There is, however, an enormous vacuum in this context. International law is in fact unable to define the role of the international community in conflicts that are limited within the borders of sovereign states. Hence, when we approach the topic, we are confronted with opinion-based debates rather than fixed rules.

Nevertheless, I wanted to provide a more sophisticated answer to my friend and thus, I decided to do some further research. I structured my investigation around one main question that represented the starting point for the entire analysis. The question was: which international agency should play the role of representing the international community amid a border-limited dispute? The most intuitive answer is: the United Nations.

The United Nations 

According to the liberal theory of international relations (which argues that international institutions play a key role in cooperation among states), the United Nations is the international body requested to intervene on behalf of the international community in case of border-confined conflicts. Because of its global recognition, the UN is arguably the only organization legitimized to play a role during an internal dispute.

Even though this perspective seems promising, there are evident structural problems inside the UN which prevent it from ever becoming an institution allowed to intervene in national confrontations on a legal basis. The UN unifies hundreds of countries in one institution, but its security council is governed only by five of them, the well-known veto-powers: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Through the veto power, these countries can block any UN intervention if it challenges their political interests. The UN has faced the possibility of becoming a rule-based institution with the ability to play a significant role in national issues many times, but every attempt has failed miserably because of these dynamics.

For instance, Russia used its veto power against an intervention during the 1999 war in Kosovo. Regardless of the evident violations of human rights in this conflict, Russia blocked any intervention possibility merely because of its political alliance with the Milosevic regime, which was at the head of the Yugoslavian Republic and included Kosovo at the time.

Alternative solutions 

Acknowledging that the actions of the UN are largely limited by structural problems, raises the question as to who is legitimized to represent the international community in these cases. Theoretical and empirical evidence on this topic suggests two possible alternatives: coalitions of the states that have the largest military and economic power or regional actors. Both arguments are based on the assumption that these groups of states may be able to offer the best intervention in different ways. Powerful states have the economic and military power to pressure the country in question. However, many argue that this approach sustains the dominant position of the most powerful countries and maintains a global hierarchy, rather than addressing the real causes of many conflicts. Neighbouring countries, on the other hand, can exercise a stronger political and social influence on the critical country because of their strategic geographical position.

Even though these lines of thinking have their logic, they both fail to provide any kind of legitimacy to these exclusive groups of states that should theoretically represent the international community. Furthermore, the interventions of powerful or neighbouring states that have happened in the past (without a legal basis) have demonstrated that these options can be extremely dangerous. The ongoing crisis in Libya (where the involvement of powerful states such as Russia and France as well as regional actors such as Turkey, Egypt and Jordan is evident) represents a very unfortunate case.

Need for a new perspective

Taking everything into account, it seems that there are many issues related to the presence and activity of the international community in national conflicts. If institutions such as the UN are paralized because of internal, structural tensions, who has the legitimacy to get involved in a national conflict? Should foreign countries have the right to intervene in these disputes and if so based on what? We have seen that the intervention of the most powerful countries can actually cause more harm than good. Regional involvement can also be problematic, considering that neighbouring countries will always have their own agenda and are likely to seek to expand their influence in the area. Recent scholarship argues that there is a need for a more local approach to internal conflicts. However, in many cases the actors involved do not have sufficient resources or an efficient institutional framework to regulate internal conflict.

It seems that the dilemma of who should intervene is far from being solved. Perhaps the most ideal solution is a hybrid approach: the engagement of international institutions with local actors based on equality and collaboration. However, in order to avoid power imbalances one very important thing has to change: international institutions need to be reformed in a way that is inclusive, so that each member has the same amount of power, starting with the UN security council. By redefining the members and the role of the international community hopefully we will be able to find better solutions to global issues.


References

Nardin, Terry (2013): From Right to Intervene to Duty to Protect: Michael Walzer on Humanitarian Intervention. European Journal of International Law 24(1), 67-82. 

Pape, Robert A. (2012): When Duty Calls: A Pragmatic Standard of Humanitarian Intervention. International Security 37(1), 41-80. 

Pattison, James (2010): Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Genocide: The power of history and collective memory

As our thoughts today go out to the six million Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust and we remember the atrocities that were committed by the Nazi regime, we are reminded of the importance of remembrance, so that a similar tragedy may never happen again. The Holocaust, whose scale and organization were unprecedented, is without doubt one of the darkest chapters of human history. However, when we view the world from a global perspective, it is sadly one of many tragedies. Not only wasn’t it the first genocide in history, but it was also far from being the last one. 

The word genocide came into general usage after World War II when the full extent of the brutalities committed by the Nazi’s was revealed. In 1948 the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was approved by the UN and genocide was declared an international crime. The Convention defined genocide as any number of acts “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” and has since been ratified by more than 130 countries. 

Many genocides, however, have not yet been recognized internationally, or worse, have not seen the perpetrators take responsibility for their actions. We may not be able to bring back the thousands of people who lost their lives, but we do have the power to remember and honour the victims, to raise awareness on what happened and prevent the same crime from repeating itself. The Armenian, Cambodian and Bosnian genocides all happened in different historical and geographical contexts. Together with the Holocaust, they represent some of the darkest chapters in world history. It is precisely because of the important role history plays in shaping collective memory that these chapters must not be forgotten.

