Tributes to Sheldon Seevak

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Posted February 23, 2011 in Genocide
David Rieff, "The Persistence of Genocide," Hoover Institution Policy Review, February 1, 2011

“Never Again,” again and again

According to the great historian of the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg, the phrase “Never Again” first appeared on handmade signs put up by inmates at Buchenwald in April, 1945, shortly after the camp had been liberated by U.S. forces. “I think it was really the Communists who were behind it, but I am not sure,” Hilberg said in one of the last interviews he gave before his death in the summer of 2007. Since then, “Never Again” has become kind of shorthand for the remembrance of the Shoah. At Buchenwald, the handmade signs were long ago replaced by a stone monument onto which the words are embossed in metal letters. And as a usage, it has come to seem like a final word not just on the murder of the Jews of Europe, but on any great crime against humanity that could not be prevented. “Never Again” has appeared on monuments and memorials from Paine, Chile, the town with proportionately more victims of the Pinochet dictatorship than any other place in the country, to the Genocide Museum in Kigali, Rwanda. The report of conadep, the Argentine truth commission set up in 1984 after the fall of the Galtieri dictatorship, was titled “Nunca Mas” — “Never Again” in Spanish. And there is now at least one online Holocaust memorial called “Never Again.”

Since 1945, “never again” has meant, essentially, “Never again will Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s.”

There is nothing wrong with this. But there is also nothing all that right with it either. Bluntly put, an undeniable gulf exists between the frequency with which the phrase is used — above all on days of remembrance most commonly marking the Shoah, but now, increasingly, other great crimes against humanity — and the reality, which is that 65 years after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, “never again” has proved to be nothing more than a promise on which no state has ever been willing to deliver. When, last May, the writer Elie Wiesel, himself a former prisoner in Buchenwald, accompanied President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel to the site of the camp, he said that he had always imagined that he would return some day and tell his father’s ghost that the world had learned from the Holocaust and that it had become a “sacred duty” for people everywhere to prevent it from recurring. But, Wiesel continued, had the world actually learned anything, “there would be no Cambodia, and no Rwanda and no Darfur and no Bosnia.”

Wiesel was right: The world has learned very little. But this has not stopped it from pontificating much. The Obama administration’s National Security Strategy Paper, issued in May 2010, exemplifies this tendency. It asserts confidently that “The United States is committed to working with our allies, and to strengthening our own internal capabilities, in order to ensure that the United States and the international community are proactively engaged in a strategic effort to prevent mass atrocities and genocide.” And yet again, we are treated to the promise, “never again.” “In the event that prevention fails,” the report states, “the United States will work both multilaterally and bilaterally to mobilize diplomatic, humanitarian, financial, and — in certain instances — military means to prevent and respond to genocide and mass atrocities.”

Of course, this is not strategy, but a promise that, decade in and decade out, has proved to be empty. For if one were to evaluate these commitments by the results they have produced so far, one would have to say that all this “proactive engagement” and “diplomatic, financial, and humanitarian mobilization” has not accomplished very much. No one should be surprised by this. The U.S. is fighting two wars and still coping (though it has fallen from the headlines) with the floods in Pakistan, whose effects will be felt for many years in a country where America’s security interests and humanitarian relief efforts are inseparable. At the same time, the crisis over Iran’s imminent acquisition of nuclear weapons capability is approaching its culmination. Add to this the fact that the American economy is in shambles, and you do not exactly have a recipe for engagement. The stark fact is that “never again” has never been a political priority for either the United States or the so-called international community (itself a self-flattering idea with no more reality than a unicorn). Nor, despite all the bluff talk about moral imperatives backed by international resolve, is there any evidence that it is becoming one.

