United States Foreign Policies Toward Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity

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United States Foreign Policies Toward Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity

Since World War II, many instances of genocide have been alleged to have occurred in all regions of the world. They have presented serious challenges to foreign policymakers in many countries including the United States. The United States has, historically, projected itself as a democratic state that champions respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. American officials and diplomats have repeatedly reaffirmed these principles at international conferences and forums. Presidents have enshrined them in doctrines that underpin the course of United States foreign policy at different times in American history. Given the heinous nature of the crime of genocide, it is unsurprising that the United States would at least take action, if not exercise leadership, in dealing with the crime whenever it occurs.

In principle, there are at least two ways in which the United States could react to genocide, or allegations of genocide. One is at the level of norms and principles. In other words, the United States could work to promote the development and acceptance of international norms and rules regarding genocide. In this connection, playing an active role in drafting, and vigorously supporting the application of, a treaty like the Genocide Convention comes to mind. The United States could also actively support the creation of international bodies such as courts to conduct trials of people accused of committing genocide. Alternatively, and perhaps in conjunction with the development of norms and rules, the United States could take concrete measures in cases of genocide, or when allegations of genocide are made. These could involve taking timely measures to prevent genocide before it occurs, especially in cases where there is advance warning. Or, they could involve proposing and supporting the application of sanctions—political, economic, and military—in order to bring an end to the atrocities and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The United States' experience in dealing with the issue of genocide involves its participation in the development and advancement of international norms and rules on genocide and its official reaction to various instances of genocide. It is possible to assess how and how well United States foreign policymakers have taken concrete measures to deal with the atrocities that were committed in those cases.

The United States and the Development of Norms and Rules on Genocide

United States policymakers had their first opportunity to contribute to the elaboration of international norms and rules regarding the crime of genocide in the period immediately following World War II. The genocide of World War II was on the agenda of the first session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1946. Diplomats as well as activists, including Raphael Lemkin, had lobbied the General Assembly to take the issue up and to consider what measures could be taken to deal with any future cases of genocide. With U.S. support, the General Assembly adopted a resolution that branded genocide a crime under international law and called for the adoption of an international treaty on the subject. The treaty, the Genocide Convention, was completed two years later, in December 1948.

The most important negotiations on the Genocide Convention took place in the Sixth (Legal) Committee of the General Assembly, although at various stages during the negotiation process, the United Nations Secretariat and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) made proposals that influenced the final product. United States diplomats were actively involved, making constructive contributions throughout the drafting process, especially in the ECOSOC and the Sixth Committee. They negotiated significant compromises on contentious issues related to the definition of the crime of genocide. They also advanced and successfully defended the inclusion of an article in the Convention that contemplated the creation of a permanent international court to try those accused of committing genocide; and defended a role for the International Court of Justice in dealing with issues of state responsibility for genocide.

The compromises that the United States delegates worked out on these issues were not easy to reach. The issues were important to many states, some of which, especially the Soviet Union and its supporters, were determined to preserve maximum discretion for individual states in dealing with the genocide of the recent past as well as any future cases that may occur. In brief, the Soviet Union and its supporters were concerned about the impact that the Convention could have on their freedom of action and their exercise of national sovereignty. In the end, however, the United States representatives carried the day on all the issues that were important to them.

When the work on the Genocide Convention was completed, one would have expected that the United States would have moved quickly to ratify it, accepting it as the cornerstone international legal document on genocide. After all, the United States was the major ally during World War II in the defeat the Nazi regime, whose practices had led to the adoption of the Convention in the first place. The United States had also championed the creation of the Nuremberg Tribunal, and been a major participant in it. And it had been successful in the negotiations on the convention itself. Thus, one might have expected that the United States Senate, the only chamber of the Congress that must give advice and consent to the ratification of treaties, would have quickly given its approval to the convention. However, this was not to be. In June 1949 president Harry Truman formally requested the Senate's advice and consent to ratification; but it was not until almost forty years later, in February 1986, that the Senate actually did so, and even then it imposed a number of conditions that seriously undermined the main object and purpose of the Convention. Further, it was not until October 1988 that the Congress adopted the legislation needed to implement the Convention, finally opening the way for president Reagan to deposit the United States instrument of ratification at the United Nations. The Convention formally became binding on the United States in February 1989.

