Mass Atrocity Monday, 7/14/2014

Pop quiz time. To what internationally unlawful act did the phrase “crime of crimes” originally refer? Hint: It’s not genocide.

Did you guess genocide anyway?

That’s understandable. In mainstream media, human rights advocacy, and even some legal scholarship, genocide is generally treated as the absolute worst thing that humans can do to each other. But in fact, there is no hierarchy of international crimes and the term “genocide” implies nothing about the scale of a crime. To recap: genocide is the killing or (certain other types of) mistreatment of members of a national, ethnic, religious, or racial group with the intent of destroying that group, in whole or in part. So really, you could be convicted of genocide for forcibly sterilizing one Wiccan lady, if you intended to do likewise to the other members of her coven later on.

The mistaken impression that genocide is worse than other egregious violations of international law leads to a lot of unnecessary scrambling to get all atrocities designated as genocide. (This is exacerbated by another mistaken impression: that the obligation to “prevent and punish” contained in the 1948 Genocide Convention will compel the international community, deaf to the pleas of victims of mere crimes against humanity, to spring into action. So far, it hasn’t.) And the impulse to employ the term to describe truly massive mass killing events means that we’re frequently using it wrong.

The “Cambodian Genocide”, for instance, was probably not a genocide. Over a million Cambodians were killed by the lunatic Khmer Rouge regime’s program of forced relocation, torture, mass execution, and enslavement, but they weren’t killed with the intent of wiping out a national, racial, ethnic, or religious group. The Khmer Rouge may still have committed genocide, though, through their brutal treatment of the Cham and ethnic Vietnamese minorities. There is evidence that members of both of these groups were specifically targeted for slaughter, on the basis of their ethnic identity.

Admitting that the non-Cham, non-ethnic Vietnamese Cambodians weren’t the victims of genocide doesn’t make what happened to them any less horrific. And it doesn’t make those responsible for their deaths any less criminally culpable. In fact, the definition of the crime they were actually subjected to, crimes against humanity, implies exactly the sort of scale with which genocide is erroneously associated.

Crimes against humanity are “widespread” and/or “systematic” abuses of civilian populations. In other words: mass atrocities. But they still don’t earn the label “crime of crimes”. The original use of the term (in Justice Jackson’s opening statement at the Nuremberg Tribunal) was in reference to crimes against the peace, a.k.a. “aggression”, a.k.a. starting a war, a.k.a. that thing governments do all the time.


Recommended Reading: Peaceland

I’m hereby joining the chorus of people telling you to add Séverine Autesserre’s Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention to your summer reading list.

In Peaceland, Autesserre takes the substance of countless rants-over-drinks about wrongheaded international interventions and turns it into a serious and persuasive theoretical argument. She argues that the “everyday dimensions” of international peace-building efforts have huge impacts on their success (or lack thereof). As she explains in a recent Monkey Cage post:

Everyday dimensions refer to mundane elements, such as the expatriates’ social habits, standard security procedures, and habitual approaches to collecting information on violence. For instance, it matters whom interveners have a drink with after work, whether it is with other expatriates or with local counterparts. It matters how they talk to, look at, refer to, and interact with ordinary people. It matters where they go to collect data, whom they speak with, how, when, and for which purpose. It matters what kind of houses they live in (a compound that looks like a bunker or a normal house). And it matters whether they constantly advertise their actions or keep a low profile. All of this should go without saying, but most of the time on-the-ground interveners and their higher-ups dismiss these kinds of everyday elements as too prosaic to be important.

Autesserre’s approach is ethnographic, and weaves together a staggering amount of interview data and personal observations in support of her contention that peacebuilders constitute a distinct subculture whose common habits, practices, and narratives have profound unintended consequences. And, if you enjoy criticisms of ill-informed advocacy movements (I know I do!), there’s a whole section on how these dynamics played out in the construction of the “Congo: All Rape and Minerals, All the Time” discourse.

Check it out!

*Full disclosure: I read and gave comments on an earlier draft of the book.

Mass Atrocity Monday, 6/30/2014

In an excellent Foreign Policy article on Western Sahara (seriously, go read it), David Conrad reports that Dallas-based Kosmos Energy has a Moroccan license to begin drilling for oil off of the disputed territory’s coast. A Kosmos senior VP told Conrad that the company believes “we are doing the right thing in partnering with Morocco”.

The Sahrawis (as the inhabitants of Western Sahara are known) have been fighting for their independence for more than 40 years, first against colonial power Spain, then against neighbors Morocco and Mauritania. Despite a 1975 opinion of the International Court of Justice finding that Western Sahara had no preexisting legal ties with either Morocco or Mauritania that would impede its right of self-determination, both countries’ forces entered the territory in 1976. Their arrival was heralded by a massive attack on the Sahrawi population.

