International Law and Human Security

Unbalanced Scales of Justice

Among the issues of International Law and Human Security is a focus on the prevention of genocide.

Genocide, at its core the crime of seeking to destroy a national, racial, religious or ethnic group as such, in whole or in part, existed long before it was criminalized in international law in 1951 by the United Nations’ Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide. The Athenians committed genocide against the people of the island of Melos in 416 BC; the king of France and the Pope combined to annihilate the Cathars in the southern part of today’s France in the early 13th century; and the American Puritans inflicted genocide on the Pequot Indians of contemporary Mystic, Connecticut in 1637. Genocide is at least as old as the establishment of permanent human settlements.

What made the Genocide Convention necessary was the impunity of the leaders of sovereign nations who destroyed their own citizens and those of the nations they militarily occupied. Raphael Lemkin observed in 1944 that the world viewed the murder of the Armenian nation by Turkey’s Committee for Union and Progress as largely an internal affair, a perspective that continued to dominate international public opinion during the Holocaust, the reign of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, and the genocide committed against the Tutsi of Rwanda by the proponents of “Hutu Power.”

Morality is the principle reason that genocide needs to be prevented. As President Clinton’s War Crimes Ambassador, David Scheffer, put it, some crimes are so grave that they have shocked the conscience of all of humanity. Genocide also poses a serious threat to international peace, a fact recognized in the Genocide Convention’s provision allowing action against it under the Charter of the United Nations. Yet neither morality nor threats to international peace have proved by themselves adequate motives for international action to prevent genocide. For this reason, scholars more and more are examining the intersection between the vital interests of the nation and preventing genocide.

The pursuit of the narrow national interests of the nation is widely recognized as the fundamental spur to action of most governments from ancient times to the present. Focusing on the immorality of genocide and the impunity of its perpetrators, scholars have understandably neglected the national-interest consequences of genocide. But genocide, whether merely attempted or carried to its logical conclusion, threatens the national interests of the world’s nations in three key ways:

  1. By displacing large numbers of human beings fleeing the killing fields under the worst imaginable health circumstances, genocides and the crimes against humanity which precede them facilitate the spread of pandemics and other lethal infectious diseases to the rest of the world. International travel for business and pleasure generates the sale of one billion passenger tickets per year, ensuring in our day that “what goes around comes around.”
  2. Genocide destabilizes whole regions of the world, making them attractive sanctuaries for terrorist planners and often assuring terrorists material support by genocide-perpetrating regimes.
  3. Genocide undermines international prosperity by empowering resource-monopolizing warlords and pirates able to raid international trade routes at will. As in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone, warlords swiftly seek to control precious gem and strategic raw material deposits to improve their armaments and enrich themselves further. Raw material costs rise, trade is undermined and international security is undermined when we tolerate genocides.

Recognition that genocide threatens the national interests of every nation is dawning. It has inspired the African Union to become proactive in the fight to secure that continent from suffering more Rwanda-style genocides. It has fuelled the movement that created the International Criminal Court and brought the Responsibility to Protect doctrine before the United Nations. It is leading the states of Europe, Africa and many other parts of the world to contemplate regional rapid deployment forces and better foreign aid programs to deter genocidaires from carrying through their plans to annihilate entire groups of civilians within their own and neighbouring countries. Most important of all, it is galvanizing grassroots organizations and national governments to mobilize the domestic political will to intervene to prevent mass atrocities.

By Professor Frank Chalk
Professor of History and Director,
Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University 

The Simons Foundation wishes to acknowledge and thank Professor Frank Chalk for this contribution.