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Don’t Blame Human Rights Activists for Crimes Against Humanity

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Don’t Blame Human Rights Activists for Crimes Against Humanity

Posted by David Sullivan on July 24, 2008

Don’t Blame Human Rights Activists for Crimes Against Humanity

This weekend, human rights contrarian David Rieff’s op-ed in the LA Times castigated activists for “human rights triumphalism” after the International Criminal Court’s move to indict Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and argued “it would make more sense to try to restart negotiations in a serious way with Bashir and his government than to indulge in ‘Count of Monte Cristo’-like fantasies of the wicked getting their comeuppance.”

Rieff’s timing could not have been worse: the very next day, Serbia captured indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic, the man most responsible for the crimes against humanity in Bosnia that Rieff lambasted western governments for failing to stop in his book Slaughterhouse. Someone apparently forgot to tell Karadzic, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, and the late Slobodan Milosevic that The Hague was just a “Count of Monte Cristo”-like fantasy. Humor aside, Rieff’s argument is particularly galling because he directly denigrates the popular mobilization of Americans to stop genocide and crimes against humanity. In this regard Rieff joins former United States Special Envoy for Sudan Andrew Natsios who wrote in Foreign Affairs that “moral outrage is no substitute for practical policies aimed at saving lives and promoting stability.” This is a false choice that is as incorrect as it is condescending.

For all their expertise, Rieff and Natsios come off as more naïve than the average activist in repeatedly arguing that peace and justice are incompatible, despite so much evidence to the contrary. As with the charges against Milosevic in 1999 and Charles Taylor in 2003, the ICC’s move to charge Bashir presents an opportunity for the U.N. Security Council to exert leverage with his government. Article 16 of the Rome Statute (pdf) (the document that governs the ICC) allows the U.N. Security Council to suspend ICC investigations on an annual basis, creating an ongoing point of leverage that can be used to pressure Khartoum not just to sign peace deals, but to implement them.

Rieff and Natsios suggest that many Americans, especially those who care about human rights around the world, are incapable of understanding the complexities of foreign policy. In fact, the grassroots efforts to support an effective peacekeeping force in Darfur or to use the Beijing Olympics to press China to move away from unconditional support for Khartoum reflect an understanding of international politics, and how an organized constituency can have the most impact. These groups are tapping into understandable moral outrage to generate the political will necessary to pressure the U.S. government to back up its anti-genocide rhetoric with action. This, contrary to what Reiff and Natsios might think, is a good thing.

Finally, when it comes to the specifics of the situation in Darfur, both Rieff and Natsios are just plain wrong on the facts. Rieff claims the conflict has “morphed into a war of all against all,” a view shared by Natios who has said that the genocide in Darfur is finished. These sentiments may be useful in getting articles published, but they obscure a very simple fact: the fragmentation of rebel groups, growing insecurity for the U.N. and aid agencies, and the killing of U.N. peacekeepers last week are all components of a deliberate effort (pdf) by the Sudanese government to divide and destroy the people of Darfur while maintaining the plausible deniability afforded by the fog of war.


The above report is originally posted as a guest blog on the Wonk Room.