Book Review: Impediments to the Prevention and Intervention of Genocide

Impediments to the Prevention and Intervention of Genocide.
Genocide: A Critical Bibliographic Review Volume 9.

Edited by Samuel Totten.
New Brunswick: Transaction, 2013.  Pp. 294. AUD$58.92 hardback.
Reviewed by DEBORAH MAYERSEN, University of Wollongong

Impediments to the Prevention and Intervention of Genocide is an important new contribution to the field of genocide prevention and genocide studies more broadly.  It commences with a powerful preface by Brent Beardsley, the Personal Staff Officer to Canadian Major-General Romeo Dallaire, Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR).  As part of UNAMIR, Beardsley experienced the daily horror of the genocide in Rwanda.  Each night, he asked himself ‘Why doesn’t anyone come to help us end this?’ and ‘What about “never again”?’ (viii) This volume, in essence, addresses these vital questions, by exploring a range of major impediments to genocide prevention and intervention, and by providing readers with an annotated bibliography of key sources in the field.

The structure of the volume is straightforward, with each chapter focussed on a particular impediment.  Chapters one and two consider the critical impediments of realpolitik and political will.  As Paul Bartrop and Samuel Totten elucidate, realpolitik, or states pursuing their own strategic interests, is a theory that purports to describe how states respond to the world around them.  States are amoral entities, and humanitarian concerns are typically subordinated to those of state security and interests.  Realpolitik becomes a powerful impediment when state actors perceive it is not in their best interest to intervene.  Realpolitick also predicts the ‘chronic shortage of “political will” on the part of Western nations to stop genocide’ that Kenneth Campbell considers in chapter two (31).  While both chapters highlight the enormity and difficulty of trying to overcome these impediments, each notes the vital importance of continued efforts to do so.  Rapid change is unlikely, but ‘continued incremental progress’ a more realistic goal (36).

Chapters four and six, both by Totten, analyse the role of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and that of the United Nations more broadly.  Totten proposes that in many respects the Convention has served as an impediment to, rather than a facilitator of, intervention for the prevention and suppression of genocide.  The flaws of the Convention are well-known, including its restrictive definition of ‘genocide’ and stringent requirement of perpetrator intent, but recent findings by the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, along with the International Court of Justice, give new significance to this discussion.  The role of the United Nations in preventing and curbing genocide is also one that has been widely analysed, particularly since the catastrophic events in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.  Importantly, Totten considers the disturbing prevalence of ‘ineffective missions’ – missions that respond to the international community’s calls to ‘do something’, but have inadequate mandates, personnel and equipment to effectively respond to crises.

The issues of early warning and denial are addressed in interesting ways.  In chapter five, Cyanne Loyle and Christian Davenport explore the difficulties of obtaining accurate data about potentially genocidal crises.  They highlight that ‘Confusion surrounding contemporaneous violence, deliberate misinformation campaigns … and weak information infrastructure … all prevent policymakers and scholars from determining actors and actions on the ground’ (114).  Henry Theriault explores this further in chapter three by examining contemporaneous denial as both a perpetrator and bystander strategy to forestall intervention.

The role of western media in helping to build domestic pressure to respond to genocide has received a great deal of attention in recent years, and Isabelle Macgregor examines this issue in chapter seven.  The media can be both a facilitator of, and impediment to, genocide prevention and intervention, and may sometimes have less impact than is widely supposed.  In chapter nine, Maureen Hiebert analyses the potentially deterrent role of criminal trials for atrocity crimes.  Her carefully constructed argument concludes that ‘trials do not play a central role in genocide prevention’ (235).  Chapter eight, examining the international arms trade and the prevention of genocide is also timely, given the recent adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty at the UN General Assembly.  The discussion of the genocide in Rwanda within this chapter, however, is marred by an unbalanced focus on Tutsi-led violence.

The final chapter of the volume, by Herbert Hirsch, offers an insightful analysis as to why mechanisms designed to prevent genocide have thus far been largely unsuccessful.  Hirsch highlights that research has identified many lessons from past genocides for genocide prevention, but that ‘while such lessons may be clear, the actual implementation of programs derived from these lessons so seriously lag behind the academic discussion and means that slogans such as “never again” reverberate with a ring of insincerity’ (247).  Hirsch critically reviews the findings of recent major publications on genocide prevention, including The Responsibility to Protect, Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers and Mass Atrocity Response Operations: A Military Planning Handbook.  He concludes that while such endeavours are typically undertaken with good intentions, ‘good intentions do not necessarily translate into good policy’ (266).

I had a few minor quibbles with the volume: while most of the major impediments were deftly explored, I would have liked to have seen a chapter dedicated to the thorny issue of sovereignty and intervention (although several chapters did deal with this to some extent).  Given the crucial role of political will in determining responses to genocide, it was disappointing that the substantive component of this chapter (that is, the text rather than the annotated bibliography) was the shortest in the volume.  I would also have liked the volume to have had a conclusion.  Overall, however, this is an important contribution that offers a clear overview of the impediments to the prevention and intervention of genocide.  It is suitable for students, academics and practitioners in the field.  The Genocide: A Critical Bibliographic Review series, of which this is volume nine, has made a major contribution to the field since its inception.  I hope it continues to do so, and that volume ten might further challenge readers by exploring how to overcome the impediments analysed in this book.

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