With foreign troops advancing across their homeland, much of the civilian population of Western Sahara had fled to refugee camps in the desert. In January and February of 1976, the Moroccan Air Force targeted these camps, dropping napalm and white phosphorus bombs (both of which were subsequently banned for use against civilian targets in 1980). Thousands of refugees died in the bombings.

The Sahrawi military organization, the Polisario Front, responded with guerrilla attacks against Moroccan and Mauritanian targets. Mauritania withdrew from the conflict following a 1978 coup and ultimately extended formal recognition to the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. But Morocco fought on through the 1980s, defending its claimed territory by constructing a series of walls (with a total length of over 2700 kilometers) to keep the Polisario out.


In 1991, an internationally brokered ceasefire put an end to active hostilities. The agreement provided for a UN peacekeeping mission and a referendum on Sahrawi independence. The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) deployed in April 1991, but the referendum never happened. The initial plan to hold it in 1992 derailed over a dispute about who was eligible to vote. Five years later, a subsequent effort broke down when Morocco refused to accept the results of a census. UN special envoy James Baker finally resigned in frustration in 2004 following the failure of the parties to agree to a succession of “Baker Plans”. His successors in the position have not had better luck.

38 years after the departure of Spain, the population of Western Sahara still has not been given the chance to vote for independence. Morocco spends millions pre-empting international pressure to meet its international legal obligations. This money has paid off, with support from the U.S., the U.K., and France, the kingdom has repeatedly defeated efforts by the UN to add human rights monitoring to MINURSO’s mandate. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Sahrawis remain displaced in refugee camps and those who live in Moroccan-controlled territory face ongoing violations of their rights.


*Map of the Moroccan walls is from Wikipedia. (And yes, I realize it’s technically Wednesday, but I started this post two days ago, and Mass Atrocity Monday’s really more of a state of mind than an actual day, right?)

Enough Already with “If It Bleeds, It Leads”

You know what pisses me off? When every mainstream, new, or yet-to-be-classified media outlet blithely reposts pictures of victims in the process of suffering horrific violations of their human rights.

(Although if you answered “everything”, you are technically correct, but that’s not what this post is about.)

I’m referring to the photographs that ISIS released last week, showing the apparent extrajudicial execution of captured Iraqi soldiers. The images (which I discuss in greater detail here) were republished by virtually every Western media outlet that covered the massacre.

Disturbingly, both the Washington Post and the New York Times ran photos in which the victims’ faces are shown. Other outlets (BBCThe GuardianSlate, and Al Jazeera) selected images in which the faces of those about to be murdered are obscured, but other identifying information such as clothing, haircut, and body type are clearly visible.

Let me pause here to point out that Iraqis have the internet. A few of them may even have forked over the cash to read more than 10 articles per month. It is therefore entirely possible that some of the parents, siblings, or children of the murdered men learned of their loved ones’ brutal deaths through a photograph posted on a newspaper website.

Even if the chances of emotional injury to the family members were nonexistent, this is still a terrible violation of the dignity and privacy of the massacre victims themselves. But identifying the victims of violence and human rights abuse is standard operating procedure for Western news organizations. The Washington Post once ran a series of photographs of a Kurdish child being subjected to female genital mutilation. And the New York Times is, of course, the venue in which Nicholas Kristof published the name and picture of a nine year old (nine!!!) victim of rape.

Kristof’s offense was particularly egregious. It is the stated policy of the New York Times not to name rape victims. And, as Jina Moore pointed out at the time, the rules are even stricter when it comes to child victims. Nevertheless, he pushed back. In a blog post responding his critics, Kristof argued that images and identifying information are necessary to inspire readers’ compassion for faraway people in need of help.

This is the logic that motivates the inclusion of photos, videos, and personal anecdotes in human rights advocacy and appeals for humanitarian aid. (And Amanda and I are on record with our concerns about this approach, which too often seems to permit assessments by advocates or journalists that the “cause” and “awareness” are more important than the individual victims.) However, this line of reasoning doesn’t fully apply to straight news coverage. There isn’t really an argument to be made that running graphic images of their suffering in a wire story helps victims.

Instead, many reporters seem to be unthinkingly following the “if it bleeds, it leads” directive. The images of hundreds of Iraqi men waiting to be shot in the head, like the pictures of partially undressed bodies of Tamil prisoners of war or sex trafficked Cambodian children are attention-grabbing and compelling. But if “shining a light on atrocities” or “raising money for the victims” aren’t good enough reasons to disregard basic human decency, than increasing web traffic and selling newspapers isn’t either.