During the intervening forty years, between the time when president Truman requested advice and consent to ratification and the time when the Senate agreed to do so, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held several hearings on the Convention. During the 1970s, the committee at times seemed poised to recommend ratification to the Senate as a whole, but every time, the hopes of the Convention's most ardent supporters were dashed.

The arguments that were advanced against ratification of the convention by its most vociferous critics changed very little over those forty years. They criticized specific aspects of the definition of the crime, quibbling over the groups that were the object of protection of the convention (Article II) and over the specific acts that could be considered genocidal (Article III). They also expressed grave concern about the creation of an international criminal court to try anyone accused of committing genocide (Article VI), fearing that Americans, especially members of the U.S. armed forces, would be dragged into such a court on trumped up charges of genocide. In addition, they opposed the role of the International Court of Justice (in Article IX) in resolving disputes among states regarding the interpretation or application of the Convention. The critics of the convention in the United States used essentially the same arguments as those used by the Soviet Union's representatives during the negotiations on the Convention: they were concerned about the possible negative impact that the Convention could have on the freedom of action of the United States and its exercise of national sovereignty.

The executive branch was generally supportive of ratification through all the years the Genocide Convention was under consideration in the Senate. Presidents Truman, Nixon, and Carter were especially supportive. President Reagan endorsed ratification shortly before his re-election bid in 1984, although he had not supported ratification earlier in his first term. Diplomats and other government officials were also often supportive, and testified before Senate committees. In general, the Convention's supporters argued that ratification was important from the standpoint of the image of the United States as a champion of freedom and human rights throughout the world. Indeed, some supporters, especially diplomats, made a point of noting that the United States was often taken to task in international forums for not having ratified the Convention, and that its failure to do so had undermined its effort to exercise leadership in dealing with genocide and other serious human rights abuses.

Most of the opposition to ratification came from extremely conservative members of the Senate, mainly Republicans, who were supported by extreme rightwing nongovernmental organizations like the Liberty Lobby. However, representatives of the prestigious American Bar Association also criticized the convention relentlessly at the 1950 Senate hearings. The association changed its position to support the ratification effort in the 1970s, but many of its earlier criticisms continued to haunt the debate, undermining efforts to secure ratification. In the end, while those who favored ratification won the battle—after all, the Senate eventually gave its advice and consent to ratification—the opponents of ratification effectively won the war. They were able to impose conditions on the ratification—a package of understandings and reservations collectively known as the Lugar-Helms-Hatch Sovereignty Package—that effectively gutted the main object and purpose of the treaty. The Sovereignty Package rejects the authority of the International Court of Justice to deal with disputes regarding the interpretation and application of the Convention that might involve the United States, except with the specific consent of the United States. It also affirms the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution over the Convention and expresses reservations about the creation of a permanent international criminal court to try perpetrators of genocide. Several West European allies of the United States expressed objections to the terms of the Sovereignty Package, but in the end the United States became a party to the treaty in accordance with the terms of the package.

The terms of the Sovereignty Package has undermined the moral position of the United States in dealing with cases of genocide, and they have had serious practical implications as well. For example, the reservation to the authority of the International Court of Justice to deal with disputes regarding the interpretation and application of the Convention effectively insulated the United States from any challenges to its exercise of discretion in interpreting and applying the convention. At the same time, however, it made it impossible for the United States to take any other country to task for its practices, however heinous, because that country could, under the doctrine of reciprocity in international law, invoke the United States' reservation in selfdefense. Indeed, the purpose of the Sovereignty Package was to reduce the U.S. ratification of the Convention to a merely symbolic gesture, and in that, it succeeded.

Recent events suggest that the situation has not changed much, and may even have worsened. The United States' reaction to the recently created International Criminal Court provides a case in point. The U.S. negotiators on the Genocide Convention secured the adoption of an article (Article VI) that contemplated the creation of a permanent international criminal court to try anyone accused of committing genocide. The General Assembly followed up on this article and charged the International Law Commission with studying the possibility of creating such a court. However, the discussion in the commission in the late 1940s was rapidly brought to a close by the political tensions brought on by the emerging cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Profound disagreements among various parties involved in the project as to the nature and functioning of such a court also contributed to the problem.

