Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity: The Military Response
John Sanderson: More often than not crimes against humanity are carried out by non-professional paramilitary mobs, often using crude weapons and agricultural implements, and inflamed by leaders whose primary purpose is to generate political power.
Apart from the ethics of killing non-combatants, all military professionals understand that this sort of activity is corrosive of good order and military discipline. Where conventional forces do become involved in such acts there has normally been a preceding period in which the professional leadership has been eroded or destroyed and the momentum of the mob has started to usurp the standing of the military as the defenders of the state.
This is often coupled with the redirection of military loyalties from the state and the Defense Force to the party and its leader. This transition often includes oath taking to take advantage of the high level of fealty conditioned into Defense Force personnel. Leaders who are outspoken in their opposition to these changes are normally removed from positions of command and occasionally they are subjected to trumped-up charges which challenge their integrity. I believe that if you look at most instances of this you’ll find the same characteristics.
Most professional forces or military organizations have a commitment to a higher order of things. While they are framed and bound by the laws of the state, the underlying constructs of duty and honor owe something to the ancient chivalric and religious military order codes. They are not remote from the ideas that underlie the concept of a just war. Unfortunately, they can be corrupted by a loss of focus on the fact the justice is about the individual rather than about some ethnic group or the party.
All of the people that I have met who have been associated with acts of genocide have had one thing in common, and that is an inclination to describe themselves as victims. And it’s this sense of victimization which is cultivated and exploited for the purposes of political power by the leadership. The Khmer Rouge leaders lamented to me on almost all occasions we met the gross injustice done to the Khmer people by the Vietnamese first, the French, the Russians and the Americans. And while they reluctantly admitted that they had made some mistakes in the past—you know, a million or two people is some mistake—they invariably attributed all acts of genocide (they didn’t call them that) to a spontaneous response by the Cambodian people to threats to the survival of their culture and livelihood.
Now I’ve no doubt that Hutus and Tutsis and Tamils and Talibans have a similar sense of things. My recent contact with Serbian officers of the Yugoslav Army revealed the same fundamental sentiment. That is, that a great injustice is being done to the Serbian people who have suffered so much at the hands of so many, from Bulgarians to Germans, Turks and so on, while defending their sacred territory.
And just in case you might think these sentiments are confined to the leadership of Yugoslavia, I would like to read an extract of a remarkable article by Dragoljub Zarhovic, editor in chief of the independent weekly Vreme, that might prove illuminating. The article was published in this November’s edition of Transitions Magazine and it’s titled “Kosovo Transcends Milosevic.” Its principal theme is that any attack by the west against Serbia for its defense of Serbian territory, of Kosovo, against the terrorists’ threat would be illegal and, more than that, would fracture the international order. The quote is from the English translation.
He says, “Someone once said that he hated Hitler because Hitler is the reason why he could not defend the Germans. Well, Milosevic is not Hitler nor are the Serbs ‘those Germans,’ but the lack of such a global drama does not relieve Serbs of the responsibility for what they have done locally nor does it relieve them of the responsibility of being in the right and defending that right.
“I wouldn’t trust Milosevic even to walk my dog,” he says, “just as nobody in his right mind would keep money in Milosevic’s banks, so I completely understand the ethnic Albanians’ refusal to be within or with Serbia. But Kosovo Albanians and the international community must understand that Serbia takes precedence over their grievances and that Milosevic is a transient phenomenon measured not only in terms of the length of a political mandate or even of a human lifetime, but also measured against the two main principles: One, the inviolability of the borders; and two, the fight against terrorism”.
Now, he continues, “It is somewhere around here that a supreme absurdity worthy of the end of this century could come about. Because of the evil Milosevic the repulsed westerners bomb the bewildered Serbs, who thus unwittingly get in harm’s way in defense of the two important principles upon which a working international order and security will rest until globalization is finally completed in one of the coming millennia”.
Now, I think that we have to acknowledge that that’s a very intelligent statement whether we’re moved to see flaws in the logic of it or not. It contains much of the modern-day dilemma of international jurisdiction versus national sovereignty, as we move through this period which I would describe as great global flux, a time in which we are all becoming involved in global problems whether we like it or not.
It reveals the military dilemma in the starkest terms. Do we punish whole peoples for the faults of their leaders and a minority criminal element in their midst which is inherently the nature of military force when used to defend sovereign states? Or, do we engage in a precise and discriminating way designed to incise those criminal elements, which is a totally different proposition? Or, do we simply apply economic sanctions in the hope that this will catalyze an internal overthrow of the leadership?