And yet, however at variance they are with both geopolitical and geoeconomic realities, the arguments exemplified by this document reflect the conventional wisdom of the great and the good in America across the “mainstream” (as one is obliged to say in this, the era of the tea parties) political spectrum. Even a fairly cursory online search will reveal that there are a vast number of papers, book-length studies, think tank reports, and United Nations documents proposing programs for preventing or at least halting genocides. For once, the metaphor “cottage industry” truly is appropriate. And what unites almost all of them is that they start from the premise that prevention is possible, if only the “international community” would live up to the commitments it made in the Genocide Convention of 1948, and in subsequent international covenants, treaties, and un declarations. If, the argument goes, the world’s great powers, first and foremost of course the United States, in collaboration with the un system and with global civil society, would act decisively and in a timely way, we could actually enforce the moral standards supposedly agreed upon in the aftermath of the Holocaust. If they do not, of course, then “never again” will never mean much more than it has meant since 1945 — which, essentially, is “Never again will Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s.”

he report of the United States Institute for Peace’s task force on genocide, chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, is among the best of these efforts. As the report makes clear, the task force undertook its work all too painfully aware of the gulf between the international consensus on the moral imperative of stopping genocide and the ineffectiveness to date of the actual responses. Indeed, the authors begin by stating plainly that 60 years after the United Nations adopted the Genocide Convention and twenty years after it was ratified by the U.S. Senate, “The world agrees that genocide is unacceptable and yet genocide and mass killings continue.” To find ways to match words and “stop allowing the unacceptable,” Albright and Cohen write with commendable candor, “is in fact one of most persistent puzzles of our times.”

Whether or not one agrees with the task force about what can or cannot be done to change this, there can be no question that sorrow over the world’s collective failure to act in East Pakistan, or Cambodia, or Rwanda is the only honorable response imaginable. But the befuddlement the authors of the report confess to feeling is another matter entirely. Like most thinking influenced by the human rights movement, the task force seems imbued with the famous Kantian mot d’ordre: “Ought implies can.” But to put the matter bluntly, there is no historical basis to believe anything of the sort, and a great deal of evidence to suggest a diametrically opposing conclusion. Of course, history is not a straitjacket, and the authors of the report, again echoing much thinking within the human rights movement, particularly Michael Ignatieff’s work in the 1990s, do make the argument that since 1945 there has been what Ignatieff calls “A revolution of global concern” and they call a “revolution in conscience.” In fairness, if in fact they are basing their optimism on this chiliastic idea, then one better understands the degree to which the members of the task force came to believe that genocide, far from being “A Problem From Hell,” as Samantha Power titled her influential book on the subject, in reality is a problem if not easily solved then at least susceptible to solution — though, again, only if all the international actors, by whom the authors mean the great powers, the un system, countries in a region where there is a risk of a genocide occurring, and what they rather uncritically call civil society, make it a priority.

“Preventing genocide is a goal that can be achieved with the right institutional structures, strategies, and partnerships . . .”
Since it starts from this presupposition, it is hardly surprising that the report is upbeat about the prospects for finally reversing course. “Preventing genocide,” the authors insist, “is a goal that can be achieved with the right institutional structures, strategies, and partnerships — in short, with the right blueprint.” To accomplish this, the task force emphasizes the need for strengthening international cooperation both in terms of identifying places where there is a danger of a genocide being carried out and coordinated action to head it off or at least halt it. Four specific responses are recommended, one predominantly informational (early warning) and three operational (early prevention, preventive diplomacy, and, finally, military intervention when all else has failed). None of this is exactly new, and most of it is commonsensical from a conceptual standpoint. But one of the great strengths of the report, as befits the work of a task force chaired by two former cabinet secretaries, is this practical bent — that is to say, its emphasis on creating or strengthening institutional structures within the U.S. government and the un system and showing how such reforms will enable policymakers to respond effectively to genocide.

However, this same presupposition leads the authors of the report to write as if there were little need for them to elaborate the political and ideological bases for the “can do” approach they recommend. Francis Fukuyama’s controversial theory of the “End of History” goes unmentioned, but there is more than a little of Fukuyama in their assumptions about a “final” international consensus having been established with regard to the norms that have come into force protecting populations from genocide or mass atrocity crimes. It is true that there is a body of such norms: the Genocide Convention, the un’s so-called Responsibility to Protect doctrine, adopted by the World Summit (with the strong support of the Bush administration) in 2005, and various international instruments limiting impunity, above all the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court. And, presumably, it is with these in mind that the report’s authors can assert so confidently that the focus in genocide prevention can now be on “implement[ing] and operationalizing the commitments [these instruments] contain.”