Although some scholars and diplomats tried to keep the issue of creating a court alive during the post-World War II period, it was not until the 1990s that concrete achievements were made. The UN Security Council, with United States support, created two ad hoc international criminal tribunals to deal with cases arising from the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides in the early 1990s. Although these courts will cease to exist when they have fulfilled their mandates, the genocides they were created to deal with stimulated renewed and serious discussion about the need to create a permanent international criminal tribunal to deal with genocide as well as other significant crimes, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The discussions, which took place through the mid-1990s, concluded in a major conference in Rome in July 1998, attended by representatives of 160 countries, including the United States. The vast majority of countries that attended the conference voted to adopt the statute for the court (the Rome Statute) that emerged from it, but seven countries, including the United States, voted against it. The statute was quickly and broadly accepted, however, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) came into existence in July 2002.

The ICC could try individual persons charged with committing genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Cases could be referred to it in various ways, including the Security Council, the states that are parties to the statute, and the court's prosecutor. The United States had voted against the statute because of disagreements over several issues, including circumstances under which the court could exercise jurisdiction, especially the possibility that the court would exercise jurisdiction over persons from countries that are not a party to the statute. The statute became the subject of lively debate within the United States, with many distinguished professionals in international law arguing that the United States' fears and concerns were exaggerated, if not unfounded. The court's supporters urged president Clinton to reconsider the U.S. position and to at least sign the statute. The president's signature would indicate that the United States approved the creation of the court in principle, although it would not be legally bound by the court's statute until it ratified it. In December 2000, shortly before leaving office, president Clinton signed the statute, but not with unreserved enthusiasm. He believed that his signature would reaffirm the United States' support for international accountability for grave crimes such as genocide, and would make it possible for the United States to remain engaged in making the court an instrument of impartial justice in the years ahead. However, he remained concerned about flaws in the statute, in particular that the court might exercise jurisdiction over persons from countries that had not ratified the statute, and he indicated that he would recommend to his successor that the statute be withheld from the Senate, postponing any request for advice and consent to ratification until these concerns were addressed.

Although president Clinton was persuaded to sign the statute, even with misgivings, some members of Congress expressed outrage, stating that they would never approve a resolution of ratification. Moreover, the Clinton's successor went substantially beyond his recommendation. Unlike the controversy over the Genocide Convention, where the executive branch was usually supportive—and never vocally opposed—to ratification, incoming President George W. Bush joined the opposition to the court. In fact, president Bush took the unprecedented step of the statute, delivering notice to the United Nations that the United States had no intention of becoming a party to it. Among other things, the administration claimed to want to protect American servicemen from being arbitrarily accused of committing genocide (or war crimes or crimes against humanity) and dragged before the ICC to stand trial. This was the same argument that had been made repeatedly in the Genocide Convention debates in the Senate. The Bush administration did not stop with unsigning the statute. It demanded that individual countries sign agreements stating that they would not hand over to the court any U.S. nationals who might be accused of genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity, and it threatened to terminate military assistance to countries that refused to sign such agreements. It also demanded that the United Nations Security Council agree to immunities for U.S. military personnel involved in UN peacekeeping operations, a move that provoked dismay among diplomats and high-ranking civil servants, such as Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Clearly, the United States has experienced difficulty in dealing with the elaboration and acceptance of international norms and rules on genocide and related crimes. On the one hand, policymakers at the highest levels have repeatedly condemned genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and they have affirmed the United States' commitment to freedom, respect for human rights, and a stable international order based on respect for law. Nonetheless, there have been serious disagreements on how best to realize those commitments. Although U.S. negotiators have been active in framing norms and rules, strong opposition to accepting legal obligations in this field has been expressed in various quarters, especially among the most conservative members of Congress. The result—in the case of the Genocide Convention a symbolic acceptance; in the case of the ICC, outright hostility—has led many to conclude that the United States may say that it wants a stable international order based on law, but is not willing to be held accountable to the same rules that it expects everyone else to accept.

The United States' Reaction to Instances of Genocide

Genocide has occurred on numerous occasions, both before and after World War II. The most prominent cases occurred in Cambodia in the mid-1970s, Bosnia in the early 1990s, and Rwanda in 1994. Some say that genocide occurred in other instances as well. One example that predates World War II was the slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during the years 1915 and 1916. Others took place in the postwar years—in Indonesia, for example, in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of communists in the mid-1960s, and in the invasion and occupation of East Timor, beginning in the mid-1970s; in Paraguay against the Ache Indians, in the early 1970s; in Burundi in sporadic strife between Hutus and Tutsis from the early 1970s to the 1990s; in Iraq in the late 1980s in what came to known as the Anfal campaign against the Kurds and at the time of the first Gulf War against the Marsh Arabs; and in Kosovo in the late 1990s.

