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Essay: Addressing Past & Present Genocide: Exploring International Intervention

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Uzair Sattar

Professor Amanda Donahoe

PJS 150 – Special Topics: Genocide





On April 28, 1994, during a press briefing on the situation in Rwanda, State Department Spokesman Christine Shelly said: “…we have every reason to believe acts of genocide have occurred.” In response to this, Reuters correspondent Alan Elsner asked: “how many acts of genocide does it take to make a genocide?” She responded, “Alan, that’s just not a question I am in a position to answer.” Following up on this question, the reporter inquired “is it true that you have specific guidance not to use the word genocide in isolation, but always to preface it with this-this word, ‘acts of’?”. To which Shelly awkwardly responded “I have guidance, which—to which I—which I try to use as best as I can. I’m not—I have—there are formulations that we are using that we are trying to be consistent in our use of.”1

The words used at this infamous press conference was deliberate. Under Article 1 of the ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’, signatories are required to “prevent and punish” such acts. The US government knew this all too well. In a declassified document, the State Department knew that if they used the word ‘genocide’ they would have to “do something.”2

The United States’ decision to not term the atrocities in Rwanda as ‘genocide’ is just one example in a series of failures by the international body. Throughout history – and even in the present – we have seen instances where the international community’s silence has been deafening. Calls of ‘never again’ after the Jewish Holocaust were screamed and heard around the world. A tribunal sat at Nuremberg, unprecedented in nature and in the history of international law, to give the Nazi leaders a fair trial and ultimately punish them for their sins. The ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’ was passed by the newly formed


United Nations in 1948. It was one of the very first resolutions passed at the United Nations and was international in nature with signatories pledging to do everything in their power to ensure that genocide ‘never happens again’.

The air of optimism created during the mid-twentieth century, as this paper will explore, has corroded. The paper will look at past cases, namely Rwanda and Bangladesh, where there were clear signs of genocide but insufficient action by the international community to intervene and/or prevent it. The paper will also analyze the ongoing crisis amongst the Rohingya population in Myanmar with a focus on the response – or lack thereof – of the international community. Lastly, this paper will look at recent developments – such as Responsibility to Protect (R2P) undertaken by the United Nations and its member-states – in the international arena with regard to intervention. With this in mind, the cases of Libya and Syria will be examined and an attempt will be made to draw patterns and make distinctions between these cases to see where the future of genocide prevention and intervention lie.


Over the course of one hundred days in the summer of 1994, the Hutu-led government and their allies nearly murdered the entire Tutsi population of Rwanda as well as their sympathizers and moderate Hutus opposed to the genocide. 800,000 people were slaughtered in what was the most efficient killing spree in the twentieth century.

Although there are numerous complex pre-colonial, colonial, and political factors that lead to the catastrophe that consumed Rwanda, they are outside the scope of this paper. What is important to recognize, however, is that warnings of an impending genocide were transmitted months before April 1994. During the years between 1990 and 1993, “a series of mini-programs against Tutsis [took place] in different parts of the country,” which in retrospect appear to be “rehearsals for the conflagration for 1994”.3 In this time, 2,000 Tutsis are thought to have been killed. A UN special envoy was sent to Rwanda in April 1993. He specifically used the term ‘genocide’ despite overwhelming pressure not to do so. His findings, however, were buried.4

The UN tried again in October 1993. An “assistance mission” (UNAMIR), under the control Roméo Dallaire, arrived in Kigali to implement the Arusha Accords – a peace treaty between the government and the rebel forces (this failed in the worst possible way in the months to come).


