Never Again (Maybe)

Posted December 30, 2009

Categories: Articles

The elderly gentleman had a remarkable history. He’d worked in the State Department in Latin America and Afghanistan. And, 60 years ago, he served as a translator in Tokyo in connection with the war crimes trial that resulted in 25 guilty verdicts and seven executions of Japanese war criminals just after World War II. Given his background, I was surprised at his viewpoint.

“The rules from the Tokyo Trials about military aggression and crimes against peace will only be applied to small countries,” Cecil Uyehara told me at a recent conference. “When Mai Lai occurred in Vietnam, nothing happened. We didn’t apply this justice in Iraq, at Abu Ghraib either.” Indeed, one of the U.S. lawyers defending the Japanese accused of war crimes in 1948 tried to argue that, because of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States was as guilty as Japan in terms of killing civilians during wartime. This legal gambit failed. “Truman was not tried as a war criminal,” historian Alexis Dudden writes in her book Troubled Apologies, “and nuclear weapons came to generate their own de facto legitimacy, standing today as the international community’s legal weapon of mass destruction.”

Today, the rival interpretations of the Tokyo trials — the judgment of civilization or simply justice meted out by the victors — continue to bedevil the international community.

Consider the tribunal currently addressing the Cambodian genocide. Although it’s been 30 years since the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge period, only last month did the first member of the Pol Pot regime go on trial.

Comrade Duch, who presided over the interrogation, torture, and execution of 14,000 people at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, isn’t disputing his role in the murderous insanity. But the trial won’t likely go beyond five key figures since the current government isn’t enthusiastic about charging former Khmer Rouge officials who now serve within it. “Nor will there be an examination of the actions of other countries in the long Cambodian affliction — the American bombing campaign between 1969 and 1973, for example, that claimed anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 lives,” writes Richard Bernstein in the New York Review of Books.

So, as a human rights supporter, do you endorse the Cambodia tribunal (or the Tokyo tribunal or the ones for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia) as a partial measure of justice or do you withhold support because the whole set up is hopelessly flawed?

This argument concerning selective focus extends to the debate over the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the new UN doctrine that argues for multilateral action if a state fails to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity. This week at Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), we offer you three distinct takes on R2P from several FPIF contributors.

In his brief in favor of R2P, Shaun Randol makes an impassioned plea in favor of the judgment of civilization. “Sixty years ago, the world cried ‘never again’ when the UN passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” he writes in R2P: No Love in a Time of Cholera. “Since then, however, the international community failed to intervene in Cambodia, Rwanda, and now Sudan to prevent genocide. If states fail to implement R2P in today’s life-or-death situations, tomorrow’s entreaty may be, ‘Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Haiti, Zimbabwe, DRC, Burma, Uganda, Gaza — never again!’ Millions hope otherwise.”

Bridget Moix and Trevor Keck also endorse the doctrine but emphasize its preventive and multilateral character. “Given the strong focus on prevention and a response tailored to each occasion — rather than jumping to military intervention — R2P is a step forward for the international system,” they write in R2P: Focus on Prevention. “The Obama administration should endorse this doctrine, increase capacity-building assistance to states facing crises or under stress, and strengthen alliances to manage conflicts peacefully before they reach the point of potential mass violence. If prevention fails, the response — whether non-military or military — to an emerging genocide should be collective and authorized by the UN Security Council.”

Meanwhile, Steven Fake and Kevin Funk echo the criticism of the Tokyo trials as victors’ justice. R2P, they argue, is just another method by which large states exert their will over small states. In all the discussions around the new doctrine, they write in R2P: Disciplining the Mice, Freeing the Lions, “no one asked whether killing 1,300 mostly civilians in the Gaza Strip was Israel’s failure in its responsibility to protect Palestinians. [S]hould honest activists be calling for a ‘humanitarian intervention’ to halt Israeli crimes, and further, to target the individuals and institutions who make them possible? That Obama foreign policy advisor Samantha Power and other high-octane R2P advocates have not pursued such objectives tells us virtually all we need to know about the doctrine.”