Almost since its inception, the human rights movement has been a movement of lawyers.

It is here that doubt will begin to assail more skeptical readers. Almost since its inception, the human rights movement has been a movement of lawyers. And for lawyers, the establishment of black-letter international law is indeed the “end of the story” from a normative point of view — an internationalized version of stare decisis, but extended to the nth degree. On this account such a norm, once firmly established (which, activists readily admit, may take time; they are not naifs), can within a fairly short period thereafter be understood as an ineradicable and unchallengeable part of the basic user’s manual for international relations. This is what has allowed the human rights movement (and, at least with regard to the question of genocide, the members of the task force in the main seem to have been of a similar cast of mind) to hew to what is essentially a positivist progress narrative. However, the human rights movement’s certitude on the matter derives less from its historical experience than it does from its ideological presuppositions. In this sense, human rights truly is a secular religion, as its critics but even some of its supporters have long claimed.

Of course, strategically (in both polemical and institutional terms) the genius of this approach is of a piece with liberalism generally, of which, in any case, “human rights-ism” is the offspring. Liberalism is the only modern ideology that will not admit it is an ideology. “We are just demanding that nations live up to the international covenants they have signed and the relevant national and international statutes,” the human rights activist replies indignantly when taxed with actually supporting, and, indeed, helping to midwife an ideological system. It may be tedious to have to point out in 2010 that law and morality are not the same thing, but, well, law and morality are not the same thing. The problem is that much of the task force report reads as if they were.

An end to genocide: It is an attractive prospect, not to mention a morally unimpeachable goal in which Kantian moral absolutism meets American can do-ism, where the post-ideological methodologies (which are anything but post-ideological, of course) of international lawyers meet the American elite’s faith, which goes back at least to Woodrow Wilson if not much earlier in the history of the republic, that we really can right any wrong if only we commit ourselves sufficiently to doing so. Unfortunately, far too much is assumed (or stipulated, as the lawyers say) by the report’s authors. More dismayingly still, far too many of the concrete examples either of what could have been done but wasn’t are presented so simplistically as to make the solutions offered appear hollow, since the challenge as described bears little or no resemblance to the complexities that actually exist.

The calls for an intervention in Darfur reached their height after the moral imperative for intervention had started to dissipate.

Darfur is a good example of this. The report mentions Darfur frequently, both in the context of a nuts and bolts consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of various states and institutions such as the un and the African Union, which have intervened, however unsatisfactorily, over the course of the crisis, and as an example of how the mobilization of civil society can influence policy. “In today’s age of electronic media communication,” the report states, “Americans are increasingly confronted in their living rooms — and even on their cell phones — with information about and images of death and destruction virtually anywhere they occur. . . . The Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for organizing broad-based responses to genocide and mass atrocities, as we have seen in response to the crisis in Darfur.”

The problem is not so much that this statement is false but rather that it begs more questions than it answers, and, more tellingly still, that the report’s authors seem to have no idea of this. There is no question that the rise in 2005 and 2006 of a mass movement calling for an end to mass killing in Darfur (neither the United Nations nor the most important relief groups present on the ground in Darfur agree with the characterization of what took place there as a genocide) was an extraordinarily successful mobilization — perhaps the most successful since the anti-Apartheid movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Beginning with the activism of a small group of college students who in June 2004 had attended a Darfur Emergency Summit organized by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and addressed by Elie Wiesel, and shortly afterwards founded an organization called Save Darfur, the movement rapidly expanded and, at its height, included the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus, right-wing evangelicals, left-leaning campuses activists, mainline human rights activists, and American neoconservatives. But nowhere does the task force report examine whether the policy recommendations of this movement were wise, or, indeed, whether the effect that they had on the U.S. debate was positive or negative. Instead, the report proceeds as if any upsurge in grassroots interest and activism galvanized by catastrophes like Darfur is by definition a positive development.

