The New Humanitarian Order
Subverting the Language of Genocide
War has long ceased to be a direct confrontation between the armed forces of two states. As became clear during the confrontation between the Allied and the Axis powers in World War II, in America's Indochina War in the 1960s and '70s, its Gulf War in 1991 and then again in its 2003 invasion of Iraq, states do not just target the armed forces of adversary states; they target society itself: war-related industry and infrastructure, economy and work force, and sometimes, as in the aerial bombardment of cities, the civilian population in general. The trend is for political violence to become generalized and indiscriminate. Modern war is total war.
This development in the nature of modern war has tended to follow an earlier development of counterinsurgency in colonial contexts. Faced with insurgent guerrillas who were simply armed civilians, colonial powers targeted the populations of occupied territories. When Mao Zedong wrote that guerrillas must be as fish in water, American counterinsurgency theorist Samuel Huntington, writing during the Vietnam War, responded that the object of counterinsurgency must be to drain the water and isolate the fish. But the practice is older than post-World War II counterinsurgency. It dates back to the earliest days of modernity, to settler-colonial wars against American Indians in the decades and centuries that followed 1492. Settler America pioneered the practice of interning civilian populations in what Americans called "reservations" and the British called "reserves," a technology the Nazis would later develop into an extreme form called concentration camps. Often thought of as a British innovation put into effect during the late-nineteenth-century Boer War in South Africa, the practice of concentrating and interning populations in colonial wars was in origin an American settler contribution to the development of modern war.
The regime identified with the international humanitarian order makes a sharp distinction between genocide and other kinds of mass violence. The tendency is to be permissive of insurgency (liberation war), counterinsurgency (suppression of civil war or of rebel/revolutionary movements) and inter-state war as integral to the exercise of national sovereignty. Increasingly, they are taken as an inevitable if regrettable part of defending or asserting national sovereignty, domestically or internationally--but not genocide.
What, then, is the distinguishing feature of genocide? It is clearly not extreme violence against civilians, for that is very much a feature of both counterinsurgency and interstate war in these times. Only when extreme violence targets for annihilation a civilian population that is marked off as different "on grounds of race, ethnicity or religion" is that violence termed genocide. It is this aspect of the legal definition that has allowed "genocide" to be instrumentalized by big powers so as to target those newly independent states that they find unruly and want to discipline. More and more, universal condemnation is reserved for only one form of mass violence--genocide--as the ultimate crime, so much so that counterinsurgency and war appear to be normal developments. It is genocide that is violence run amok, amoral, evil. The former is normal violence, but the latter is bad violence. Thus the tendency to call for "humanitarian intervention" only where mass slaughter is named "genocide."
Given that the nature of twentieth-century "indirect rule" colonialism shaped the nature of administrative power along "tribal" (or ethnic) lines, it is not surprising that the exercise of power and responses to it tend to take "tribal" forms in newly independent states. From this point of view, there is little to distinguish between mass violence unleashed against civilians in Congo, northern Uganda, Mozambique, Angola, Darfur, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast and so on. So which ones are to be named "genocide" and which ones are not? Most important, who decides?
There is nothing new in legal concepts being used to serve the expedience of great powers. What is new about the "war on terror" is that action against certain forms of violence is simultaneously being moralized and legally deregulated. Is it then surprising that these very developments have led to violence run amok, as in Iraq after 2003 or, indeed, in Bashir's own little war on terror in Darfur in 2003-04? As the new humanitarian order does away with legal limits to pre-emptive war--thus, to the global war on terror--it should not be surprising that counterinsurgency defines itself as a local war on terror.
The year 2003 saw the unfolding of two counterinsurgencies. One was in Iraq, and it grew out of foreign invasion. The other was in Darfur, and it grew as a response to an internal insurgency. The former involved a liberation war against a foreign occupation; the latter, a civil war in an independent state. True, if you were an Iraqi or a Darfuri, there was little difference between the brutality of the violence unleashed in either instance. Yet much energy has been invested in how to define the brutality in each instance: whether as counterinsurgency or as genocide. We have the astonishing spectacle of the state that has perpetrated the violence in Iraq, the United States, branding an adversary state, Sudan, the one that has perpetrated genocidal violence in Darfur. Even more astonishing, we had a citizens' movement in America calling for a humanitarian intervention in Darfur while keeping mum about the violence in Iraq.
The International Criminal Court
The emphasis on big powers as the protectors of rights internationally is increasingly being twinned with an emphasis on big powers as enforcers of justice internationally. This much is clear from a critical look at the short history of the International Criminal Court.
The ICC was set up by treaty in Rome in 1998 to try the world's most heinous crimes: mass murder and other systematic abuses. The relationship between the ICC and successive US administrations is instructive: it began with Washington criticizing the ICC and then turning it into a useful tool. The effort has been bipartisan: the first attempts to weaken the ICC and to create US exemptions from an emerging regime of international justice were made by leading Democrats during the Clinton Administration.
Washington's concerns were spelled out in detail by a subsequent Republican ambassador to the UN, John Bolton: "Our main concern should be for our country's top civilian and military leaders, those responsible for our defense and foreign policy." Bolton went on to ask "whether the United States was guilty of war crimes for its aerial bombing campaigns over Germany and Japan in World War II" and answered in the affirmative: "Indeed, if anything, a straightforward reading of the language probably indicates that the court would find the United States guilty. A fortiori, these provisions seem to imply that the United States would have been guilty of a war crime for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is intolerable and unacceptable." He also aired the concerns of America's principal ally in the Middle East, Israel: "Thus, Israel justifiably feared in Rome that its preemptive strike in the Six-Day War almost certainly would have provoked a proceeding against top Israeli officials. Moreover, there is no doubt that Israel will be the target of a complaint concerning conditions and practices by the Israeli military in the West Bank and Gaza."
When it came to signing the treaty, Washington balked. Once it was clear that it would not be able to keep the ICC from becoming a reality, the Bush Administration changed tactics and began signing bilateral agreements with countries whereby both signatories would pledge not to hand over each other's nationals--even those accused of crimes against humanity--to the ICC. By mid-June 2003, the United States had signed such agreements with thirty-seven countries, starting with Sierra Leone, a site of massive atrocities.
The Bush Administration's next move was accommodation, made possible by the kind of pragmatism practiced by the ICC's leadership. The fact of mutual accommodation between the world's only superpower and an international institution struggling to find its feet on the ground is clear if we take into account the four countries where the ICC has launched its investigations: Sudan, Uganda, Central African Republic and Congo. All are places where the United States has no major objection to the course chartered by ICC investigations. Its name notwithstanding, the ICC is rapidly turning into a Western court to try African crimes against humanity. It has targeted governments that are US adversaries and ignored actions the United States doesn't oppose, like those of Uganda and Rwanda in eastern Congo, effectively conferring impunity on them.
If the ICC is accountable, it is to the Security Council, not the General Assembly. It is this relationship that India objected to when it--like the United States, China and Sudan--refused to sign the Rome Statute. India's primary objection was summed up by the Hindu, India's leading political daily, which argued that "granting powers to the Security Council to refer cases to the ICC, or to block them, was unacceptable, especially if its members were not all signatories to the treaty," for it "provided escape routes for those accused of serious crimes but with clout in the U.N. body." At the same time, "giving the Security Council power to refer cases from a non-signatory country to the ICC was against the Law of Treaties under which no country can be bound by the provisions of a treaty it has not signed."
The absence of formal political accountability has led to the informal politicization of the ICC. No one should be surprised that the United States used its position as the leading power in the Security Council to advance its bid to capture the ICC. This is how the Hindu summed up the US relationship to the court: "The wheeling-dealing by which the U.S. has managed to maintain its exceptionalism to the ICC while assisting 'to end the climate of impunity in Sudan' makes a complete mockery of the ideals that informed the setting up of a permanent international criminal court to try perpetrators of the gravest of crimes against humanity."