Our contributors continue their debate in Strategic Dialogue: Responsibility to Protect where they address the flaws, virtues, and practical consequences of a doctrine that aspires to update for the 21st century principles articulated 60 years ago. If you want to know my views on the matter, stay tuned this week at FPIF for our next strategic dialogue on the trial of Slobodan Milosevic and why Yugoslavia still matters. In general, I prefer to look beyond either-or. As challenging as it might be, we must say “never again” to those who commit mass atrocities on the ground and by air, within borders and across borders, and on the winning side as well as the losing one. Let a thousand tribunals bloom.

Debating Empire

As part of our Empire Strategic Focus, we asked our senior analysts to weigh in on the following question: “The enormous challenges facing us — economic crisis, climate crisis, nuclear proliferation — require unprecedented global cooperation. Will President Barack Obama draw down the American empire in order to meet these challenges? Or will he do what he can to maintain empire in a different form?”

In the ensuing virtual roundtable, the discussion ranged from economic policy in Latin America and the administration’s appointments to the buildup in Afghanistan and the new U.S. approach toward family planning.

Here is just a small sample of the insights. “Empire is as empire does,” argues Mark Engler. “If the United States under Obama makes an inward turn, focusing on the domestic implications of the economic crisis, its imperial dimensions may grow hazy in the coming years.” Christine Ahn notes that “even though many of his initiatives — like increasing troop levels in Afghanistan — sing the same old conqueror song, Obama at least appears to be making thoughtful calculations instead of ideological ones.” And Dan Smith concludes: “Obama is incapable of drawing down the American empire even were he inclined to do so.”

It’s a lively conversation, and I encourage you to join in.

The Libyan Model

The Bush administration acquired a well-deserved reputation for demonizing leaders of other countries, from the “axis of evil” (Iraq, Iran, North Korea) to the “lesser evils” of Cuba and Venezuela. But one country and one dictator stand out from all the rest: Libya and Muammar al-Qaddafi.

In the waning days of the Bush administration, Condoleezza Rice was the first secretary of state to visit Libya in over 50 years. And last December, the first U.S. ambassador in more than 35 years took up his new position. As FPIF contributor Ronald Bruce St John writes in A New U.S. Relationship with Libya?, the two countries have a number of overlapping interests in energy, counterterrorism, and bilateral exchanges. The Obama administration still faces several challenges with Libya, but “one of the most promising aspects of recent developments is U.S. recognition that Libya is a country with which the United States can expect to have the same normal relationship we might have with any other country,” St John writes.

Perhaps the Obama administration could salvage this one foreign policy success of the Bush administration and apply the Libya model to North Korea, Iran, and other formerly demonized countries.

Madagascar and Cluster Bombs

Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, has been in the news recently. One government has fallen (Ravolamanana), and another has taken its place courtesy of a military coup (Rajoelina). Supporters of the ousted government have taken to the streets in protest.

“With educated activists thinking about the government they want to see created from the dust of the Ravolamanana-Rajoelina showdown, there may be a chance for democracy here after all,” writes FPIF contributor Laura Norton in Trouble in Paradise. “But the United States must stay out. No congratulatory letters, no unfreezing of accounts, and no grants for good governance. Washington should not give Rajoelina the same carte blanche it handed Ravolamanana. The leader of a coup, regardless of the quality of the government he puts in place, must be held accountable for acting outside the legal realm of democracy. If not, Madagascar’s cycle of coups and crises will remain in place.”

Finally, FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan provides us with a bit of optimism. “Good news is in short supply,” she writes in Progress on Cluster Bombs. “The economy remains bleak. The war in Iraq entered its seventh year last week, and violence reaches new pinnacles in Afghanistan. But there is one bright light amid all this gloom. Real progress is being made to ban cluster munitions. These are canisters of different sizes that release hundreds of bomblets on detonation, scattering deadly devices over an area as large as several football fields.” Check out her column for news of the shift in U.S. position.

FPIF, March 26, 2009

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