WTF Friday, 6/20/14

Welcome to this week’s WTF Friday, “Let’s All Demonize Refugees and Abused Children” edition.

The day started out promisingly. This morning, in honor of World Refugee Day, Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement:

“It is a time to honor the strength and resilience of refugees around the world and renew our determination to support them as they rebuild their lives and communities. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees now counts the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons at 51 million. That number is staggering by any measure. It represents children, women, and men from Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and now Iraq, who face death, destruction, and dislocation.”

But refugees don’t just come from “Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and now Iraq.” They also come from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. And many of them come to the United States, including, recently, thousands of children.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have “renewed our determination” to support those refugees. Vice President Biden is at this very moment meeting with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to clear up “confusion” over U.S. immigration policy in order to stem the flow of migrants fleeing the brutal violence that plagues those countries.

The confusion he’s referring to, as best as I can tell, is the optimistic belief that we would actually follow our obligations under U.S. and international law. (Namely, that we would not return refugees to countries where they would face persecution or torture, and would not deport children to situations where they would face abuse, human trafficking, or worse.) Nah, bro, apparently the plan is to “step up detention and deportation.”

And then we have the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who has just announced a hearing next week on the ways that child refugees and migrants are “gaming” the system. By which he literally means “applying for immigration relief via the processes set forth in U.S. law, and obtaining such relief if the relevant legal standards are met.” To wit:

“Unaccompanied alien minors are not subject to expedited removal under current law, and many – if not a majority – of them are eligible for immigration relief under current law.”

Following current law? Apocalypse, basically.

Memo to the executive and legislative branches: there is no “unless it’s, like, a little inconvenient” exception to the Refugee Convention. Sometimes refugee flows are burdensome, and that’s just the situation. Jordan is currently hosting more than half a million Syrian refugees in a nation of only 6.4 million people. I am sure they would prefer not to have that responsibility! But they do. Life isn’t fair.

And speaking of which, the numbers here are not actually that big. An estimated 52,000 children have come to the United States since October, which is the mass-refugee-flow equivalent of a goddamned hangnail. That’s not even enough kids to sell out a One Direction show. The Met Life stadium can handle 90,000 screaming Harry Styles fans per night, but I’m expected to believe that the entire rest of this great nation can’t take 52,000 kids over a six-month period?

So yeah, happy World Refugee Day, everyone.


Mass Atrocity Monday, 6/16/2014

Sorry for the unannounced hiatus on these, everyone. A chapter of the aforementioned dissertation had to get written, but now we’ll be back on the usual, biweekly schedule.

I was all set to reach into the vault for another obscure instance of mass slaughter, but The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) saved me the trouble. The unexpected fall of Mosul to ISIS forces last week took the world by surprise. But as American pundits of dubious provenance blathered on about the potential risks and benefits of cooperation with Iran (which is not about to let Baghdad fall to Sunni militants without a fight), ISIS threw the news cycle a curveball.


Over the weekend the group posted graphic images on Twitter that appear to show the execution of large groups of unarmed men. ISIS claims to have killed 1,700 captured Iraqi soldiers. The photos were accompanied by jeering captions highlighting the Shiite identity of the victims.

As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay pointed out in her statement today, the extrajudicial killing of noncombatants (including surrendered or captured soldiers) is a war crime. If the images and the claims are genuine, they indicate serious violations of international law.

But ISIS is clearly a-okay with generating a massive pile of prosecutable evidence. As J.M. Berger explains over at The Atlantic, the release of the photographs is part of a sophisticated social media and branding strategy.

Extensive social science research (I discuss a bunch of it here) shows that even the most brutal atrocities are not committed senselessly. Military organizations engage in war crimes to conquer territory, to undermine opposing forces, or to terrorize civilian populations. Disturbingly, ISIS’s publicization of these photographs suggests that they may also do it to drum up support and improve recruitment efforts.


(*That’s the ISIS flag up there. I’m not reposting the photos, because ugh.)

U.N. Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic: Um Whut?

On Friday morning, the AP ran a story about a leaked report from the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic, which had concluded that it was “too early to speak of genocide or ethnic cleansing” in CAR, but that other crimes against humanity had taken place.

The first part of that conclusion surprised me. In February, Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, testified before the Security Council that his agency had “effectively witnessed a ‘cleansing’ of the majority of the Muslim population in western CAR.” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both also reported that Muslims are being driven from the country en masse. What had the Commission uncovered that led it to decide otherwise?

