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Human Rights

When a Moral Duty to Halt Atrocities Runs into Realpolitik

WASHINGTON, Jul 26 2012 (IPS) - Against the backdrop of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a panel of United States government officials and experts called for stronger methods to prevent modern-day genocides and mass atrocities, particularly in the case of Syria.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the highest-ranking government official at the panel Tuesday, held in cooperation with the Council on Foreign Relations and CNN, addressed the mass killings of Syrian citizens by President Bashar al-Assad. She defended the administration’s decision not to directly intervene in Syria by force, but said that nevertheless, the administration is taking steps to address the situation there.

“We are increasing our efforts to assist the opposition,” she said about the Syrian rebels. “We know that the sooner it ends, the less violence there will be, and the less chance there is for extremism to take hold.”

In a poll of 1,000 U.S. citizens released Tuesday, conducted by the polling firm Penn Schoen Berland in conjunction with the panel, 78 percent of those surveyed support the U.S. taking military action to stop genocide or mass atrocities.

“Americans believe they have a moral responsibility to prevent or stop genocide around the world, even if it means putting boots on the ground,” Mark Penn, CEO of Burson-Marsteller, one of the firms that commissioned the poll, said. “But they view multilateral action as the most effective military strategy for prevention.”

The poll also suggested, however, that U.S. citizens are not satisfied with the U.N.’s handling of current genocides or mass atrocities. In the poll, 55 percent said that the international community was not effective at protecting civilians from genocide or mass atrocities.

The U.N. has so far not taken action in Syria, as two veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China, have blocked action. Other countries, including all the remaining permanent members of the council — the U.S., Britain and France — have called for intervention in Syria.

While public perception might seem hawkish, Clinton was adamant that less extreme measures needed to be taken. “Force must remain a last resort,” Clinton said. “In most cases, other tools will be more appropriate: through diplomacy, financial sanctions, humanitarian assistance (or) law enforcement measures.”

The Obama administration has made preventing genocide a foreign policy priority.

In April, Obama announced to formation of the Atrocity Prevention Board, a governmental department focused on genocides around the world, and has asked that the U.S. intelligence community account for the risk of mass atrocities and genocide in national intelligence estimates.

21st century genocide

While other experts agree that preventive measures are key, there is disagreement about what causes genocides and what policies get at the root of the problem most effectively, particularly with such a new and complex paradigm.

Looking at the possible causes of future genocides, Chris Kojm, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, said that the “nexus of food, water and resources” would be a prevailing problem in the future.

Kojm said that nearly half the world’s population will be living in areas of severe water stress by 2030. “That’s an enormous factor to stability,” he said, adding that the incessant competition for resources will increase the likelihood of mass killings.

“Unpredictability leads to the mass killings,” said Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University.

He says that this unpredictability, brought on by global warming and other factors, will spur governmental panic over the scarcity of remaining resources.

However, Kojm issued a caveat. “We must remain open to the possibility that the past is not necessarily a predictor of where and when mass atrocities will occur, or the means by which they will,” he said.

Technology has played an increasing role in 21st century genocides, and the Obama administration has taken note. In April, Obama signed an executive order imposing financial and travel restrictions on companies that provided technological aid the Syrian and Iranian governments used to hunt down their citizens.

The groups targeted by the restrictions included Syriatel, a Syrian communications company, and Datak Telecom, an Iranian Internet service provider.

“Access to technology, as opposed to access to information, is becoming the human right,” Strieve Masiyiwa, founder of Econet Wireless, a large technology firm based in Zimbabwe, which has been the site of genocides under President Robert Mugabe.

“The big difference with the technology is that the people, the victims, are empowered to speak, not just people in power,” he added

This has lead to a society where the victims get a voice, but are increasingly dependent upon social media, according to some in the media.

“Without social media, there would be a black hole,” said Arwa Damon, a Beirut correspondent for CNN who has been covering the Syrian conflict. “If social media did not exist, you could be assured that the killings would surpass what it is now.”

But the effect of social media extends further that that, according to other foreign policy experts.

“Social media connects people to transparency,” said Sarah Sewall, founder of the Mass Atrocity Response Operations Project and a national security adviser to Obama.

“The question is: What do you do with the awareness to galvanise change?”

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  • Roggie

    Hang on a minute, wasn’t the USA built on genocide? Give the Native Americans a seat on the UN Security Council.

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