In reality, the task force’s assumption that any mass movement that supports “more assertive government action in response to genocide and mass atrocities” is to be encouraged is a strangely content-less claim. Surely, before welcoming the rise of a Save Darfur (or its very influential European cousin, sos Darfour), it is important to think clearly not just about what they are against but what they are for. And here, the example of Save Darfur is as much a cautionary tale as an inspiring one. The report somewhat shortchanges historical analysis, with what little history that does make it in painted with a disturbingly broad brush. Obviously, the task force was well aware of this, which I presume is why its report insists, unwisely in my view, that it was far more important to focus on the present and the future more than on the past. But understanding the history is not marginal, it is central. Put the case that one believes in military intervention in extremis to halt genocide. In that case, intervening in late- 2003 and early-2004, when the killing was at its height, would have been the right thing to do. But Save Darfur really only came into its own in late 2005, that is, well after the bulk of the killing had ended. In other words, the calls for an intervention reached their height after the moral imperative for such an intervention had started to dissipate. An analogy can be made with the human rights justification for the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein. As Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, has pointed out, had this happened during Baghdad’s murderous Anfal campaign against the Kurds in 1988, there would have been a solid justification for military intervention, whether or not Human Rights Watch would have agreed with it. But to intervene fifteen years later because of the massacre was indefensible on human rights grounds (though, obviously, there were other rationales for the war that would not have been affected by such reasoning).

If you want to be a prophet, you have to get it right. And if Save Darfur was wrong in its analysis of the facts relevant to their call for an international military intervention to stop genocide, either because there had in reality been no genocide (as, again, the un and many mainstream ngos on the ground insisted) or because the genocide had ended before they began to campaign for intervention, then Save Darfur’s activism can just as reasonably be described in negative terms as in the positive ones of the task force report. Yes, Save Darfur had (and has) good intentions and the attacks on them from de facto apologists for the government of Sudan like Mahmood Mamdani are not worth taking seriously. But good intentions should never be enough.1

In fairness, had the task force decided to provide the history of the Darfur, or Bosnia, or Rwanda, in all their frustrating complexity, they would have produced a report that, precisely because of all the nuance, the ambiguity, the need for “qualifiers,” doubtless would have been of less use to policymakers, whose professional orientation is of necessity toward actionable policies. But when what is being suggested is a readiness for U.S. soldiers (to be sure, preferably in a multilateral context) in extreme cases to kill and die to prevent genocide or mass atrocity crimes, then, to turn human rights Kantianism against them for a change, it is nuance that is the moral imperative. Again, good intentions alone will not do. Qui veut faire l’ange, fait la bete, Pascal said. Who wishes to act the angel, acts the beast.

History, in all its unsentimentality, is almost always the best antidote to such simplicities. And yet, if anything, the task force’s report is a textbook case of ahistorical thinking and its perils. The authors emphasize that, “This task force is not a historical commission; its focus is on the future and on prevention.” The problem is that unless the past is looked at in detail, not just conjured up by way of illustrations of the West’s failures to intervene that the task force hopes to remedy, then what is being argued for, in effect, are, if necessary, endless wars of altruism. To put it charitably, in arguing for that, I do not think the authors have exactly established their claim to occupying the moral high ground. If they had spent half the time thinking about history in as serious a way as they did about how to construct the optimal bureaucratic architecture within the U.S. government, then what the task force finally produced would have been a document that was pathbreaking. Instead, they took the conventional route, and, in my view, will simply add their well-reasoned policy recommendations to the large number that came before and, indeed, as in the case of the recent initiative of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies on the so-called Will to Intervene, have already begun to come after.

With the best will in the world, what is one to make of arguments made at the level of generalization of the following?

Grievances over inequitable distribution of power and resources appear to be a fundamental motivating factor in the commission of mass violence against ethnic, sectarian, or political groups. That same inequality may also provide the means for atrocities to be committed. For example, control of a highly centralized state apparatus and the access to economic and military power that comes with it makes competition for power an all-or-nothing proposition and creates incentives to eliminate competitors. This dynamic was evident in Rwanda and Burundi and is serious cause for concern in Burma today.
The fact is that, vile as they are, there is actually very little likelihood of the butchers in Rangoon committing genocide — their crimes have other characteristics. It is disheartening that the members of the task force would allow the fact that they, like most sensible people, believe that Burma is one of the worst dictatorships in the world, to justify their distorting reality in this way, when they almost certainly know better. And since they do precisely that, it is hard not to at least entertain the suspicion — whose implications extend rather further than that and beg the question of what kind of world order follows from the task force’s recommendations — that consciously or (and this is worse, in a way) unconsciously they reasoned that if they could identify the Rangoon regime as genocidal, this would make an international intervention to overthrow it far more defensible. If this is right, then, if implemented, the report (again, intentionally or inadvertently) would have the effect of helping nudge us back toward a world where the prevention of genocide becomes a moral warrant for other policy agendas (as was surely the case with Saddam Hussein in 2003, and was the case with General Bashir in Khartoum until the arrival of the Obama administration).