I’ve now read the leaked report, and I still haven’t the foggiest idea.

The section analyzing the allegations of genocide and ethnic cleansing is exceptionally brief – less than a page long, much of which is taken up with a bullet-pointed list of the names of different genocidal crimes. It then dismisses the allegations of genocide and ethnic cleansing in a single paragraph, without citing any law or specific sources:

“As has been stated above, the origins of the present armed conflict in CAR is rooted in the struggle for political power. The actions of the parties to the dispute as of present demonstrate the fact that the conflict is still in reality a political conflict. SELEKA a mainly Muslim movement on the 8th of May declared a de facto partition of CAR, setting up a military Council and claiming the right to administer exclusively three regions of CAR. The main parties to the conflict remain SELEKA and anti-BALAKA. The fact that there is an anti-Muslim propaganda from certain non-Muslim quarters does not mean that genocide is being planned or that there is any conspiracy to commit genocide or even a specific intent to commit genocide. The displacement of Muslims affected by whatever party so far is a matter of protection and the preservation of human life not a matter of ethnic cleansing.”


Let’s break this down. First, it should go without saying that it is thoroughly possible for genocide and ethnic cleansing to take place within the context of a “struggle for political power,” or during a “political conflict.” Indeed, it would be unusual for them not to. And second, while “the fact that there is an anti-Muslim propaganda” is of course not in and of itself enough to prove genocide or genocide-adjacent crimes, it’s not particularly comforting, either. Those facts are not a basis on which to conclude that genocide is not taking place, they are reasons to investigate whether it is taking place. (If only there could be some sort of U.N. Commission of Inquiry tasked with finding out what’s really going on. Someone should really get on that.)

And has the Commission mistaken “ethnic cleansing” for some sort of laundry-related procedure? How else can we explain a line that dismisses claims of ethnic cleansing … by basically describing ethnic cleansing? Forcibly clearing a target population from an area by threatening the lives and safety of its members is pretty much the first chapter from the ethnic cleanser’s handbook.

This conclusion also seems to be contradicted by facts contained elsewhere in the report. For instance, in describing the difficulties faced by foreign peacekeeping forces in CAR, the Commission notes that “the MISCA and SANGARIS forces have been subject of attacks especially from the anti-Balaka militia, the majority of whom seem keen to carry out an ethnic cleansing in CAR by driving out the population or worse by killing them which would amount to genocide.” If the anti-Balaka fighters expressed their intent to commit ethnic cleansing by “driving out the population,” and then proceeded to do just that, what does the Commission need to see in order to conclude that ethnic cleansing is taking place? Engraved invitations? (“Your local anti-Balaka cordially invites you and your family to be ethnically cleansed on Saturday, June the twenty-first, two thousand fourteen. Plus-ones encouraged. RSVP.”)

Is it possible that the Commission, after a thorough investigation, determined that the anti-Balaka were all talk, and the civilians who have been displaced were merely caught up in generalized violence that was not targeted towards specific groups? Yes. But if that’s what happened, the Commission should have explained as much in the report, so that observers – and the Security Council – could weigh the credibility of the report’s conclusions. That didn’t happen.

And is now a good moment to point out that the Commission limited its investigation to Bangui, and is thus not really in a position to make pronouncements about ethnic cleansings and genocides that may or may not be going on in the rest of the country? I understand that the security situation made it difficult for the investigators to travel to other parts of CAR, but am quite confused as to why they did not at least interview refugees in neighboring countries.

In the interest of fairness, I should note here that the report has not officially been released yet, so it is possible that the version I saw was merely a partially-completed draft, and not yet in its final form. That would certainly explain why it is a mere 26 pages long, 13 of which are taken up with a history of the conflict and a description of the difficulties the Commission faced in conducting its investigation. (Turns out there’s a war on!) However, the fact that the document was accompanied by a letter from Ban Ki Moon submitting it to the Security Council on May 27th suggests that it was the final version.

If that is the case, then I am tremendously disappointed. The Commission had a mandate to:

“investigate reports of violations of international humanitarian law, international human rights law and abuses of human rights in the Central African Republic, by all parties since 1 January 2013 and to compile information, to help identify the perpetrators of such violations and abuses, point to their possible criminal responsibility and to help ensure that those responsible are held accountable.”

And yet, after six months of work from a team of six full-time investigators, the Commission appears to have produced a report that details little in the way of investigation, identifies perpetrators only in generalities, contains almost no documentation of specific violations or abuses, and provides no useful analysis that would ensure future accountability.

Not good enough, Commission of Inquiry. Do better.