Dallaire learned of Hutu preparations in the early stages of his mission.5 He wanted to raid the weapons cache – which were overwhelmingly machetes – and requested the UN for permission.6 This request was denied and the UN expressed their displeasure that Dallaire exceeded his mandate.7

These missions demonstrate that there was actionable intelligence available to the UN before the first shot was fired at 8:30 p.m. on April 6, 1994, at the plane carrying President Habyarimana as it neared Kigali Airport which initiated the genocide. What followed was horrific. The Army, militia forces, and Hutus fighters went door-to-door in search for Tutsis. The Tutsis were dragged out of their homes and murdered – often being raped and tortured in the process. The infamous roadblocks, those carrying identity cards – and even those who merely ‘looked’ like Tutsis based on, amongst other attributes, their height, foreheads, and nose size – were shot and hacked to death. There are also numerous accounts of militia-men chopping off limbs of the Tutsis and going away only to come back when they mustered the energy to return and put them out of their misery. Accounts also exist of Tutsis paying Hutus to grant them an ‘easy death’ with bullets and save them from excruciating deaths at the hand of machetes.8

Refuge was sought at schools, hospitals, and places of worship. It was to no avail as Hutu fighters would wait for Tutsis to fill the buildings up and proceed with the mass execution.9 Their bodies would often be dumped into various lakes and rivers where piles upon piles of bodies would be seen at the surface of the water. Roméo Dallaire, the Major-General of UNAMIR, said this about the experience “passing over bridges in swamps that had been lifted by the force of the bodies piling up on the struts. We had inched our way through the villages of dead humans…We had created paths amongst the dead and half-dead with our hands. And we had thrown up even when there was nothing in our stomachs.”10

The international community, including the US, has pleaded ignorance to these atrocities in the past. However, in her article for the Atlantic which combined interviews, declassified documents, and independent research, Samantha Powers writes “…the US government knew enough about the genocide early on to save lives, but passed up countless opportunities to intervene.” She went on to state that “staying out of Rwanda was an explicit US policy objective.”11

Not only did the UN fail to intervene, they actively withdrew UNAMIR forces from Rwanda. In an “act of cowardice”,12 well-armed foreign forces were flown out of the country as


soon the genocide broke out. However, there was a catch – only whites were evacuated (along with their pets). In an infamous video, whites were being evacuated from a Caraes Psychiatric Hospital in Kigali. Hundreds of horrified Tutsis pleaded to offer assistance only to be yelled at “solve your problems yourself” by a foreign soldier. The evacuation was successful but the Tutsis were massacred within hours of the troops’ departure.

The Rwandan genocide has left an irremovable stain on our promise to those before us who died at the hands of genocidal regimes and armies. Bill Clinton, in his 1998 remarks in Kigali he pledged to "strengthen our ability to prevent, and if necessary to stop, genocide." "Never again," he declared, "must we be shy in the face of evidence."13 But the incentive structures within the U.S. government have not changed. Officials will still suffer no sanction if they do nothing to curb atrocities. The national interest remains narrowly constructed to exclude stopping genocide. It is perhaps the most blatant example of a lack of intervention even though international players had full knowledge of the atrocities being committed on the ground. It went to show the failure of UN in their duty to safeguard international peace and security. Kofi Annan might have said it best “the international community failed Rwanda, and that must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret and abiding sorrow.” Ten years after the slaughter, Annan asked: “Are we confident that, confronted by a new Rwanda today, we can respond effectively, in good time?” His response was sobering: “We can by no means be certain we would.”14


After the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, an independent state of Pakistan was created comprising of two geographical territories, namely, East (present-day Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (present-day Pakistan) separated by a 1600-kilometer landmass of India. In the years following independence East Pakistan was politically, geographically, militarily, socially, linguistically, and culturally discriminated against by the administration (and military due to the imposition of martial law from 1959 to 1971) which largely dominated by West Pakistan. This was all to change in the 1971 general election, the first free election ever held in the country. The outcome of the election on was that the Awami League (AL), which was based in East Pakistan and led by Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman, won the election in a landslide. Power was to be handed over to the Awami League. Instead, on March 25, 1971, they government arrested Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman and launched a military campaign throughout East Pakistan. This triggered a declaration of independence of Bangladesh on March 26, 1971, and a start to a liberation movement and genocide for the months to come.


