“Hell on earth” — that’s how the Washington Post recently described Eastern Ghouta, the rebel-held Damascus suburb now under siege from the Syrian regime and its allies.
As reports of civilian deaths and other atrocities surface from the conflict there, calls have once again surfaced for the international community to “do something” about the slaughter. Similar patterns played out during the regime’s assault on Aleppo in Syria, as well as in other corners of the world — from Darfur to Myanmar. The question of “doing something” is usually reduced to a question of whether foreign countries should intervene militarily.
There also is a tendency among the international community to base decisions on how to handle an armed conflict strictly on whether a party to the conflict has been deemed guilty of “genocide” — that is, “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” For example, when Bosnian Serbs murdered 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995, the massacre was correctly declared genocide.
But other crimes against humanity can be just as deadly as acts that meet the official international standard of genocide, or worse. For instance, ISIS is arguably guilty of genocide in Iraq and Syria, where it systematically targeted Yazidis, Shiites, and other groups. The Syrian regime, on the other hand, has been far more indiscriminate in its targeting of civilians. It’s not “genocidal,” but it’s racked up a far higher body count and caused tremendous suffering.
This highlights the importance of knowing the legal definitions of human rights language, so international actors cannot use the excuse of a lack of evidence for “genocide” as a reason not to take action that could help mitigate suffering in an armed conflict.
Bridget Conley, a research director at the World Peace Foundation, also thinks that the international definition of genocide often differs from how the public defines the term. And she adds that solely focusing on military force as a response ignores other options available to end armed conflicts where crimes against humanity or genocide are occurring.
Conley specializes in mass atrocities, genocide, museums, and memorialization. Before she joined the WPF, she served as research director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience for 10 years, where she helped establish the museum’s program on contemporary genocide.
I spoke with Conley about atrocity prevention, genocide, and the important of nuance in approaching them.
Some people have called for the U.S. to play a more interventionist role in Syria. What are your thoughts on this position?
I think it’s important to assess what we have done and are doing, and how that contributes to the dynamics of violence before simply pushing for more interventionism.
We need the right interventions, and this is not solely military but our diplomatic capacities — which today are severely depleted and under-resourced. We already intervened earlier in the conflict in terms of supporting armed groups that have fought the Syrian government, and we are supporting the coalition that is fighting against the Islamic State.
ISIS needs to be defeated in my opinion. If it can be done in a way that gains us leverage with the regime that can be used to increase protection of civilians, that would be the still-dismal, given the amount of suffering that has occurred, best-case scenario.
What are some policies that have helped prevent potential genocides in the past?
In most cases, there is a tradeoff between using influence to condemn and isolate a regime or other actors that might be willing to use violence against civilians, and actively engaging such regimes to resolve the core political crisis that drove them to pursue such policies.
It must be made clear that atrocities are not an outcome that can be tolerated, but this can be balanced with an approach that does not push a regime or other actors further in a corner when they feel like they have nothing left to lose.
It’s that tradeoff that is very difficult to manage, and it’s rarely managed well. The people who are strong advocates for intervention will always be more in favor of cracking down on regimes, while there will always be another side that is willing to appease beyond the last moment. Wisdom often falls within the nuanced area in between, and rarely receives accolades from either side.
Do you believe that kind of nuance is often missing in public discussions in the media about how to stop genocide or mass atrocities?
Media discussions are rarely that helpful. The media tends to tilt towards paying attention to the more extreme positions: It’s either we’re against atrocities (which we all should be), or we are to accept them as a political reality. This isn’t necessary.
You can be really critical of a regime while still engaging with it and working on ways to increase protections for civilians. This is what diplomats often try to do. But the discussions in the public realm seem to focus on two clear-cut opposing positions — you’re either for this or for that.
Do you think the public’s perception of the definition of genocide varies from the actual definition of genocide that was established in the 1948 genocide convention?
I think there is a wide variance between the public perception and the actual definition that was established at the convention. In my opinion, the quirks of the genocide convention render it particularly difficult and possibly unhelpful to understanding campaigns of violence against civilians. I think there are better articulations of genocide. “Mass atrocities” has been the more relevant term in many situations.
Are there times when crimes against humanity that don’t fit the exact definition of “genocide” could actually be worse than examples that do fit the definition?
I once had a young student ask, “What about the slave trade. Isn’t that genocide?” I don’t think it’s genocide, but I think 400 hundred years of institutionalized dehumanization has its own exigencies. I think people have a responsibility to understand harms, rather than ranking harms. I think ranking harms is a very distasteful endeavor. For me, the challenge is to understand the harm being done to people and to work against this harm in whatever form it appears.