Now, we all know that the full range of these options are being and have been exercised in recent times in some way or another. It’s clearly impossible to exercise international humanitarian law and customary human rights law and bring criminals to justice in those states where the leadership does not consider itself bound by those laws. That is, unless the international military enters the territorial boundaries of those states and provides physical support to the lawful agents of the international community.
Now, I put it to you that what this describes, if it were to occur, is surely a state of war if it’s uninvited and not mandated and directed by the United Nations. Where it is mandated by the U.N. under Chapter Seven of the U.N. Charter it is called peace enforcement, but it looks and smells like war. It’s certainly not peacekeeping. There is much confusion about this issue of the inability of mandated peacekeeping forces to exercise lawful jurisdiction on behalf of the international community in the face of genocide or any other breaches of international humanitarian law.
This confusion has led to sickening burdens on military forces who have to live with the sense of disgrace that comes from being witness to, and not being able to do anything about, horrific injustices to human beings. On a minor scale, this happened with the Khmer Rouge massacre of Vietnamese communities in Cambodia during the period of the United Nations’ Transition Authority. On a much larger scale it traumatized many peacekeepers in Rwanda. And the dreadful stain that Srebrenica has left on the Dutch army will not wash away easily.
So, what can be done about this? It’s clear that the international order will not switch to global jurisdiction in the short term. Who would pay for this, anyway? It’s also clear that ethnic cleansing and the resonances of genocide are most likely to increase in the face of burgeoning populations and economic difficulties. As you can see from the preceding Serbian view which I quoted, there will be much discussion about who is wrong and who is right in this environment.
Clearly, there would be a general sentiment that it is preferable to prevent acts of genocide rather than to simply punish perpetrators after it has occurred, even though we could hope that the pursuit of such punishment would serve to deter those with an inclination towards such acts.
Much of the difficulty with this desire stems from the issue of definition. More often than not an act can only be defined as genocide after it has occurred. Such was the case with the Khmer Rouge, whose revolutionary zeal, I suggest, found favor in many quarters until the country was opened up by military invasion in 1979, by the Vietnamese with Russian support. When the Paris Agreements were being refined in 1990-1991 the Vietnamese-installed Phnom Penh regime insisted in including a description of the Khmer Rouge as genocidists in the agreement. It didn’t happen. But, it’s clear that if there had been a strong support for such an inclusion there would not have been any agreements, and therefore no opportunity for the Cambodian people to have a say in their future.
There were several other compromises in the Paris Agreements which complicated the engagement of the United Nations peacekeeping force. I would like to recount some aspects of those which capture the essence of this problem and which also identify issues of significance in military involvement.
The first relates to the agreements themselves, which provided the basis of the United Nations’ mandate for the Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). The concept behind the agreements was simple enough, although each agreement was fulsome and complex. Essentially, the U.N. would share sovereign authority with the Cambodian Supreme National Council, guiding the warring factions through a four-phase process which would culminate in the establishment of a constitution and a working legislature.
The four phases were: Firstly, supervision of a cease fire by sealing off the country to external military influences and then separating the military forces into cantonments and disarming them, thus creating a neutral security environment. This would then be followed by the creation of a neutral political environment, including supervisory control of internal security, finance, foreign affairs, defense and public information, as well as the creation of an electorate and political parties. The third phase was the actual conduct of an election, and the fourth was the oversight of the post-electoral political process to ensure that it complied with the liberal democratic undertakings of the agreements. Paralleling these phases and important to all of them was the repatriation of close to four hundred thousand refugees, the rehabilitation of the countryside, including the beginning of de-mining, and the emplacement of a human rights regime to complement the political developments.
Now, the NATO presence in Bosnia is more intrusive than what I’ve just described, but that’s really peace enforcement in strength. Cambodia was about peacekeeping, and it’s difficult to conceive of many countries signing up for a military contribution to UNTAC if it had been portrayed as anything different. That’s a key issue. It’s difficult to conceive of many countries signing up for a military contribution if it had been portrayed as anything else other than peacekeeping. The Indochinese imbroglio of the 1950s to the 1970s was too fresh in the public mind. And I put it to you: Did the international community really comprehend the depths of the required engagement?
It’s useful to examine each of these phases to see if they really could be classified as peacekeeping. Or, was Cambodia a paradigm in which something entirely new was attempted? What would the UN military have to do, for example, if the military elements who had entrusted themselves to the UN cantonments and disarming process, were attacked? Would not the UN have to defend them?
