A Responsibility to Protect: The Defining Challenge for the Global Community

By Jentleson, Bruce W. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

A Responsibility to Protect: The Defining Challenge for the Global Community


Jentleson, Bruce W., Harvard International Review


We live in an age that is dependent on a strong sense of global community. Despite this fact, many of our current problems trace back to how weak that unifying sense truly is. This theme is most tragic when it appears in the form of genocide, ethnic cleansings, and other manifestations of the deadly politics of identity. For all the vows that there would "never again" be another genocide, reality has too many times proven otherwise. Yet again, millions of people have been killed, maimed, raped, displaced, and otherwise victimized, while the international community--including the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union--continues to do too little, too late.

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If we cannot turn the "never again" pledge from rhetoric to reality, how can we genuinely claim to be a global community? Time and again we have witnessed man's inhumanity at its basest, most venal, and most outrageous. But where is the outrage? It has not been coming from recent US administrations--not from George H.W. Bush over Bosnia, not from Bill Clinton over Rwanda, and not from George W. Bush over Darfur. It has not been coming from the United Nations, in which countless resolutions about being "seized with the matter" are approved and then become "seized up" when it comes to meaningful action. And outrage has certainly not been coming from the many countries that buy into invocations of state sovereignty with little regard for supposedly shared values and commitments, which are codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention.

There is no doubt that breaking the vicious political cycle of identity is difficult. But it is possible. Bosnia and Rwanda were rife with missed opportunities--so, too, was Darfur. Breaking the cycle is necessary for tangible reasons, since these conflicts feed other conflicts, including terrorism. It is also necessary for less tangible, but deeply penetrating reasons. We must understand that our actions determine whether the legacy we leave to future generations is one of despair or one of hope.

Key Questions in the Policy Debate

Looking across key cases, we can identify five core questions that frame policy debates on genocide prevention and related humanitarian intervention. First, what are the driving forces behind ethnic conflict and genocide? Then, given existing tensions, when should military force be used? Why is such intervention justified, if ever, and who should decide when intervention should happen? Finally, what constitutes effective intervention?

Driving Forces? Many policymakers take the "primordialist" view of these conflicts and view them as the inevitable outcomes of fixed, inherited, and deeply antagonistic group identities. In this understanding, the end of the Cold War stripped away the constraining effects of the overlay of bipolar geopolitics. The implication is that historical hatreds, including those that Robert Kaplan has called the "Balkan ghosts," are restored to their "natural" states of conflict.

But while history shapes these conflicts, it does not determine them nearly to the extent that such theories suggest. A number of studies have shown that ethnic identities are much less fixed over time; as a result, the frequency and intensity of ethnic conflict vary more than primordialist theory claims. This point is made, albeit with some amount of hyperbole, in a statement by a Bosnian Muslim schoolteacher: "We never, until the war, thought of ourselves as Muslims. We were Yugoslavs. But when we began to be murdered because we are Muslims, things changed. The definition of who we are today has been determined by our killing."

Such killing was not a predetermined playing out of history. Instead, it was an intentional manipulation of history by Slobodan Milosevic to turn grievances and prejudices into hatred and murder. This was also the case in Rwanda and elsewhere. …

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