Over the course of nine months from March 25 to December 16, 1971. The Pakistani army launched a full-scale military campaign consisting of massacres, tortures, rapes, disappearances, destruction of property, and forced displacements.15 Unlike many genocides, the Pakistani government’s military action and genocide in Bangladesh caught Bangladeshi nationalists and outside observers by surprise. Prior to March 25, 1971, they did not take part in any armed struggle, acts of resistance, or even violence against the Pakistani government. Their only sin, according to U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, was winning an election.16

The election results were dismissed and General Yahya Khan, the military dictator, launched Operation Spotlight. In the following two days, the Pakistan army launched a premeditated and systematic attack on the largely Bengali peoples, although Hindus were also targeted. The military attacks targeted Bengali nationalists with a particular focus on selected groups of students, intellectuals, police forces. The government believed that it was only these groups that could lead a potentially new government and launched an offensive to eliminate that possibility. Universities were targeted;17 Simon Dring, a reporter with the Daily Telegraph, roamed the streets of Dhaka on March 28, 1971, and saw the dead bodies of 17 professors and some 200 students.18

Rape was used as a weapon in the genocide on a systematic scale. In Bangladesh, a family’s ‘honor’ lies with the purdah (literally translated to veil) of their women; those women adhering to the concept of purdah conceal their face and body from men outside their immediate family and live conservatively usually within the confines of the house. The Pakistani army exploited this. Women and girls would be raped during the looting and pillage of houses, kidnapped and gang-raped at camps run by army barracks, and even raped in front of their immediate family.19 The Pakistani army was aware of the fact that an unmarried, non-virgin woman represented great shame for many conservative Muslim families. Though they were casualties of the war, many of them we discarded by their own families as a way to avoid the shame and dishonor associated with them. And so, it may be fair to assume that rape was used not just as an act of physical torture, but of mental torture for the victims and families as well.20 Altogether, it is approximated that 200,000 girls and women were raped during the 1971 genocide.21

According to Rounaq Jahan, one of the main reasons being the offensive was to terrorize the population into submission. The logic behind this was that East Pakistan had taken part in


armed conflict since their independence in 1947 and that Operation Spotlight – a two-day offensive – would crush their movement of an independent Bangladesh. This proved to be a fatal miscalculation. They also considered Bengali’s to be a ‘martial race.’22 This language and line of thinking can be traced back to Colonial India where the British would only recruit Punjabis and Pathans (both groups are predominantly found in provinces of West Pakistan) for the Royal British Army. This tradition was continued by General Yahya Khan who did not recruit Bengalis as he perceived them as weak.23

These acts of genocide, albeit a surprise, weren’t sidestepped in the international media. To the contrary, the western media – particularly that of the United States, Britain, France, and Australia – kept the genocide on the global agenda throughout 1971. Soars of politicians, world leaders, celebrities, and musician around the world used their positions to raise awareness and rile up support for the suffering of the Bengali people.24

The atrocities in Bangladesh is significant as it demonstrates how the world’s response to genocide is often determined by geopolitical interests. In 1971, the world was in the midst of a Cold War between the two global superpowers of the time: USA and USSR. At the time, India was inclined with USSR. In classic balance-of-power realpolitik, the Truman administration supported Pakistan as a balancing act to USSR’s influence in India. And so, in fear of Pakistani falling to the hands of communism, the US refused to recognize the atrocities as acts of genocide. Truman and his top security advisor, Henry Kissinger, also went a step further and did not warn the military officials not to fire on their own people before Operation Searchlight, they did not call on the Pakistani government to respect the election results, nor did they tell the Pakistani government to strike a deal to balance the military imbalance between East and West Pakistan. In fact, they readily sold arms and shared intelligence with the government that ended up using it against its own people.25 Moreover, declassified documents of the US government showed that the US described the atrocities amongst themselves as a “genocide” but would not publically admit to it.

There is a possible silver lining. Adam Jones makes the case that Indian intervention towards the end of the campaign could be perceived as a success story26 and in many ways, he is not wrong. Initially, India played a crucial role in mobilizing the support for Bangladesh. They did this in a number of ways but most crucially training the rebel forces known as Mukti Bahini. Once the war was in full swing, they dealt with an influx of 10 million refugees from West Bengal and created spontaneous and unofficial sympathy from the international community. They were urged to intervene and stop the genocide but refrained from doing so for the larger part of the


war. However, finally, in December 1971, as the final punch to the Pakistan army, Bangladesh was liberated as a result of Indian intervention.27