Armenian Genocide (1915-1917)

The Armenian genocide was the systematic killing and deportation of Armenians at the hands of the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1918. The Young Turks, who had seized power in 1908, were reigning over a crumbling empire after having entered WWI on Germany’s side. Worried that the Christian Armenian population was planning to side with Russia, the Turks massacred thousands of Armenians, deporting them en masse from eastern Anatolia to the Syrian desert where they were killed or died from starvation and disease. Before the beginning of the war, 1.5 million Armenians were living in the Empire. It is estimated that up to 1.2 million died during the genocide.

Despite early condemnation from the international community and a strong public outcry against the mistreatment of the Armenians, no strong actions were taken to punish the perpetrators. Moreover, no step was taken to require postwar Turkish governments make restitution to the Armenians to make up for the immense material and human losses.

Cambodian Genocide (1975-1979)

Another dark chapter in human history, the Cambodian genocide saw the annihilation of a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 under the leadership of Marxist dictator Pol Pot. 

The Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 with the goal of turning the country into an agrarian utopia: a rural, classless society comprised of collectivized farms. Money, schools, private property and religious practices were abolished, and rural collectives were set up in the countryside. In reality, however, cities were emptied, and millions of people were evacuated to labour camps where they were starved and abused. The regime singled out doctors, teachers, affluent people, anyone with an education as well as ethnic and religious minorities and whoever was unwilling or unable to undertake harsh manual labour was eliminated. Unlike other genocides, no one was immune from being branded an enemy of the state. Anyone perceived to be in the opposition was tortured and killed and it is estimated that 1.7 to 2.2 million people lost their lives. 

The international community was largely silent during the genocide, despite scholars and activists trying to bring attention to the atrocities that were being committed. Only after the regime was overthrown in 1979 did the brutality receive international media attention but it wasn’t until 2003 that an international tribunal was etsablished to try the perpetrators.

Bosnian Genocide (1992-1995)

The Bosnian genocide happened during the Bosnian War, a religious and ethnic conflict between Bosniaks (Muslim), Serbs (Orthodox Christian) and Croats (Catholic) that erupted after Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1992. The creation of an independent nation with a Bosniak majority was opposed by Bosnian Serbs, who launched a campaign to secure territory and rid Bosnia of its Muslim population. With the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, Bosnian Serb forces targeted Bosniak and Croatian civilians in areas under their control, which resulted in the death of 100’000 people by 1995, 80% of whom were Bosniaks. 

In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces murdered 7’000 to 8’000 Muslim men and boys in what will forever be remembered as the Srebrenica Massacre. The city had been declared a safe area for people fleeing the fighting by the UN and was protected by around 500 international peacekeepers. Serb forces, however, overwhelmed the troops, sent all the women to Bosnian-held territory, then rounded up men and boys and trucked them to killing sites where they were shot and buried in mass graves. 

Since the beginning of the conflict, the UN and international actors did not intervene, fearing strong action would complicate peace negotiations and jeopardize humanitarian aid. Even when it became clear that attacks on Srebrenica were planned, the international community did not offer the UN peacekeepers stationed there additional support. However, in 1993 the UN established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia which eventually proved to be instrumental in the creation of the International Criminal Court.

The importance of history and collective memory

The above-mentioned genocides are but three of the many that took place over the course of the 20th century. Not only do they share the fact that they were initially neglected by the international community but, despite landmark international convictions and much documentation of the atrocious crimes committed, they still happen to be denied by certain actors. In Serbia, some nationalists claim that the number of dead is exaggerated and that Srebrenica was but one of the many atrocities committed during the conflict. Turkey has met the Armenian genocide with over one hundred years of silence and denial.  Similarly, there is a consistent and worrying number of people in the US and Europe that denies the Holocaust. Furthermore, after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, many Western intellectuals of the left denied or minimized the human rights abuses that had taken place in an attempt to protect communist ideology.

The unwillingness to see and recognise what happened is not only dangerous but greatly undermines the role collective recognition and memory play in ensuring such crimes are not repeated. Healing the deep wounds inflicted by genocide is a difficult and perhaps impossible task. One way is surely for the perpetrators to be held accountable for their actions through international justice mechanisms. However, this is not enough. The international community has the responsibility to call out the perpetrators of such crimes and should adopt strategies to punish them, in accordance with the Genocide Convention. Seeking justice in the aftermath of such atrocities does not change the fact that if one had acted sooner, the brutality could have been avoided or at least stopped much earlier. Belated recognition also indirectly supports the proliferation of alternative narratives of what happened which undermine or deny the atrocious crimes that were comitted.

Many greatly underestimate the power of collective remembrance and recognition. Collective memory can ensure that the victims and the crimes are not forgotten, thereby preventing them from repeating themselves. Collective recognition and condemnation, on the other hand, have the potential to stop things from happening or worsening in the first place. Now the international community has the chance to redeem itself for past mistakes: by stopping China from perpetrating mass atrocities against the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority which is systematically being targeted by Beijing through a mass detention and forced labour program, restrictions on cultural and religious practices and coercive birth prevention. Despite transparent evidence of the crimes being committed, the international community has until now failed to address the situation in a meaningful way. The recent condemnation of what is happening by former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo is a step in the right direction but more immediate action is needed.

Extensive recognition of the present and remembrance of the past can spread awareness and are perhaps the strongest tools we have. The perpetrators as well as the survivors of past horrors will eventually leave us and then all we will be left with is history. We must never underestimate its power in helping us work towards a better future. To quote American-Armenian novelist Chris Bohjalian: “History does matter. There is a line connecting the Armenians and the Jews and the Cambodians and the Bosnians and the Rwandans. There are obviously more, but, really, how much genocide can one sentence handle?”.