All of these instances of alleged genocide, each occurring under their own specific historical and political conditions, challenged U.S. policymakers to develop appropriate responses. At the time of the Armenian genocide, the United States had not yet emerged as the major world power that it became in the post World War II period. In some cases, the genocide occurred under conditions that might be called a civil war, in other cases, not. Even the magnitude of the genocides, in terms of victims and the length of time over which they occurred, differed. Nonetheless, research has shown that the United States' reaction to the genocides has varied relatively little over time. Numerous obstacles have usually stood in the way of taking concrete action, and such measures as have been taken have usually been taken late, aimed more at dealing with post-genocide issues than at saving lives.

The Armenian genocide provides a good starting point for understanding how genocides can occur with impunity because those who might be in a position to prevent or mitigate the effects of the crime have failed to take effective measures. U.S. government officials and foreign dignitaries at various levels took an interest in the plight of the Armenians. The United States Ambassador in Constantinople at the time, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., labored strenuously to try to protect the Armenians, meeting with Ottoman officials to protest their treatment, sending numerous cables to State Department officials urging action, and even raising funds to try to assist survivors and to relocate hundreds of thousands of them to the United States. After almost two years of fruitless work, he returned to the United States, frustrated that he had been unable to stop the bloodshed. It is estimated that one million Armenians were either killed outright or died as a result of the conditions of life imposed on them between 1915 and 1916.

Despite the pleas of Morgenthau and others, and reports of the atrocities in some of the mass media, the United States refused to take the side of its allies, Great Britain and France, who condemned the slaughter, or to approach Germany, which was allied to the Ottoman Empire, because it did not want to abandon its neutral stance at that time. Top-level policymakers even advised Ambassador Morgenthau not to protest too strongly to the Ottoman officials about the genocide. He was counseled to be respectful of their claim that their actions were domestic and not of concern to outside powers, and even that there was some validity to their claim that their actions were aimed at dealing with a national security threat. In short, intervention in this case was not deemed wise because it was not perceived as falling within the national interest of the United States.

This pattern of dealing with the Armenian genocide set a precedent, and in later instances of genocide similar arguments were advanced as to why the United States could not take measures on behalf of the victims. Even during World War II, at a time when the Nazi regime in Germany was engaged in the genocide that would eventually take the lives of an estimated six million Jews and members of other groups, reports of the atrocities were greeted in U.S. policymaking circles with incredulity, disbelief, and even lack of interest. What British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the "crime without a name" was already evident, yet it was greeted by denial or indifference. All efforts were directed at winning the war against Hitler's Germany, which was seen as the only effective way of stopping the atrocities. It was only after the war that statesmen were prepared to come to terms with the truth of what had happened, and they established measures such as the Nuremberg Tribunal to punish the perpetrators, bringing some sense of justice to survivors and relatives of victims.

The Armenian genocide and the genocide of World War II occurred at times when international communications and transportation were slow and cumbersome. Yet reliable information about what was going on in these instances of genocide was abundant and ready at hand. The problem was not really a lack of awareness or information; it was a lack of political will to do anything about the problem under the circumstances. More recent instances have occurred under different circumstances, when communications are virtually instantaneous, and improvements in transportation have reduced the time it would take to get to a trouble spot to hours rather than days and weeks, but still a lack of will has prevailed. The Cambodian, Bosnian, and Rwandan genocides illustrate how, even under a different kind of international system brought about in part by advances in technology the arguments against taking action in clear cases of genocide remain essentially the same.

Cambodia has a long and sometimes tragic history, but it surely entered into its darkest period in April 1975, when the Khmer Rouge, headed by the infamous Pol Pot, triumphantly entered the capital city of Phnom Penh after having won a five-year civil war. Previous to this momentous event, many foreign observers as well as Cambodians saw the Khmer Rouge fighters as potential liberators of the country, and believed that better times would follow their victory. Instead, the victory of the Khmer Rouge immediately turned into a nightmare of unimaginable proportions. During the three and a half years that the Khmer Rouge was in control, some 1.5 million people out of a total population of about 8 million people died.

In the West in general, and the United States in particular, the initial reaction to the Khmer Rouge's victory and atrocities was muted. In fact, there was a tendency to engage in a form of denial, to believe that the slaughter would stop, that it would not be indiscriminate and was, instead, targeted at a relatively small group of political opponents. This form of denial was sometimes accompanied by a debate over whether or not genocide was actually occurring in Cambodia. It was clear that Cambodians were killing Cambodians, but did this constitute genocide? Or were the Khmer Rouge engaged in what might be called "politicide"; that is, the killing of persons for political reasons.