In 1982, the government removed the rights of the Rohingya population by stripping them of their citizenship. Buddhists in Myanmar believed that Rohingya were Bengali who migrated to Myanmar illegally during the British rule in the subcontinent from East Bengal (current day Bangladesh).28 Since then, there have been many skirmishes between the armed forces and the Rohingya population. Over time, however, the skirmishes became unprovoked attacks on civilian populations perpetrated by the armed forces. This gained attention from the international community. And so, in a report titled “Assessing Country Risks of Genocide and Politicide in 2009” Barbara Harff and Ted Gurr listed several ‘danger-spots’ for the risk of possible genocides. The report said “…The Highest risk countries are the usual suspects: Sudan and Burma followed by Somalia…”29 This report proved that even in 2009, before the crisis was anywhere close to the magnitude it has reached (at the time of writing of this paper), the country was seen as a risk of a potential genocide. The Rakhine Commission was founded, chaired by former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, to improve the living conditions and standards of the Rakhine community. They presented their report in 2017 at the brink of the outbreak.30 It is safe to say the international community was aware of the tensions with Myanmar.

Early in the morning of 25 August 2017, the Myanmar Army launched an attack on the Rohingya population in northern Rakhine State of Myanmar as a whole. Often working with security forces and local vigilantes, the military has carried out a campaign of violence that has been systematic, organized, and ruthless.

Evidence has been presented by various international organizations and NGOs that the Myanmar military has killed at least hundreds of Rohingya women, men, and children; raped and perpetrated other forms of sexual violence on Rohingya women and girls; and carried out organized, targeted burning of entire Rohingya villages.

The attacks have been systematic and widespread. The acts of violence which are indicative of genocide when put into context can be divided into three areas, namely, widespread unlawful killings, rape and sexual violence, and the burning of Rohingya villages.


In days following the initial attacks on 25 August 2017, the military surrounded Rohingya villages in Northern Rakhine. As the Rohingya civilians fled, the forces gunned down men, women, and children. Many died on the spot whereas a few survivors managed to hide in rice fields and wait till forces left. The villages were then burned, and in some cases, so too were the people inside them. These events were replicated in dozens of individual villages.31 This research paper will focus on these three major acts of violence perpetrated by the military.

As international organizations are not allowing to enter Rakhine state, most of the data collected in the past few weeks have been from refugee camps in Bangladesh where over 500,000 refugees have sought refuge at the time of this writing. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported that, between 25 August and 12 September, it had treated 147 Rohingya refugees with gunshot wounds. Cox’s Bazaar District Sadar Hospital, one of three government-run hospitals receiving patients in the region, had statistics as of 30 September showing that its surgical ward had treated 187 Rohingya patients, including 126 for gunshot wounds. The surgical patients were 87 men, 57 women, and 43 children. Other clinics, including one run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), have treated additional patients.32 Numerous instances have been reported of gunshot wounds being treated in the backs of patients indicating they were shot as they were running away.33

The Myanmar government has denied the burning of villages by the army and blamed international groups and the Rohingya population for burning them to gain sympathy from international groups. Satellite imagery indicates otherwise.34 Based on the photos, Amnesty International inspectors have claimed that the villages have been burned uniformly, suggesting the structures have been burned in the same manner. Had this been committed by the Rohingya, as the government has suggested, the villages, some very large in size, would have been burned more haphazardly and with less uniformity. What is also interesting to note that the burning has not been systematic but targeted. The images show that Buddhist temples, villages, and communities in the Rakhine province are left untouched next to large swatches of ash. This is a clear example of targeted attacks on an ethnic group. Like in many cases, what is to be decided is whether there is ‘intent to destroy [in whole or in part].’ The arguments for and against this are beyond the scope the research paper. What has been established, at the time of this writing, is that ethnic cleansing is taking place on a rampant level.