I write this in large measure because the task force’s description of why mass violence and genocide occur could be a description of practically the entire developing world. Analysis at that level of generalization is not just useless, it is actually a prophylactic against thought.

It gets worse. The authors write:

It is equally important to focus on the motivations of specific leaders and the tools at their disposal. There is no genocidal destiny. Many countries with ethnic or religious discrimination, armed conflicts, autocratic governments, or crushing poverty have not experienced genocide while others have. The difference comes down to leadership. Mass atrocities are organized by powerful elites who believe they stand to gain from these crimes and who have the necessary resources at their disposal. The heinous crimes committed in Nazi-occupied Europe, Cambodia, and Rwanda, for example, were all perpetrated with significant planning, organization, and access to state resources, including weapons, budgets, detention facilities, and broadcast media.

There are also key triggers that can tip a high-risk environment into crisis. These include unstable, unfair, or unduly postponed elections; high-profile assassinations; battlefield victories; and environmental conditions (for example, drought) that may cause an eruption of violence or heighten the perception of an existential threat to a government or armed group. Sometimes potential triggers are known well in advance and preparations can be made to address the risk of mass atrocities that may follow. Poorly planned elections in deeply divided societies are a commonly cited example, but deadlines for significant policy action, legal judgments, and anniversaries of highly traumatic and disputed historical events are also potential triggers that can be foreseen.

I tax the reader’s patience with such a long quotation to show how expertise can produce meaninglessness. For apart from the mention of poorly planned elections — a reference to Rwanda that is perfectly correct as far as it goes — the rest of this does not advance our understanding one iota. To remedy or at least alleviate these vast social stresses, the task force recommends “effective [sic] early prevention”! The authors themselves were obliged to admit that, “Such efforts to change underlying social, economic, or political conditions are difficult and require sustained investment of resources and attention.” Really, you think? But about where these resources, as opposed to institutional arrangements, are to come from, they are largely silent, apart from emphasizing the need to target with both threats and positive inducements leaders thought likely to choose to commit such crimes. But the authors know perfectly well that, as they themselves put it, “early engagement is a speculative venture,” and that “the watch list of countries ‘at risk’ can be long, due to the difficulty of anticipating specific crises in a world generally plagued by instability.” Surely, people like Secretary Albright and Secretary Cohen know better than anyone that such ventures are never going to be of much interest to senior policymakers, just as the global Marshall Plan that would be required to effectively address the underlying causes of genocidal wars is never going to be on offer.

To a great power, and to the citizens of great power, powerlessness is simply an unconscionable destiny. The task force report, with its strange imperviousness to viewing historical tragedy as much more than an engineering problem, is a perfect illustration of this. Unsound historically, and hubristic morally, for all its good intentions, the task force report is not a blueprint for a better future but a mystification of the choices that actually confront us and between which we are going to have to choose if we are ever to prevent or halt even some genocides. My suspicion is that the reason that the very accomplished, distinguished people who participated in the task force did not feel obliged to face up to this is because the report gives as much weight to the national interest basis for preventing or halting genocide as it does to the moral imperative of doing so. As the report puts it:

First, genocide fuels instability, usually in weak, undemocratic, and corrupt states. It is in these same types of states that we find terrorist recruitment and training, human trafficking, and civil strife, all of which have damaging spillover effects for the entire world.