In international law, “genocide” refers to the systematic elimination of people according to their ethnicity, race, religion or nationality. Do you think it would be smart to add class and political affiliation to that list?
No. But it’s not because I view class-based or politically motivated killings as less harmful than ethnic, racial, religious, or national group-related killings. It’s because I think trying to correct the genocide convention is less of a fruitful path than trying to use other terms that we already have, like “crimes against humanity.” This already provides a legal path for the type of prevention and protection that might be necessary in some cases.
What is your opinion of the United Nation’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine? Is this a good idea?
I think that the core concepts and ideas of the Responsibility to Protect are deeply valuable, and I think we have seen them play out as coalitions have been built around the idea of the Responsibility to Protect. My caveat is I do think it’s dangerous to create a policy spectrum that includes an authorization for war within a protection mandate. Military intervention should be held out of R2P as a separate way to engage in a conflict. I just don’t think it should live in the same house as prevention and a non-coercive response.
You and others criticized some of the advocacy groups involved in the Darfur campaign for not taking a more nuanced view of the situation on the ground? Could you explain what aspects of this advocacy work you were criticizing?
I think it’s very, very difficult to run an advocacy campaign. You have to put out a message that has clarity and relevance while also having the flexibility to change messaging as the situation on the ground changes. I think it’s incumbent upon advocacy groups to have a sense of primary responsibility to the situation — and not to the advocacy campaign itself.
If you’re oriented to running an advocacy campaign, you have a different set of exigencies than if your primary task is to impact a situation. I think it’s very easy for an advocacy campaign to take on a life of its own, where it becomes the goal.
I read in Darfur that when there was a decrease in violence, this change was not recognized by some advocacy groups. Is this accurate?
That’s true. In 2009, there were more people killed in Juarez, Mexico than Darfur. The character of the violence had changed and become much more fragmented. It was not like earlier periods when the overwhelming majority of the atrocities were being committed by government forces and its militia allies.
Do you think this made it harder for the Obama administration to handle the situation in Darfur in an effective manner, since public opinion still believed genocide was taking place in the region?
I don’t think it handcuffed them. I think policy makers are capable of being adept and nuanced. That is their job. I do think there is the question of how much of the energy of the administration is diverted if there is a loud campaign that is pushing for a certain interpretation of the situation. I don’t think it changed policy, but it did divert attention to a certain interpretation of the current situation that, in my opinion, had not kept up with how the conflict had evolved.
Do you think it’s important to present a nuanced picture of conflicts such as the one in Sudan, where the majority of atrocities were being committed by government forces and their allies, but there also were human rights abuses being committed by the rebel forces?
I don’t think it helps to mischaracterize the key actors. I think South Sudan provides a strong lesson of why this shouldn’t be done. You had an advocacy campaign that treated the Southern leadership as good guys, but now that they are in power they are the primary perpetrators of violence against civilians in their areas. I think it’s better to understand the diversity of threats, and how the salience of threats changes over time as circumstances change.
Do you think providing protections to the citizens of Benghazi would have been a better policy than helping overthrow Muammar Gaddafi’s regime?
I remember the time when Gaddafi’s forces were slowly moving eastwards towards Benghazi and there were legitimate and strong fears that something terrifying would happen if they took Benghazi. There were some other towns that Gaddafi’s forces had taken where massacres had not taken place, but the leadership in those towns had already fled, so Benghazi was seen as kind of the last stand for the resistance fighters. I do think there is logic to seeing Benghazi as place where there was a strong imperative to provide protection for civilians.
However, regime change is a very radical step. You don’t have to be an apologist for Gaddafi to say regime change wasn’t the right policy. Changing how a state functions is exceptionally difficult, and finding a new leader is a key part of that process. Often the new leader will repeat the old patterns of the leadership they have just overthrown. Political relationships are more complex than one person, and if there is no structure to hold in place a different type of relationship, then you get what happened to Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown. The situation was very chaotic and highly lethal.
You seem to be noting the importance in seeing conflicts on a country by country basis as opposed to seeing Sudan as “another Rwanda” or Syria as “another Iraq“?
There are obviously lessons to be learned from the past, and mechanisms that can be put in place like smart, focused sanctions on regimes involved in mass atrocities. How these mechanisms and tools can be deployed should always be in relation to a really deep understanding of the nature of risk and the nature of the political community you want to impact.