Global Powers' Commitment To Intervene In Genocides May Be Waning | KUOW News and Information

Global Powers' Commitment To Intervene In Genocides May Be Waning

Dec 29, 2016
Originally published on December 29, 2016 7:33 am

As U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon prepares to hand the baton to his successor, Portugal's Antonio Guterres, on New Year's Day, he is lamenting "unfinished business" in a key U.N. doctrine meant to stop genocidal acts.

Ban has described Syria as a "gaping hole in the global conscience." The U.N. fears that South Sudan is on the brink of genocide and that "fires are still burning" in Yemen, Mali and the Central African Republic.

"The reason, clearly — lack of solidarity, global solidarity," Ban told reporters at his final news conference. "Unfortunately, [U.N.] member states have shown some stepping back from their firm agreement on Responsibility to Protect."

The concept, endorsed by the world body in 2005 just before Ban became U.N. secretary general, says that world powers need to step in to save civilians from genocide when local governments are unable, or are carrying out the atrocities.

The Obama administration was an early advocate of R2P, as it is often called, setting up an atrocities prevention board and telling the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2012 that "preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national-security interest — and a core moral responsibility — of the United States of America."

The Obama administration invoked R2P in 2011 in Libya, when then-leader Moammar Gadhafi was threatening to crush a revolt in Benghazi and show "no mercy, no pity" to rebels.

"Those interventions, they drag on, and they often morph," says Cameron Hudson, who runs the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the Holocaust Museum. What started as an intervention to save civilians in Benghazi "morphed into what essentially became regime change, and now essentially the dissolution of the Libyan state."

Libya has been in turmoil since then, and the U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who had been an envoy to the opposition during the war, was killed in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, along with three other Americans.

Hudson fears the Obama administration "overlearned" the lessons from Libya, making it more hesitant to act in the face of mass atrocities in Syria.

Obama told reporters earlier this month that he spent many hours in meetings with his advisers, but ultimately decided that "unless we were all-in and willing to take over Syria," the United States was going to run into problems.

"Everything else was tempting, because we wanted to do something and it sounded like the right thing to do," the president said. "But it was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap."

The U.S. intervention to fight the Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq in some ways that started as a humanitarian intervention, says Hudson, after ISIS slaughtered religious and ethnic minorities.

"We've seen an intervention to save Yazidis on the mountaintop morph into a much broader effort to roll back an ISIS threat all across northern Iraq and Syria," Hudson told NPR. "So the concept [of R2P] has been used to begin that engagement; it has not been a useful frame for how we conclude or continue to sustain those kind of engagements."

Some worry that has led global powers to focus more on the terrorism threats to them in such engagements, rather than protecting civilians from genocide.

At an emotional Security Council session, a Yazidi woman who had been held by ISIS as a sex slave appealed to the world body to stay focused on the plight of religious minorities and start documenting and preserving evidence of war crimes.

"I don't understand how there is no court that can prosecute the perpetrators of the crimes against Yazidis or an independent body to investigate them," Nadia Murad told the council. "I don't understand why the corpses of my murdered mother and brothers still lie in mass graves, unprotected and unexamined."

President-elect Donald Trump has said little about how his administration will respond to atrocities being carried out in conflicts around the globe. He has, though, made clear that in Syria he would combat ISIS by working with Russia, which has backed the Assad regime — itself accused of committing war crimes.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Responsibility to Protect is a doctrine in the United Nations calling on world powers to step into countries and stop atrocities. But in places like Syria and South Sudan, it is clear the concept is just an aspiration, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: At his final news conference as U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon described Syria as a gaping hole in the global conscience. He said South Sudan's leaders betrayed their people in a country now on the brink of genocide. And the fires are still burning in Yemen, Mali and Central African Republic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BAN KI-MOON: The reason, clearly - lack of solidarity, global solidarity.

KELEMEN: Ban says he's sorry to leave so many unresolved conflicts to his successor, and he blames world powers for failing to work together.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORIDNG)

BAN: Unfortunately, member states have shown some stepping back from their firm agreement on Responsibility to Protect.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration was an early advocate of the concept that world powers need to step in to save civilians from genocide when governments are unable or when they're the ones carrying out the atrocities. President Obama set up an atrocities prevention board and made this pledge to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum back in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration invoked the Responsibility to Protect in Libya in 2011, when the then-leader, Moammar Gadhafi, was threatening a massacre in the city of Benghazi. But the fallout was not what the U.S. wanted, says Cameron Hudson, who runs a genocide prevention center at the Holocaust Museum.

CAMERON HUDSON: Those interventions, they drag on, and they often morph, and they often change. So in the case of Libya, what became an intervention to save civilians in Benghazi morphed into what essentially became regime change and now essentially the dissolution of the Libyan state.

KELEMEN: And he fears the Obama administration, in his words, overlearned the lessons from Libya, where terrorism is now a major threat. It has been hesitant to get drawn into Syria, even to stop mass atrocities there. President Obama told reporters earlier this month that he spent many hours in meetings with his advisers on Syria but ultimately came to this conclusion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: Unless we were all-in and willing to take over Syria, we were going to have problems.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has intervened to fight ISIS in Syria and in Iraq. And in some ways, that started as a humanitarian intervention, says Hudson of the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The U.S. saw ISIS carrying out a genocide against Yazidis and other religious and ethnic minorities.

HUDSON: In the case of ISIS, we've seen an intervention to save Yazidis on a mountaintop morph into a much broader effort to roll back an ISIS threat all across northern Iraq and Syria.

KELEMEN: And some Yazidis say the world isn't paying much attention to their plight now. Nadia Murad, who was held as a sex slave by ISIS, has been urging the U.N. Security Council to launch an international investigation to document war crimes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NADIA MURAD: (Through interpreter) I don't understand how there is no court that can prosecute the perpetrators of the crimes against the Yazidis or an independent body to investigate them. I don't understand why the corpses of my murdered mother and brothers still lie in mass graves, unprotected and un-examined.

KELEMEN: She worries that evidence is disappearing while Security Council members focus more on the terrorism threat to them than on the fate of religious minorities.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.