Second, genocide and mass atrocities have long-lasting consequences far beyond the states in which they occur. Refugee flows start in bordering countries but often spread. Humanitarian needs grow, often exceeding the capacities and resources of a generous world. The international community, including the United States, is called on to absorb and assist displaced people, provide relief efforts, and bear high economic costs. And the longer we wait to act, the more exorbitant the price tag. For example, in Bosnia, the United States has invested nearly $ 15 billion to support peacekeeping forces in the years since we belatedly intervened to stop mass atrocities.

Third, America’s standing in the world — and our ability to lead — is eroded when we are perceived as bystanders to genocide. We cannot be viewed as a global leader and respected as an international partner if we cannot take steps to avoid one of the greatest scourges of humankind. No matter how one calculates U.S. interests, the reality of our world today is that national borders provide little sanctuary from international problems. Left unchecked, genocide will undermine American security.

A core challenge for American leaders is to persuade others — in the U.S. government, across the United States, and around the world — that preventing genocide is more than just a humanitarian aspiration; it is a national and global imperative.

Again, apologies for quoting at such length. but truthfully, is one meant to take this seriously? There is absolutely no evidence that terrorist recruiting is more promising in failed states than, say, in suburban Connecticut where the (very middle-class) Faisal Shahzad, son of a retired Pakistani Air Force vice-marshal, plotted to explode a car bomb in Times Square. Nor, in the U.S. case is there any basis for concluding that the main source of immigration is from places traumatized by war. To the contrary, most of our immigrants are the best and the brightest (in the sense not of the most educated but most enterprising) of Mexico, the Philippines, India, and China. The proportion of migrants from Sudan or Somalia is small by comparison. As for the costs of peacekeeping, are the authors of the report serious? Fifteen billion dollars? The sum barely signifies in the rubric of the military budget of the United States. And lastly, the report’s claim that the U.S. won’t be viewed as a global leader and respected as an international partner if it doesn’t take the lead to stop genocide is absurd on its face. Not respected by whom, exactly? Hu Jintao in Beijing? Merkel in Berlin? President Felipe Calderon in Mexico City? To put it charitably, the claim conjures up visions of Pinocchio, rather than Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson.

The report calls for courage, but courage begins at home. Pressed by Armenian activists at one of the events held to launch the report as to why they had both earlier signed a letter urging the U.S. not to bow to Armenian pressure and formally recognize the Armenian genocide, Secretary Cohen and Secretary Albright refused over and over again to characterize the Armenian genocide as, well, a genocide. It is true that the Armenian activists had come looking for a confrontation. But there can be little question that both secretaries did everything they could to avoid committing themselves one way or the other. “Terrible things happened to the Armenians,” Secretary Albright said, refusing to go any further. The letter, she explained, had been primarily about “whether this was an appropriate time to raise the issue.” For his part, Secretary Cohen, emphasized that angering the Turks while the Iraq war was raging could lead to Turkish reactions that would “put our sons and daughters in jeopardy.” And, in any case, the task force was not “a historical commission.”

This is a perfectly defensible position from the perspective of prudential realpolitik. The problem is that what the task force report constantly calls for is political courage. And whatever else they were, Secretaries Albright and Cohen’s responses were expedient, not courageous. There will always be reasons not to intervene — compelling pressures, I mean, not trivial ones. Why should a future U.S. government be less vulnerable to them than the Bush or Obama administrations? About this, as about so many other subjects, the task force report is as evasive as Secretary Albright and Secretary Cohen were at the press conference at which the Armenian activists confronted them. Doubtless, they had to be. For the solutions they propose are not real solutions, the history they touch on is not the actual history, and the world they describe is not the real world.

Author David Rieff is a New York-based writer and policy analyst who has written extensively about humanitarian aid and human rights. He is the author of eight books, including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis and At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention, and is currently writing a book on the global food crisis.
1 Under attack from a number of quarters, the leadership of Save Darfur has claimed that they were never calling for a military intervention to overthrow the Bashir regime in Khartoum but rather for an international protection force to protect the people of Darfur. Leaving aside whether, in practical terms, this is a distinction without a difference (i.e., that the latter would have required the former, as other pro-Darfur activists like Eric Reeves and Gerard Prunier had the courage to acknowledge), the record of their statements belies this claim.

Category: Genocide