What if the people who had lived under the protection of those forces were subject to attack? Who would protect them? What would happen to the neutral political process if the factions refused to bring political terrorists to justice? What would happen if the electoral environment became so fearful that people would be too afraid to vote? These questions deserve asking, because all of these things occurred. And yet, ninety percent of the Cambodians, the newly identified electorate, got to the polls. How did this happen?
The most unfortunate outcome was that UNTAC failed to disarm the countryside, a failure which continues to flaw the contemporary political process. The primary reason for this was shortfalls in the agreements, brought about by the diplomatic compromises made to gain the signature of all parties. These compromises were fully exposed with the growing realization that the Khmer Rouge were not going to commit themselves to the process. And when it was finally concluded that this was so, three alternatives for the international community were evident. The first was to close down the mission, cut our losses - forego the billion and a half we’d spent by that time—and go home. In effect, that would recognize the legitimacy of the Phnom Penh regime which had been installed by the Vietnamese.
The second was to prolong the mission indefinitely in the hope that a process of negotiation and erosion of resolve would bring all parties to the necessary compromises. Obviously, that would be much more expensive. And it would be like a lot of other UN missions which have continued for the last quarter of a century or more.
And the third alternative was to continue with the program and conduct the election in an insecure environment. There was really no option but to pursue this third alternative, but many nations who had endorsed the original compromises were fearful of the consequences of conducting the mandated acts in an insecure environment. From the Force Commander’s perspective it was critical that no nation broke from their commitments. The potential for the whole process to unravel would mount rapidly if this were to occur. The Khmer Rouge were very conscious of this possibility and did much to divide and divert the international community, including sponsoring the slaughter of small Vietnamese communities, taking UN personnel hostage and engaging in the selective killing of UN soldiers and civilians.
In this climate, holding the coalition together was the major concern. This included selective tasking of contingents based on their quality and the strength and weaknesses of their national commitment. And that’s a very strategic act which has to be done by the Force Commander because there’s no strategic headquarters in the United Nations.
UNTAC also got into the business of arresting political terrorists because the factions were either unwilling or unable to do so. But, having arrested them it was not possible to find Cambodians to judge them. One Cambodian explained to me that if they judged them in accordance with the law instead of with political direction somebody would probably kill them. I think that was probably so.
There was no international jurisdiction for this and no international courts such as that raised for Yugoslavia. It was a highly dangerous process for UNTAC, but more so for those courageous Cambodians whose evidence provided the foundation for the warrants for the arrest issued by the UN special prosecutor. Eventually, UNTAC broke its own law by holding these people without trial to protect the witnesses. The military became the jailers, and a lot of people didn’t like it.
These examples are raised to demonstrate in the context of this subject of the military response to genocide how susceptible the nations are to scapegoating the military for their own lack of political resolve. While the support from the Permanent Five and the Security Council remained steadfast throughout, it was useful to leave the definition of what the troops in the field were really being asked to do slightly out of focus.
The peacekeeping dilemma lies here; it’s demonstrated over and over again. It’s that the media and the people always expect the military to do more than they are mandated and equipped to do, while the nations generally expect them to do much less than they need to do to be effective. It is my view that by and large troops will act responsibly if they are properly equipped and properly directed. They become cynical if they’re put in harm’s way without such support. They must believe in what they’re doing.
There’s a counterpoint to this concern, and that is that some nations have taken to scapegoating the United Nations itself for its inability to bring substantial influence to bear in situations of escalating violence, seemingly forgetting that the United Nations is them; it is them. This tendency has all the hallmarks of political theater, feigning moral outrage while avoiding commitment to the hard objective action that would be necessary to prevent further killing.
Let me conclude by observing that once an act of genocide has begun it is most unlikely that it will be resolved by any means other than the use of force. If that is the case, the military must be organized and equipped accordingly. Peacekeeping will not do unless the international community is prepared to make compromises with the genocidists. Such compromises are likely to embolden the worst elements, while the peacekeeping forces become hostage to the situation.
It is wrong to give coalition forces a peacekeeping role to salve the national conscience and then to blame them whenever they’re unable to stop the violence. Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia are three sorry tales of this failing. They are compounding tales; one followed on from the other. Not only is such an approach in my view immoral, but it’s close to destroying the upward ascent of globalism and the effectiveness of the UN as a contributor to the rights of human beings. If this organization were to go the way of the League of Nations as a consequence, just as the world has its greatest need for a vibrant international security agency, in my view that would be an absurdity. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.