Preventing International Crimes

Preventing International Crimes

Alette Smeulers


International crimes can be called the scourge of the twentieth century — they have led to tremendous human suffering amongst the victimised communities, scattered populations, and high death tolls, and can be considered a threat to international peace and security. It is therefore crucial that we find better means to stop and prevent these crimes. The aim of this chapter is to provide a synthesis of some of the main views on the prevention of international crimes. The aim is not to present a detailed or critical examination of each of these approaches, but rather to survey the many initiatives that can help to prevent international crimes. Some of the measures can be found on the level of the international community; others on the level of the state, groups, and/or organisations such as military units; and some on the level of the individual. In the following sections they will be discussed one by one.

Democratisation of Authoritarian and Dictatorial States

International crimes are far more often committed by authoritarian and dictatorial states than by democracies (Rummel 1997; Harff 2003). Unlike democracies, authoritarian and dictatorial states are usually not based on the rule of law. If such states start to lose power and authority the authoritarian and dictatorial leaders have the tendency to compensate this loss by using force and violence in order to ensure that they maintain their political power (Hoefnagels 1977). This often results in the illegal use of force such as silencing the opposition, restricting and violating their human rights, and in extreme cases, the imprisonment, torture, and murder of political opponents. They do all this in order to protect their power. The recent events in Libya and Syria show how easily violence can erupt as soon as the power of the heads of state and the legitimacy of their rule are challenged by the population. Democracies based on the rule of law and the respect for human rights commit far less crimes against their own people. Another reason why democratisation can prevent international crimes is because democracies are less often involved in armed conflicts and many international crimes are committed in a period of armed conflict. Democracies are involved in warfare but seldom fight each other (Rummel 1997). Thus, the more democracies we have worldwide the better the chances to bring back the number of wars and reduce the number of periods of collective violence. Consequently the development of democracies would seem to have a preventive effect. The Human Security Report 2009/2010 (Human Security Report Project 2011: 76), for instance, suggests that the fact that at the end of World War II there were twenty democracies and nowadays there are ninety has brought down the number of armed conflicts as well as the number of battle-related deaths.

A few notes of warning need to be given though. First of all, democratisation processes in themselves can lead to a period of collective violence. In his book, The Dark Side of Democracy, Michael Mann (2005) pinpoints ethnic cleansing as such. Mann notes, “democracy has always carried with it the possibility that the majority might tyrannise minorities, and this possibility carries more ominous consequences in certain types of multi-ethnic environments” (Mann 2005: 2). As we have seen in for instance the former Yugoslavia, the situation can easily lead to war and violence when nationalities and ethnicities are politicised and the state becomes divided in different national or ethnic entities fighting each other. According to Mann states that are democratising are “more likely to commit murderous ethnic cleansing than are stable authoritarian regimes” (2005: 4).

Secondly, a democracy can easily be transformed into an authoritarian state when democratic elections bring dictatorial leaders to power. An example thereof is Adolf Hitler, who gained power through democratic elections in Germany after World War I and gradually changed and transformed the state into a dictatorial state, in which the rights of several minority groups and people who were considered to be “unworthy of life” (Lebensunwertes Leben) were violated, leading to the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other groups perished. A democracy in itself is thus not a guarantee that the state will not transform (back) into an authoritarian and dictatorial state at some point. A strong rule of law based on international human rights standards that limits the power of the leader and a strong separation of powers (trias politica), whereby the legislative and judicial powers ensure that the executive power always respects these standards, can prevent states from transforming back into authoritarian and dictatorial states. It ensures that leaders will not abuse their power and turn to despotism while in power. A World Bank Report does not refer directly to democracy, but does state that “strengthening legitimate institutions and governance … is crucial to break cycles of violence” (2011: 3).

Thirdly, democracies can commit horrendous crimes, too. In the past many democracies have colonised third world countries and repressed the local population within these countries. They took advantage of the rich resources and manpower within these countries, oppressed the population, and harshly opposed any independence movements within these countries. Democracies can also get involved in wars and commit crimes within these wars. The mere fact that a state is a democracy does not prevent its soldiers from committing atrocities, for instance as shown by the war crimes committed by American soldiers in the Vietnam War. However, civil wars are less likely to occur in a democracy and inter-state wars do not occur very often anymore. Nowadays democracies that commit international crimes often do so while occupying certain territories (as Israel in the Palestinian territories), or in their fight against terrorism, as the Bush administration in its War on Terror (Gourevitch and Morris 2008).

In addition to being a democracy, it is also important for states to respect international human rights standards and to acknowledge and actually ensure the universal application of these standards. This is important in order to guarantee that even in a state of emergency the most fundamental rights, such as the right not to be tortured, will be respected. During the War on Terror, which was launched by the United States after the 9/11 attacks, it was precisely the idea that there were cases in which human rights were not universally applicable that paved the way for violating these rules and indeed led to the violation thereof. For instance Gonzales, a presidential advisor, advised the U.S. government in a memo that the new paradigm of terrorism rendered the Geneva Conventions obsolete (Greenberg and Dratel 2005: 118–121). Specific guidelines were set up by the Bush administration, which were meant to be used on dangerous terrorists but were in clear violation of international human rights standards (even if applied to dangerous terrorists only), and also led not only to the violation of human rights of terror suspects, but also to the widespread abuse of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, and, as the pictures published by 60 Minutes showed us, in Abu Ghraib (Smeulers and van Niekerk 2009). What we can learn from this is that even democracies should play by the rules and should never start to formulate exceptions to the rules as they then might end up on a very slippery slope.