Other means of violence have also been employed by the military in addition to assault by rifle and the burning of villages. There has been gender-based separations and rape has been used as a weapon. Amnesty reported, through interviews conducted “Soon after the Rohingya were


separated by sex, the soldiers opened fire, executing primarily the men and older boys, though also hitting some women and younger children. Several survivors said some people were also killed with knives, used to slash victims across the throat,” One woman, who Amnesty did not name, said soldiers took their money and possessions, and then they beat the women with a wooden stick. “My children were with me. They hit them too. Shafi, my two-year-old son, he was hit hard with a wooden stick. One hit, and he was dead. Three of my children were killed.” She went on “all of the women were stripped naked. They had very strong wooden sticks. They first hit us in the head, to make us weak. Then they hit us [in the vagina] with the wooden sticks. Then they raped us. A different soldier for each [woman].”35

The world, as mentioned above, is not blind to the cleansing. So, what has been said and done about the Rohingya crisis? The UN has described the situation as a ‘textbook example of ethnic-cleansing’ but further discussion is underway. Perhaps the most important and widely anticipated judgement is that of the UN in their findings of whether this is a case of genocide.36 The findings of the commission will be of paramount importance in what the resolutions the Security Council adopts; that could be a full-scale intervention through a coalition of member states or sanctions on the government. The question is, whether it will be too late. We saw in Rwanda that by the time any meaningful action through intervention conducted by the coalition was done the genocide was all but over. It was a response rather than a prevention or intervention. Unless acted upon quickly, we may have already witnessed a genocide. Other leaders have been quick to respond. French President Emmanuel Macron did not mince his words and has called it a genocide.37 Secretary of State of the US Rex Tillerson has not yet boxed the crisis into any frame of international law but has said the US cannot ignore the crisis any longer.38

It was interesting to look at where the crisis stood within the comity of nations at this year 72nd United Nations General Assembly. Every year world leaders come to New York to discuss challenges the world faces in a week of discussion amongst themselves and the audience around the world. This year’s General Assembly could not have come at a better time in regard to the Rohingya crisis. Just a few weeks after the violence occurred, the images and videos seen on social media set a thousand flowers blooming in Think Tanks and Op-ed columns throughout the world; it altered the terms of the international agenda. Or so it was thought. On request of the Turkish government, which was accepted by the Secretary-General, a session was conducted on the matter of the Rohingya Muslims at the UN Assembly. All eyes were on heads of states and the UN on their response and action to this potential genocide. Their silence, and not their words, spoke loud and clear. Only one president of a state attended: Iran. Two prime ministers attended: Pakistan and Bangladesh. Indonesia’s Vice-President attended. The rest of those attending were


either at foreign-secretary levels.39 This, in itself, is indicative of the level of priority placed on the crisis by world leaders. Their silence, and not their ‘condemnation of events in Myanmar’, was heard.


Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” And whilst using the word ‘friends’ to describe sovereign states and international institutions is a stretch at best, the underlying principle of the quote still applies between the comity of nations.

This underlying principle was the reason behind the universal cries of “Never Again” after the Holocaust. The principles of classical realpolitik, borders, and sovereignty were shunned. People, nations, and governments around the world felt an obligation to protect those from the crimes against humanity that is genocide. However, as we have seen in just a few cases above, the world has abysmally failed to protect people from genocides. “Never Again” is in fact “Again and Again.”

In terms of humanitarian intervention, the 1990s got off to a promising start. The end of the Cold War brought with it a change in international society. There was now a shift away from balance-of-power politics and the zero-sum game to a more inclusive world that stood up for universal principles and values as Franklin D. Roosevelt had envisaged. The prompt response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was halted by a coalition movement comprising of the US and NATO along with their allies. There was an air of optimism at the time. The United Nations was to take a leading role in international society. This was far from the truth. In the decade following the end of the Cold War, the United Nations, as we saw, were painfully silent in Rwanda in 1994 and did not respond quickly or adequately in Bosnia. The world saw the horrors of genocide once again. Something had to be done.

