A real humanitarian tragedy

The crisis over the irredenta of South Ossetia now simmers, and analytical post-mortems have been numerous. There is one factor that needs more attention. As way of illustrating its discontent over the independence of Kosovo, and the conflict therein a decade ago, Russia has sought to mimic the sequence of events that affected the small Balkan state. This included an example of a disturbing trend âÄî now, whenever a state goes to war, accusations of genocide are commonplace in order to vilify the opponent. Genocide is an event of no small importance. Yet if it becomes common practice for it to be invoked erroneously to garner political support, the international community may soon fall victim to âÄúthe boy who cried wolfâÄù syndrome. While Georgia is axiomatically guilty of aggression in South Ossetia, Russian claims of genocide are ridiculous. But this may actually be the result of a lack of solidarity in the international community over how to respond to, and indeed even define, genocide. The debate over humanitarian military interventions is traditionally fought out in the United Nations. Any progress over conflicts such as Darfur is frustrating or nonexistent. Such incongruity is best understood through the different priorities given to human rights throughout the world. Western nations, through the luxury of development, have come to emphasize individual rights. Human rights groups have followed suit. Immediately this causes problems. Many non-Western nations have a colonial history and are extremely reluctant to allow foreign nations (especially the former colonizer) to criticize what happens within their sovereign borders. The vicious response of Chinese nationalists is perhaps the best example of such a dynamic. While it may seem anathematic to the casual Western observer, the advocacy of human rights by the rich world is often interpreted as a form of âÄúsoftâÄù imperialism âÄî the West simply seeks to impose its values on others. This view is understandable (even if you, dearest reader, find it unacceptable). Incidentally, one of the most common criticisms of the humanitarian intervention in Kosovo was that it was âÄúimperialist aggression.âÄù The attempts to codify human rights into international law have proved nearly impossible. As a result, the U.N. charter on human rights contains clauses that allow a state to emphasize societal and economic rights over individual rights at their own discretion. Such a discrepancy may betray the root of the problem; international law is designed to govern states, not individuals. And since law is created through consensus, the differing moral values of human rights will inevitably be reflected. The political torpor has led many idealistic human rights groups to attempt to fill the gaps created by governments. But groups like Amnesty International have been criticized, justly, for corrupting the difference between those inalienable rights of a person and those that are really privileges for citizens of rich, well-developed countries. By demanding standards that a country is either unable (due to lack of development) or unwilling to provide, the image of foreign âÄúimperialistâÄù meddling is reinforced. So when time comes to act internationally over humanitarian crises as grave as genocide, those votes necessary to authorize action do not manifest âÄî after all, if a state wants to protect its own sovereignty, why would it vote to nullify anotherâÄôs? Extensive study of genocide can lead to sleepless nights and greater moral suffering than any man can possibly enjoy. The emotions involved are both incredibly seductive and deceptive, for like most contests between heart and mind, the dispassionate approach to a problem is the best. Last spring this column drew fire for questioning the fallacious use of genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass murder interchangeably. It is too dubious to call the situation in Sudan genocide, tragic as it is. Far from being morally bankrupt, we firmly believe that the rush to use the âÄúgâÄù word will gradually erode its significance, thus the attention it receives. It is used too liberally, and should never, ever be used to garner support for foreign policy without damned good reason. Given that few countries have actually labeled Darfur genocide, there obviously needs to be greater discourse and agreement on the subject. The world is divided over Darfur, both for geopolitical reasons, domestic politics and a general sense of helplessness. After the adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan âÄî and to a lesser extent, Georgia âÄî there is little stomach for more military interventionism. Unilateralism will be taboo for years to come. Following the action in Kosovo, an independent commission drafted the âÄúRight to ProtectâÄù document, which was quietly adopted by the United Nations in 2005. In it is the explicit responsibility of the international community to react when a state is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens. As events in both Myanmar and Sudan this year show, however, there is still disagreement of when and how to implement the act. There are no clear answers, but unless more coherent international laws and norms exist, humanitarian action will continue to be subject to political paralysis âÄî dooming genocide to be a subjective policy instrument, or, worse, a purely retroactive label. Alas, it need not be that way. Those at St. JamesâÄô Street welcome comments at [email protected]