Being Aware of and Repairing Difficult Life Conditions

Scholars have noted that international crimes are often committed in societies in which the population suffers from difficult life conditions (Staub 1989; Harff 2003). These difficult life conditions can be the result of widespread violence or war, economic depression, or rapid changes in social structure, technology, or social institutions within a country. Staub concluded that difficult life conditions often lead to a situation in which certain minority groups that are well off and considered to be the upper class are blamed for the misfortune of the general population. Misfortune provides a powerful psychological need to find an explanation and people have a natural tendency to search for a scapegoat to blame as, for instance, Nazi Germany did after it lost World War I (by blaming the Jews—the so-called “stab in the back legend”). Finding a scapegoat has two important functions: (1) it explains the suffering and pinpoints its cause; and (2) it relieves all others from responsibility. In order to counter this dynamic it is important for the states themselves, and the communities therein, as well as the international community to prevent difficult life conditions from occurring and to try to diminish the damage caused by these difficult life conditions. Whenever a crisis (social, political, environmental, or economic) occurs, the negative consequences and effects need to be limited and minority groups need to be protected to ensure that they will not be blamed for the misfortune.

Next to countering difficult life conditions in general, it is important to also be aware of vulnerable groups within a society, not only as the possible victims but also as the possible aggressors. Many rebel forces were created with the aim to improve their living circumstances or in order to protect themselves from an alleged enemy. People who are vulnerable and afraid can radicalise, search for solutions to their problem, and come to follow a charismatic leader. This can either be a leader who manages to gain state power like Hitler did, or a rebel leader who survives in the bush as Joseph Kony and his LRA do (Hoffer 1951; Fromm 1941). Such groups can easily turn to violence at some point. It is therefore important to always ensure that certain groups are not left out in sharing the welfare and to be aware of groups that are particularly vulnerable to radicalisation because of their position in society. The same can be true of individuals. For instance, it is known that children are particularly vulnerable during a period of warfare, that war is often extremely harsh on them and as a consequence can make them join militarised units and extreme or radical groups in order to find food, shelter, and protection and to feel a sense of power (Singer 2006; Wessels 2007). In addition to joining voluntarily, many children are also abducted by armed groups and forced to fight for them. Once in an armed group, child soldiers may commit atrocious crimes, such as the infamous Small Boys Units in Sierra Leone. In order to prevent this, the international community, states, and NGOs need to identify and protect those who are underprivileged and particularly vulnerable.

Countering Genocidal Ideologies

Genocidal ideologies by themselves cannot initiate violence or genocide, but in cases where a country suffers from difficult life conditions and a certain minority group is held responsible for the situation, then a genocidal ideology can turn an explosive situation into actual violence (Staub 1989; Harff 2003; Alvarez 2008). Ideologies are important motivators which can rationalise and justify violence and thus play a crucial role in a period of collective violence. An important means to prevent genocide and other international crimes is to counter these ideologies at an early stage. Genocidal and other violence-prone ideologies usually polarise society and create two groups who hold the idea that they are each other’s natural opponents. Within the society it becomes a struggle of “us versus them.” People usually tend to consider their own group as superior and the other group as inferior, and as a consequence people within the other groups are often considered second-class citizens, enemies, terrorists, or people not worth living, and in extreme cases they are dehumanised. Freedom of speech is an important human right, but lessons from our history have shown that this freedom should have its limits in order to ensure that it does not lead to discrimination, alienation, and ultimately (genocidal) violence. In many cases in which genocide was committed, such as in Nazi Germany and Rwanda, the role of the press and mass media was crucial. It is therefore important that such ideologies are countered, that hate speech becomes acknowledged as a crime, and that mass media that broadcast hate speeches are stopped at an early stage. If charismatic and powerful leaders, like Adolf Hitler and Slobodan Milosevic, start to spread hate messages the situation becomes extremely dangerous and explosive and warrants an early response.

Encourage an Active Role of the International Community

The international community can do a lot more to stop international crimes. If powerful national states such as the United States or the international community had reacted adequately to genocides in the past, these genocides could have been prevented (cf. Power 2002; Grünfeld and Huijboom 2007). Unfortunately the political will is often lacking to intervene in these situations, especially when there are no national interests at stake. This ought to change in order to prevent international crimes and to ensure international peace and security. The dilemma faced by the international community is that the ideal moment to prevent and stop a period of mass violence is to intervene at a very early stage. The problem, is that at that very early stage (before the violence starts) the legal basis to intervene is often lacking within international law. But the later a state intervenes, the more damage has already been done and the more costly the intervention is. Once the violence is well under way and the international community sees sufficient reasons to intervene, it is very difficult and often very costly to stop these violations. However, it can and should be done. The international community should improve its early warning system and find the political will and means to intervene immediately. In an early stage it can use various means—such as diplomacy, embargoes, humanitarian, or military intervention—to stop international crimes from occurring and to prevent a conflict from escalating or to prevent verbally aggressive groups acting upon their words.