Monday, January 21, 2008

Genocide and public opinion

Jim Hoagland, former foreign correspondent and now foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post, wonders whether Kenya will join the ranks of other countries he once filed dispatches from in capital cities beset by destruction and war – Algiers, Tehran, Baghdad, Mogadishu, etc.

It is premature to compare Nairobi at this point to those other, more tumultuous capitals. But most of them -- as Nairobi certainly did -- originally had serious chances to succeed as workable or even important regional or international centers of governance, and they failed. Nairobi must now avoid their mistakes if it is to avoid their fate.

Hoagland makes the point that the global communications revolution may have connected people in visceral ways, but it has not been matched by “understanding of the Third World's dilemmas or a commitment to help resolve them.”

Unfortunately for aggrieved Kenyans, the nation's most serious troubles in its brief modern history arrive at a moment when international outrage is spread thin in Darfur, the Middle East, Iraq and elsewhere. The United Nations' unsuccessful struggle with Sudan to send into Darfur peacekeeping units that can protect themselves suggests that the once proudly proclaimed "duty to protect" abused citizens from their own governments is degenerating into something like the duty to scold.

Stop in the name of genocide
In a related matter, a story in the New York Times reflects on a far-reaching law adopted by the United Nations in 2005 to allow outside powers to intervene inside countries that are unwilling to stop genocide within their own borders. What some of the resolution’s original supporters claimed was a high-water mark for human rights around the globe has met certain cold realities on the ground. For one, the refusal of rich countries to deploy their well equipped militaries to hot zones like Darfur. Secondly, when troops finally do arrive, they are handcuffed by various roadblocks set up by host governments. (One aspect of this story that must be pointed out: its small sample size. This law has only been tested by the incidents surrounding the issues in Darfur.)

The resolution, nicknamed the “Right to Protect,” was something of a philosophical turning point for the United Nations, a body since its inception always upheld the rights of sovereign states. For proof, see the largely uninterrupted genocides by Hutu power groups in Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Derg in Ethiopia. For the first time, the “Right to Protect” meant that sovereignty could possibly take a back seat in favor of stopping unabated bloodshed and violence.

The role of the public
Piggybacking on a theme brought up by Hoagland: What is the public’s responsibility in stopping genocide? Donald Steinberg, director of the International Crisis Group’s New York office, was a special assistant for Africa in the Clinton administration during the Rwanda genocide. He points out that during the slaughter, the U.S. government debated whether to jamming the hate radio that whipped supporters to a froth and organized the génocidaires or reinforcing the UN mandate in the country.

“But each time some of us pushed for these steps,” he said, “others would ask, ‘Where’s the legal basis for these actions, where’s the public outcry, the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus of support? Where’s the evidence to show that these actions will end the killings?’ ”

It’s an important point. Without public outcry, few leaders will act boldly against killings where a country has limited interests. The festering bloodshed in former Zaire is a case in point. So is the 2006 Israeli bombing of Lebanon – a pretty clear account of a military targeting citizens – which went unchecked by the U.S., who simply sent ships to evacuate the thousands of Americans on vacation in the country and the Lebanese holding U.S. passports.

On one level, Darfur does seem different. A large coalition has been built to force governments to act on the bloodshed. The media certainly has provided (relatively) extensive coverage. Keeping people aware of the killings may have abated the violence, but it certainly has not stopped. Neither have the warring sides been forced to come to the table.

Has the PR campaign against Darfur tipped the balance towards rectifying the situation? It’s difficult to tell. The intransigence of the Sudanese government may come about from the greatest trump card of all: sovereignty, and the belief that the power of the nation state holds supreme. All governments understand it, and in response to external pressures stemming from the “interdependence” of globalization, desire it.

There’s something else at work here. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, whatever the political motives debated in the United States, is largely seen around the world as a unilateral imperialistic attack on a sovereign state. The story points out that 150 countries originally supported the resolution. Many of these countries hail from the third world, and they are presently shying away from the “Right to Protect” because they feel they could be the law could be enforced in their own backyard.

One could also argue that geo-politics plays a roll with Darfur. Many in the West look to China’s patronage of the Khartoum regime as a reason for the political stalemate in solving the problem. It’s more complicated than that. While Washington scolds the Sudanese concerning its government role in Darfur, the two countries enjoy a cozy relationship over the war on terror.

The debate over democracy and sovereignty remains unsettled. But there’s another matter at work here. The convictions of the person on the street. A dedicated clique attuned to the injustices in Darfur is one thing. What about the rest of us? Like Hoagland pointed out, the world at large displays a limited attention span. Issues like Darfur became significant when the public’s attention was already stretched by other issues: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine.

I tend to take a more positive viewpoint of the campaign to keep Darfur in the media. Think of the counterfactual: What would be taking place there if the public awareness campaign was never hatched? An imperfect solution, yes; but it beats doing nothing.

The Kenya subtext
The subtext, of course, to both of these articles is as unmistakable as their timing. Kenya, a former stable country, is apparently on the verge of chaos. Regardless of the U.S. press’ swing-and-miss on the history of ethnicity and tribalism in the country, ethnic violence appears to be taking place. How far must this escalate before the world’s powers draw up a list of conditions before it contemplates intervention? Better yet, when do the t-shirts and bumper stickers get printed for “Stop the Killing in Kenya”?

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