To say that the Khmer Rouge was engaged in genocide in the sense that the crime is defined in the Genocide Convention would have required that the targeted groups be national, ethnical, racial or religious, not political. Even in the earliest stages, it was clear that certain categories of persons—for example, former military officers, policemen, and government officials—were targeted, and it is known that such persons were executed along with members of their families, including infants and children. Moreover, although most of the victims were, in fact, Cambodians, there seems no doubt that certain specific ethnic groups including Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cham minorities, were targeted for elimination, and that the Khmer Rouge also set out to eliminate Buddhism as a religious force in Cambodian society. They actually succeeded in achieving these objectives to a large extent, and these actions were surely genocidal in nature, consistent with the terms of the Genocide Convention.

Given the magnitude of the crimes, what could or should the United States have done? In retrospect, it is easy to say that concrete actions could have been taken in an effort to stop the atrocities. But it must be borne in mind that, at the time the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia, the Vietnam War was drawing to a close. That war had become so unpopular in the United States and elsewhere that it would have been impossible for anyone to argue in favor of U.S. military intervention, even it it was motivated by a desire to stop the slaughter. In fact, there were some who argued that U.S. policies during the Vietnam war—the bombing raids on Cambodia, the "incursion" in 1970, and the financial and military support of the Lon Nol government—had all actually contributed to the Khmer Rouge victory.

If military intervention was not in order, what else could the United States have done? President Gerald Ford, and some high-ranking government officials like Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, occasionally addressed the unfolding tragedy, making statements about the "bloodbath" taking place. Apart from that, the United States largely ignored the tragedy. It maintained an economic embargo against Cambodia, but such policies are rarely if ever effective. During the presidential campaign in 1976, then-candidate Jimmy Carter argued in favor of restoring morality to American foreign policy, but when he became president in 1977, he found it difficult to translate these goals into reality. Yet, the reports coming out of Cambodia provided chilling details of the genocidal massacres that were underway, and they were widely discussed in Congress. In April 1978, President Carter denounced the government of Cambodia for its policies and called upon other members of the international community to protest the genocide. In 1978 and 1979, congressional hearings were held on the subject, and investigations were conducted by the United Nations. Both Congress and the UN concluded that there was growing evidence that genocide had occurred in Cambodia. However, it fell to the Vietnamese to do something about the matter. Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia in January 1979 to overthrow the Pol Pot government and impose a new order.

It can be argued that the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was a significant contribution to humanity, but it was not received as such in much of the world. At the time of the invasion, the United States was concerned with improving relations with China, which was the principal backer of the Khmer Rouge, as a way of bringing pressure to bear on the Soviet Union to be more amenable to U.S. interests. Moreover, the United States, along with other states in the region, found it difficult to accept without protest the invasion of one state by another, fearing that a dangerous precedent could be set. Incredible as it may seem, when controversy arose over which delegation to seat in the fall 1979 United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York—the ousted Pol Pot regime or the Vietnamese backed regime then in control of the country—the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China argued strongly in favor of the Pol Pot regime. The dispute had to be resolved by committee, in which the United States bowed to Chinese and ASEAN interests and voted to seat the Pol Pot regime. The United Stated did, at least, go on to claim that the issue of seating a delegation was purely technical and legal, and that its support of seating the Pol Pot regime did not imply approval of that regime's policies. The United States maintained this stance during the Reagan administration and beyond, supporting at one time the seating of a coalition delegation that consisted of some Khmer Rouge elements.

Even though statesmen missed opportunities to apply the Genocide Convention for various political reasons, the Cambodian genocide remained a matter of concern to scholars, activists, and politicians in the United States and abroad during the 1980s and 1990s. Some argued in favor of bringing a case against the Khmer Rouge to the International Court of Justice under Article IX of the Genocide Convention, which authorizes the ICJ to deal with the matter of state responsibility for genocide. Cambodia had ratified the convention with no reservation to Article IX, so there was no legal hindrance for another state party to the convention to bring a case relating to state responsibility. However, efforts to persuade another party to the convention to take up the case were to no avail. So far as the United States was concerned, it could not have brought a case to the court after becoming a party to the convention in 1989 because of its reservation to Article IX, as set forth in the Sovereignty Package, which blocks the court from dealing with a case involving the United States without the specific consent of the United States. Under the doctrine of reciprocity in international law, Cambodia could invoke the U.S. reservation in self-defense.