After the horrors of the twentieth century, the principle of absolute sovereignty had been under increasing challenge. It was argued that state sovereignty cannot be used as a shield for crimes committed against its own people. There was great support for humanitarian intervention. And so, in 2001, The International Committee on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) restated the core issue at the heart of the debate on intervention – shifting the discussion from the ‘right to intervene’ to the ‘responsibility to protect.’ Its report, The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was a comprehensive response to Kofi Annan’s famous speech before the General


Assembly in September 1999: “the core challenge to the Security Council and to the United Nations as a whole in the next century is to forge unity behind the principle that massive and systematic violations of human rights…cannot be allowed to stand.”40 After an intense intergovernmental debate, the World Summit, held in September 2005, produced a historic breakthrough on the R2P. In the Summit Outcome document, all governments accepted clearly and unambiguously their collective responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. If the host government fails to do these things, the international community, with the backing of the Security Council will intervene to protect the civilian population of the atrocities of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Specifically, the R2P rests on three pillars: “first, the responsibility of each state; second, the responsibility to protect the international community to support a particular state in exercising its responsibility to protect its people; and finally, in cases where a state fails in its duty, the responsibility of the international community to take diplomatic, humanitarian action or other means to stop these violations.”41 The Summits endorsement of R2P was a major advance in international norm setting that Annan had been advocating for several years.

In the five years prior to its most infamous implementation in Libya in March 2001, which I will talk about in more depth ahead, The Security Council invoked R2P four times – two were thematic resolutions on the protection of civilians, and the other was used during the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Darfur, Sudan. In the years since the Libyan intervention, the Security Council has invoked R2P in its resolutions 24 times. Five of these were thematic (including one concerning the prevention of genocide) but the others confronted the threat of mass violence in specific countries: Cote d’Ivoire, Yemen, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic.42 A general upward trend can be seen. Theoretically, the UN is using R2P or at least citing the importance of R2P in potential genocide prevention more and more. Practically, however, the use of R2P has been a completely different story and made its actual effectiveness uncertain.


Inspired by revolts in other Arab countries, especially neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, violent protests broke out in Benghazi and swiftly spread to other cities. To curb these protestors, Gadaffi launched an offensive against his own people. In addition to his earlier statements comparing protestors to “cockroaches” (which had a chilling effect on many diplomats, who were reminded of the hate speech that accompanied the Rwandan genocide), Gadaffi warned the residents of Benghazi that his soldiers would “be coming tonight” and would “show no mercy.”43


This rhetoric sent shockwaves throughout the world and initiated an intense discussion on the course of action that the Security Council needs to take to curb the human rights violations committed by Gadaffi against his civilians. The Security Council adopted Resolutions 1970 and 1973. The resolutions acted under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, and taking measures under its Article 41 which “authorized member states…to take all measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya…” The resolutions also instituted a no-fly zone, an arms embargo, asset freezes, and called for humanitarian assistance.44 A coalition of NATO members and various Arab states implemented resolution 1973 and intervened in Libya.

The goal of the intervention, as stated by the two Security Council resolutions, was to protect civilians from the possible risk of severe crimes against humanity. In this regard, it was to be a ‘humanitarian intervention’ backed by the Responsibility to Protect. A humanitarian intervention by its very nature should be impartial and clear from any ulterior motivation i.e. political or military aims (such as regime change). However, having seen the military actions between the belligerents between March to November 2011, which ultimately led to Gaddafi’s murder and a complete regime change henceforth, could we really call the war ‘humanitarian?’

NATO and their allies called the operation a humanitarian intervention. However, its political statement regularly advocated regime change. So, the intervention was somewhere in between having ‘humanitarian’ objectives and other political considerations such as ‘the legitimate demands of the Libyan people vis-à-vis the necessary reforms.’ If we think of the intervention as a singular point on a line between completely humanitarian (free of ulterior motives and complete impartiality to protect civilian populations) and completely political (the sole purpose of intervening was political to be able to remove Gadaffi and implement a regime change), the point would be somewhere in the middle depending on your opinion. One thing that can safely be said, however, is that it was not a singularly humanitarian war. This was because of damning evidence that world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, were not hiding the fact that, in their own words, ‘Gadaffi has to leave.’45 This unequivocal position concerning the political future was not translated, during the first few months of the intervention, into military actions that would have demonstrated the desire to eliminate the Libyan leader. However, as we saw, over the course of the operation, this goal was strongly carried out which inevitable converged to a full-out regime change under the cloak of R2P.

