Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Stopping genocide and the law of war

Just a brief thought about reading Philip Gourevitch's book on the Rwandan genocide, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families (1998).

The brief thought begins with this: a lot of people look pretty bad in this book, beginning of course with the murderous practitioners of Hutu Power politics, but continuing to include the French (patrons of the Hutu rulers of the country), the United States (fiddling while Rome burned), and human rights organizations (unable to distinguish victims from murderers).

But in one sense the most unsettling feature of these events is what they seem to have taught the United States and perhaps the world as well. If it is intolerable to permit genocide to occur, then when it is threatened you must act, and if necessary by the use of military force. Otherwise you tolerate the intolerable.

That's what Bill Clinton declined to do when the US bombed Yugoslavia to protect people in Kosovo from their own state. Clinton acted despite the lack of authorization from Congress, in the clearest violation of our War Powers Resolution ever -- but Barack Obama's support for intervention in Libya, similarly motivated, is the next clearest case. And it is not simple to discern in the United Nations charter, which appears to permit the use of force only in self-defense, a lawful basis for the use of force to block evil governments from murdering their own people -- yet such interventions seem increasingly to have found a rationale in a duty to protect.

The prospect of genocide compels such steps. But one result is to lower the always modest legal barriers, national and international, against war.

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