The possibility of bringing the surviving perpetrators of the Cambodian genocide to trial came to the forefront in the 1990s. In 1998, during the administration of President Clinton, the United States expressed interest in putting Pol Pot on trial, but he died in April 1998, escaping, as it were, a judgment day. However, a number of his accomplices were still alive, and the Clinton administration argued in favor of exploring ways of bringing them to trial. Finally, in 2000, the United Nations and the Cambodian government reached preliminary agreement on the creation of a mixed tribunal, consisting of Cambodian as well as international judges. The Cambodian parliament approved the agreement, but subsequent disagreements over issues of Cambodian sovereignty delayed its work. Justice for the victims of the Cambodian genocide therefore remained elusive.

The Cambodian genocide occurred in a remote region of the world at a time when an unpopular war was being brought to a close. In contrast, the Bosnian genocide in the early 1990s occurred in Europe at a time when profound changes for the better were occurring in the international system—namely, the end of the cold war. Under these fundamentally different circumstances, it would seem that a case for the application of the Genocide Convention would have been easy to make. However, no firm action was taken, either in the early stages of the genocide or later, as it unfolded, and such actions as were eventually taken, important though they were, were mainly in the form of postgenocide actions.

United States policymakers failed to take effective measures to put an early stop to the genocide in Bosnia, in part because of a lack of will, and in part because of uncertainty about what the United States' role should be. Analysts and policymakers engaged in a seemingly endless debate over the question of the cause of the conflict. Some argued that the killing simply reflected the reemergence of age-old hatreds that had characterized ethnic relations in Yugoslavia for hundreds of years. Communist oppression had muted these hatreds for several decades, it was argued, but with the end of the cold war and communist rule in Yugoslavia, the hatreds had reappeared with a vengeance. Thus, no outside intervention would be able to stop the conflict. Even Lawrence Eagleburger, an acknowledged expert on Yugoslavia, who became Secretary of State toward the end of president George W. Bush's administration, held this viewpoint.

Those who advocated some form of intervention pointed out that such views ignored the fact that Bosnians of various religious and ethnic backgrounds had intermarried in large numbers, that they lived in ethnically mixed communities, and that strife among the various communities was virtually nonexistent. The administration, however, held firmly to the position that the conflict was not one in which the United States should become involved. In fact, the United States initially disapproved of the secession of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia from the Yugoslav federation, and only reluctantly agreed to recognize their independence in April 1992. The administration also repeatedly stressed that the problem was a European one and had to be settled by the European states, a position that accurately reflected the European viewpoint at the time. Thus, until the end of the Bush administration, the United States concentrated on encouraging humanitarian actions that could be taken by the United Nations to try to relieve hunger and ensure the availability of medical supplies in Bosnia.

The Clinton administration, which came into office in January 1993, at first seemed poised to take concrete action. The president had himself addressed the Bosnian genocide during the presidential campaign, and he spoke eloquently of the need for action and of the United States' commitment to respect for human rights. High-ranking officials, including Secretary of State Warren Christopher, addressed the issue in congressional hearings and elsewhere early during the administration. However, there remained opposition in important circles to any intervention by the United States to end the genocide. General Colin Powell, for example, was opposed to intervention. Some of President Clinton's aides were also opposed, expressing concern that entanglement in a controversial international conflict might jeopardize important domestic policy initiatives. Consequently, while the Serbians continued their policy of ethnic cleansing, the administration retreated from its earlier strong position and the president pursued an ineffective policy of engaging in a lot of rhetoric to condemn the genocide but failing to follow up the rhetoric with action.

A combination of measures taken by the United States, the United Nations, and NATO beginning early in 1994 slowly, but finally, brought an end to the genocide. So far as the United States was concerned, the Clinton administration was moved to act by increasing domestic political pressure in Congress, the media, and public opinion to do something about Serbian atrocities against civilians, which were now widely reported in the media. The United States supported United Nations resolutions calling for the end of the arms embargo, which would allow the Bosnians to fight back against the Serbian forces. NATO involvement began extremely slowly, with air strikes against Serbian military installations. The Serbians remained defiant through most of 1994 and into 1995, carrying on their policy of ethnic cleansing with impunity. Toward the end of 1995, substantial NATO air strikes against Serbian military positions forced Serbia to the negotiating table, and the Dayton Peace Accords were signed in December 1995. One of the key provisions of the accords was that the parties to the agreement were bound to cooperate fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which had been set up by the United Nations Security Council, with United States backing, in May 1993.

