This post by is by Oskar Granskogen Kjorstad, Alexandra Haider and Tess Gallagher. They are students enrolled in PLIT10063 ‘Human Rights in International Relations’, an honours-level course in the School of Social and Political Sciences that explores the political and legal issues surrounding the international enforcement of human rights. As part of their online tutorial activities, students were asked to prepare a blog post about the enforcement of the Genocide Convention. This piece was selected as the standout among the many excellent submissions, chosen for its incisive commentary on the Darfur crisis and its excellent discussion of the Convention’s broader application.
There is no shortage of forgotten conflicts in history that briefly capture the world’s attention on their way through the news cycle before the next noteworthy event promptly takes their place in the spotlight. Darfur is an especially painful example of such a conflict. State-supported and ethnically motivated violence against the civilian population of Darfur has caused enormous suffering. Yet despite calls from civil society for states to intervene on the grounds that they are obligated to under the Genocide Convention, the international community took no meaningful action to stop the violence. What explains the apathy of the international community and the difficulty of enforcing the Genocide Convention in relation to Darfur?
One of the most basic problems with the enforcement of the Genocide Convention is the difficulty of consistently and accurately applying the legal definition of genocide to cases of mass violence. The Genocide Convention defines genocide as “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”. Different international courts have variously understood this definition. In Srebrenica, the ICTY ruled that the murder of 7-8000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys met the legal definition of genocide, though this case was less obviously a genocide than the Holocaust, which led to the Convention. In spite of the wide span in cases identified as genocides, the ICC determined that the violence in Darfur did not amount to “the crime of crimes”- not because the violence was less horrific than expected, but because the particular nature of the violence was deemed not to meet the legal definition of genocide. The U.S., as well as many NGOs and scholars, reached the opposite conclusion. This lack of legal clarity makes it harder to effectively identify cases of genocide, which is a problem in the enforcement of the Genocide Convention. Confusion caused by these legal debates can be used as an excuse by states not to use the word “genocide”, and so avoid pressure to act and subsequent legal obligations to end mass-atrocities.
If the definitional issue is overcome, another obstacle as to why the Genocide Convention is so rarely invoked lies in the semantic power of the word. Sardonically labelled ‘The G Word’, there is often a reluctance to utilise the word for fear of its connotations. Many argue that the term denotes absolute, totemic evil and thus should be treated with caution when used in political discourse. As a result, it is often replaced with other, more (supposedly) palatable alternatives, such as ‘ethnic-cleansing’. Examples of this were seen in the US’ refusal to condemn and recognise the Armenian Genocide; choosing instead to refer to it by the Armenian language phrase ‘Meds Yeghern’, or ‘Great Catastrophe’. This was not without external pressure- such power does the word have that US officials were threatened with losing access to military bases in Turkey if they were to vocalise it. Of course, strategic imperatives often trump moral ones; and evasive terminology in this case appeared the only way to conciliate all sides.
Once the word is invoked however, the game appears to change. If word is weapon, does saying it signify battle? In cases such as Darfur, it appears not. Despite internationalcondemnation and adducing of the Genocide Convention, the violence in Sudan still continues. Numerous resolutions have passed all with limited, if not weak, success. This leads many scholars and critics to question the legitimacy of the Genocide Convention; does it exist to appease, rather than to act?
Given the poor track record of the state system in preventing genocides, there’s a good case to be made for the former. A key explanation for this is that states put their self-interest above their obligation to prevent and punish genocide. States may circumscribe their response in ways that falls short of stopping the atrocities because they don’t see total involvement as self-serving. Upon examination of the crisis in Darfur, this fundamental challenge to the enforcement of the Convention is evident. While the U.S. publicly recognised the crisis as a genocide, Secretary of State Colin Powell asserted that,
since the U.S. was already putting political pressure on authorities in Khartoum to halt the violence and was providing humanitarian aid to civilians, nothing more was required of it; the U.S. did not have to act to the extent that the Convention required because it was already pursuing narrow unilateral action. Similarly, although it is not formally labeled a genocide, Kurds are being killed en masse in Syria. While the U.S. has supported Kurdish rebels in the past, President Trump pulled American troops out of Syria in October 2019 on the basis that the conflict had “nothing to do with [the U.S.]”, effectively leaving the Kurds without means to protect themselves. A problem that feeds into this is the absence of a clear enforcement mechanism to make states comply with their obligation to prevent genocide. All states are equally obliged to prevent genocide, which leads to a bystander effect by which no one feels obliged to make the first move.
These are some of the reasons why Darfur stands as a painful reminder of the difficulty and political unwillingness of keeping the promise of “never again”.