Jus ad Bello is an ancient concept which refers to the decision to resort to war only if it is just. The idea is that war can only be justified if the underlying cause of waging it is ‘just’. There


is no question that the founders of R2P believed that intervention under its name would constitute a just war. That the intervention would be humanitarian in nature and by extension free from bias and ulterior motives. In late October 2011, amidst the intervention in Libya, Marcel Boisard, former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, wrote: “…Protection of civilians was the pretext to justify any operation…It was no longer a question of protection, but of regime change…The principle of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ died in Libya, just as ‘humanitarian intervention’ died in Somalia in 1992.”46 There is no question that Libya gave R2P a bad name. This has far-reaching consequences. R2P was supposed to be a source of protection in cases of genocides, crimes against humanity, and war crimes were being committed. Thanks to Libya, it will now come under increasing scrutiny if it is to be deployed as protection against these atrocities in future. This makes it increasingly difficult to protect populations against possible genocides. The responsibility that was required in invoking R2P was abused – and consequences can be seen in our next case study, Syria.


Seven years have passed and more than 475,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict first began, but the civil war continues to inspire perpetrators on all sides to commit new and appalling atrocities.47 “Barrel bombs” packed with chemical weapons have been dropped by government helicopters while public beheadings and attempted extermination of religious minorities have been carried out by the extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

There is nothing accidental about the international community’s failure to protect. Three years ago, in February 2012, for the second time since the conflict began, Russia and China vetoed a Security Council draft resolution aimed at holding the Syrian government accountable for crimes against humanity. Immediately after the veto, Susan Rice, the then US ambassador to the UN, said her government was “disgusted” by the vetoes that intended to help protect civilians and halt atrocities.48 The vetoes showed the Security Council has not only failed to fulfill its basic function – the maintenance of international peace and security – it has also failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect the Syrian people. However, all this did not happen in a vacuum. This resolution was drafted just a few months after the killing of Gaddafi and was done amidst intense debate over R2P and “regime change.” As the war intensified, cynicism arose among Security Council members to suggestions that the Council needed to intervene. In October 2011, a slightly less far-reaching resolution was drafted to hold the Assad government accountable for the atrocities that had already killed close to 2,000 people. In explaining South Africa’s non-


willingness to vote for the resolution, Ambassador Baso Sangqu argued that with regard to the Syrian conflict, “the templates for the solution were very clear, it was along similar lines to Libya.”49 India and Brazil also abstained from voting for this resolution. This reflected a disturbing lack of consensus within the Security Council about how, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the Libyan intervention, to respond appropriately to deadly internal conflicts that could result in crimes against humanity and possibly genocide. By the time the second resolution was drafted 13 countries voted for it, with Russia and China vetoing. The process to this ultimate vote, however, clearly showed that many states had severe reservations on the principle of R2P; some, like the South African ambassador, clearly citing the Libyan intervention as the singular reason for their hesitation. This gives credence to the earlier view that the Libyan intervention permanently stained the use of R2P in future atrocities. Intervention in cases of crimes against humanity and genocide will make prevention – as seen here in Syria and now the Rohingya population of Myanmar – very problematic.


We have failed (and are currently failing) to protect civilians from genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Even with the benefits of the information revolution – that have been these acts more graphic and have made them available to a worldwide audience – we find ourselves in the disgraceful position where we still are not readily able to actively intervene and prevent these mass atrocities. We were quiet during Bangladesh and Rwanda. “Never again,” we said. Yet, we are still dormant as we witness the next wave of ethnic cleansing in human history in Myanmar. After this episode will elapse, we will likely promise “Never again” to the world yet again. Leaders have tried, however, to shift the discussion to a “Responsibility to Protect” civilians from the atrocities of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. This concept was formally endorsed by the United Nations in 2005. However, when the first real test of its use came in 2011 during the Libyan crisis, its shortcoming was gaping and was seen by the world. The great powers abused the “Responsibility to Protect” and made the intervention about regime change and not the protection of civilians as its founders originally intended. The credibility of R2P was nullified. This was seen when two of the Permanent Five vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for, amongst other things, some sort of intervention in Syria citing the failing of R2P as the reason why. We are yet to see what the future holds. From where we are right now, with all that has happened and is happening, it seems as if we take one step forward and two steps back.

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