In contrast to the Cambodian and Bosnian genocides, which occurred over a period of several years, the Rwandan genocide in 1994 lasted for only about three months, from April to June. Again, the United States—indeed, the entire international community—missed the opportunity to act in a timely manner consistent with the terms of the Genocide Convention to stop the slaughter and save perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives. The actions that were eventually taken, important as they may have been, were more along the lines of post-genocide measures designed to try to bring to justice the perpetrators and to help the victims and their survivors to resume a more or less normal life.

United States policymakers reacted to the outbreak of the Rwandan genocide much as those in other countries did. In response to the immediate outbreak of violence, President Clinton ordered the evacuation of Americans in Rwanda into neighboring Burundi, and U.S. troops were dispatched to provide protection to the evacuees, if necessary. Beyond that, however, the administration tended to view the early stages of the crisis more as a civil war than as a huge humanitarian crisis such as genocide. The administration was not inclined to intervene in a civil war in Africa because of events that had occurred in Somalia in October 1993. At that time, the United States had participated in a United Nations mission in Somalia to provide famine assistance in the wake of devastation arising from feuding among warlords. However, in October 1993, American soldiers were attacked and many were killed. The corpses of some of those soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by an angry mob. This episode led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia, and a rethinking on the part of the Clinton administration of the conditions under which U.S. forces would be used abroad in support of United Nations actions.

The new US policy, which clearly implied a reduced U.S. participation in UN peacekeeping activities, had a decisive impact on the question of intervening to stop the Rwandan genocide. At the time the genocide began, the United Nations had a small force in Rwanda (the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda, or UNAMIR), which had been sent in to support the implementation of the Arusha Accords of August 1993. The accords had been adopted at the conclusion of negotiations that were held in Arusha, Tanzania, to try to resolve growing tensions between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. Among other things, the accords called for the establishment of a transitional government including representatives of both Hutus and Tutsis. However, the small UNAMIR force was inadequate to halt the growing violence in Rwanda. When UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali urged the drastic expansion of the force, the United States objected and, instead, demanded that the force be withdrawn. Still remembering the events of Somalia, the United States was prepared to support humanitarian assistance, which became especially important when hundreds of thousands of refugees, Hutus as well as Tutsis, began to flow into neighboring countries, where the genocide continued, but opposed the use of force. Even after the United Nations agreed to expand the size and mandate of UNAMIR in May 1994, the United States quibbled over which countries should provide military personnel, and disputed the kind and quantity of equipment that would be needed. Officials could not even agree on measures short of military force, such as destroying the Hutucontrolled radio and television services, or jamming broadcasts that exhorted Hutu to exterminate Tutsi. The administration even refused to use the word "genocide" to describe the events going on in Rwanda.

Like the Bosnian genocide, the Rwandan genocide led to demands for justice in the wake of the disaster. Here the United States has played a significant role. In November 1994, it supported a UN Security Council resolution to create an international criminal court to try persons accused of committing crimes in Rwanda and in neighboring states. Specifically, the mandate of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is to try persons accused of committing genocide and other violations of international humanitarian law in the territory of Rwanda between January 1, 1994, and December 31, 1994. It may also try Rwandan citizens for committing genocide or other violations of international human law during the same time period in the territory of neighboring states, which means that the tribunal can exercise jurisdiction over crimes committed in the refugee camps that had been established in neighboring countries as Rwandans fled their own country.

SEE ALSO African Crisis Response Initiative; Armenians in Ottoman Turkey and the Armenian Genocide; Bangladesh/East Pakistan; Cambodia; East Timor; El Salvador; Genocide; Guatemala; Hiroshima; Holocaust; Indonesia; Iran; Iraq; Jackson, Robert; Khmer Rouge; Kosovo; Kurds; Lemkin, Raphael; Morgenthau, Henry; Pinochet, Augusto; Pol Pot; Proxmire, William; Refugees; Rwanda; Somalia, Intervention in; Tibet; United Nations Security Council; Yugoslavia


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Lawrence J. LeBlanc

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United States Foreign Policies Toward Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity

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United States Foreign Policies Toward Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity