Genocide: when to intervene?

When is it appropriate for the world or for an individual superpower to interfer in a country’s own business if human rights abuses are involved? How do we evaluate? How do we get ourselves to care more about those who may not be much like us, and who have no strategic value to our self-interest?

In another thread (about Gibson’s movie) the discussion turned to the wisdom or lack thereof of placing HaShoah as an event so horrible as to be outside of the rest of history. My take on it remains that what was scariest about HaShoah was it normalcy; it differed mainly in its horrible industrial efficiency, but the intent has been part of humanity before and continues to this day for various groups across the world. Genocide is not committed by villians outside of humanity; it is committed by real people like you and me. We all have that capacity and it still occurs in our present world.

Specific examples welcome.

A very difficult question, especially when normally the only effective action we can take is military.

I’d agree with you that the scariest thing about genocide is that it is carried out by “normal” people. I think it demonstrates we have the potential to view entire social, religious or racial groups as sub-human, and treat them accordingly.

When it takes place in a nation with a coastline.

Airborne-only military operations are doomed, & going overland through “friendly” nations with permission is a poor notion. If the “friendly” nation changes its collective mind, your troops are trapped in hostile territory with no re-supply.

Sea-borne operations & re-supply are reasonable risks. Other kinds, no.

As a confirmed utilitarian, I offer that a rigorous examination of whether such action would likely result in a minimisation of suffering would be warranted, and in the case of a genocide I venture that such minimisation would result, regardless of other negative consequences.

Consider Rwanda: The world did nothing, and over a million civilians died. All that was necessary to save vast numbers of lives was the establishment of some safe havens. (Granted, many thousands would still have perished, and large refugee camps entail dangers of their own, but the wholesale slaughter of entire villages surely could have been prevented).

Consider Bosnia: again, hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Safe havens were established later in the war, and came under shell bombardment themselves. However, even with the resulting deaths, it could be argued convincingly that more deaths would have resulted from absolutely no outside involvement whatsoever.

Finally, as a success story, I offer Kosovo. There is no reason I can see why a bloody civil war lasting for years and entailing civilian deaths on a scale proportional to that of the Bosnian war would not have continued had it not been for decisive intervention.

The problem I have, as a utilitarian, is who does the intervening. It could be argued that if any old country can charge in and lay waste to those it believes are causing suffering, without any reference to international law and multilateral agreement, then suffering may be caused in the longer term by unnecessary wars of aggression.

As a proud non-utilitarian, I believe this is ultimately a rights question.

We are presumably speaking here of the intervention by a government or a collection of allied governments (i.e. NATO) in the internal affairs of another nation.

The very limited proper role of a government is to use its monopoly on force within its borders to protect the rights of its citizens from any threats inside the borders, and to use its military power in self-defense to safeguard the rights of its citizens from those who would threaten them from the outside. Its sole responsibility is to protect the valid rights of its citizens, and the citizens give up some of their individual sovereignty in exchange for this common protection.

So the only case in which I believe Government A would have the right to use force to intervene in Government B’s internal affairs is if B was infringing the rights of A’s citizens. A’s citizens would only have rights in nation B through a freely adopted treaty agreement between the two nations. Even then, Government A only has the right to use force in protecting its own citizens, that’s the limited scope of the social contract.

So, in short, I think coercive military intervention by a foreign nation is almost never justified.

Well, from reading Ordinary Men, I see some truth in this, but with a couple caveats. For one thing, all war requires a certain dehumanization of the enemy, thus mentally allowing the common man to kill them. The German soldiers who laid Polish Jews face down on the ground and put one bullet into the back of their head, then repeated the process dozens more times each, I don’t think they did that because they thought Jews were inhuman…I think they did that because they had been convinced that Jews were the enemy, and of course the enemy is inhuman.

Secondly, as to whether “normal” people can carry such a thing out: depends on where you set the baseline for “normal”. To kill a group of people because of their group membership, you must be amenable to collectivist thinking. You must be willing to look beyond any individual merits and flaws of a person, any individual rights that person might have, and instead treat all people as faceless cogs in some collectivist machine. The German National Socialists were collectivist thinkers through and through, and once they got their people to start thinking in terms of group identity the rest was simple. Unfortunately, it is usually very to easy to get people to stop thinking in terms of individual rights and revert back to the sort of “us vs. them” tribalism we see in the genocidal wars of Africa and I suppose the Balkans as well.

People who are dedicated to the principles of individualism could not carry out such a task, because they could not so easily be made to associate certain qualities to all members of an arbitrarily defined group. In an individualist society, you might at most use stereotypes and group identity as a rule of thumb for less important things, knowing the imperfection in the method but balancing that against the hurdle of attaining sufficient information about each person, much like demographic study helps advertisers who have to project the reactions of millions of individuals. But when it comes down to a really important decision like “should I kill this guy”, the balance will tip the other way and your focus will return to the individual. All actions are ultimately carried out by individuals towards other individuals, and if people recognize that, they will not succumb to collectivist groupthink.