Are We Being Helpful?

Western interventions are called to account in this study of the aftermath of war.

At the end of the Cold War, Pandora’s box suddenly blew open, liberating the Evils that had been waiting patiently for their next release. It soon became evident that the relative peace the world had enjoyed for the last 50 years had rested upon the flimsiest of foundations: a balance-of-terror stand-off between two superpowers and their respective satellite states that had successfully held local tyrannies at bay, or controlled them from afar. When the Iron Curtain came down and an old ideology lost its power, new enemies filled the void. In Serbia, Tito’s communism dissolved into racist ethnic nationalism and “Greater Serbia” land hunger. In Rwanda, simmering ethnic resentments flared into genocide before the eyes of the world. In places such as Darfur, Uganda, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, corrupt government leaders and tribal warlords fought for control of wealth-producing natural resources.

Perhaps we thought we had moved beyond that. In a famous address, Robert H. Jackson, the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials where the top Nazis were tried after the Second World War, called the work of his tribunal a bulwark in the protection of “civilization” — meaning those ideals of the 18th-century western Enlightenment featuring reason, restraint and loyalty to the rule of law. Jackson was passionate in his conviction that in order to redirect the world order toward sustainable peace, even the most powerful leaders must be held accountable for their actions.

After failing to respond adequately in 1992 to the onset of disaster in Bosnia and to the genocides in Rwanda (1994) and Srebrenica (1995), the United Nations was at its collective wit’s end. That is when the Security Council remembered the judicial precedent of the Nuremberg trials and established ad hoc courts to punish the perpetrators of serious crimes against humanity, starting with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and followed by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Before the end of the 1990s, there were others, as well, all limited in jurisdiction to the conflict in question. Finally, in a revolutionary turn of events, the ground rules for a permanent, independent tribunal known simply as the International Criminal Court were agreed to. (The ICC was slated to open its first case on June 23, 2008, but it was delayed indefinitely.)

Human rights were emerging as the underpinning for other policies. In March 1999, a bombing campaign against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic was launched in Kosovo under the banner of humanitarian intervention. In 2001, a Canadian-led international commission underscored this response with a post facto agreement titled “The Responsibility to Protect,” which redefined national sovereignty to include the necessary protection of citizens living within the borders of a state, allowing the global community to intervene when this responsibility was breached. In 2005, R2P, as it is known, was adopted by the Security Council.

These were unprecedented initiatives born of desperation in the face of growing anarchy: an attempt to re-imagine the world in line with Robert Jackson’s humanitarian commitments. But are they working? Social scientist Patricia Marchak is among the first to pose the question in No Easy Fix: Global Responses to Internal Wars and Crimes against Humanity.

Marchak, a professor emerita of sociology and anthropology at the University of British Columbia, is the author of several works on international affairs and environmental issues. Her 1999 book, God’s Assassins: State Terrorism in Argentina in the 1970s, investigated the conditions under which state terrorism occurred in that country and people’s experiences under the regime. In Reigns of Terror, she broadened her study to other states that have committed gross human rights crimes against their own citizens, seeking to discover whether such governments have anything in common with one another — in other words, whether there are preconditions that can be identified as leading to crimes against humanity.

In No Easy Fix, she pursues these interests by looking critically at international interventions; at reconciliation, or the internal accommodation of former enemies; and at approaches to accountability and justice. Her central questions are these: What has been the involvement of the international community in countries that are experiencing serious crimes within their borders, before, during and after the violence? And is this contribution a positive one?

Her focus is on three war-torn societies: Cambodia, Rwanda and two sectors of the former Yugoslavia — Serbia and Bosnia. In the Cambodia section she asks whether the UN-supported hybrid court created to try perpetrators from the Pol Pot era is the most appropriate way of helping people in that country — and concludes that it is not. Widespread culpability within the population cannot be addressed by a court that tries just a few elderly people, she argues. In her discussion of Rwanda she explores the sociological effects of Belgian colonialism that, in her view, carried over to create the conditions for a genocide, and concludes that the ICTR is similarly not an integrative tool for inter-ethnic reconciliation. As she writes, “the victors are eager to make every Hutu accountable for the genocide.” Regarding Serbia and Bosnia, she reminds the reader about the failure of traditional diplomacy to head off catastrophe, and the consequences, which included the creation of the ICTY to prosecute the perpetrators of atrocities. The success of all these judicial interventions is questionable, Marchak suggests, largely, although not uniquely, because they are premised on the belief that western justice is the right fit in every case. The specifics of history and culture need to play a more important role in the planning of such interventions. Had the facts that the Belgians destroyed Rwanda’s important natural resources, that the French pillaged Cambodia and subjected the population to long occupation, and that extremism in the former Yugoslavia took root in the ideological vacuum left by the death of Tito been taken into account, the international response to these countries might have been wiser and more nuanced.

Marchak’s emphasis on culture is a welcome statement about an obvious, but often ignored, truth. For example, African countries that have been organized along tribal lines for millennia and that are now possibly a mere pretense of democratic rule may not be amenable to standard templates of how to manage reconstruction and reconciliation after civil war. There is no useful one-size-fits-all solution when institutions are shattered and war crimes have been perpetrated — no easy fix, as the title of this book argues.

Also welcome is her account of the plight of women in post-conflict societies. Marchak is not alone in relating the horror of mass rapes, especially when used as a weapon of war (the Rwandan ICTR has defined this as genocide), but she goes further in her discussion of the tragedies of women in patriarchal societies. Violated and injured, they may find themselves rejected by members of their own families. Furthermore, the basic right to property, a key to rebuilding lives, may be denied them.

Following Karl Marx and the 19th-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim, among others, Marchak theorizes that it is social structures of groups and group identities that determine whether or not communities will become susceptible to civil violence. In the three countries she has chosen to study, she argues that traditional pre-colonial group identities were shattered, paving the way for future disasters.

This seminal (if not original) thesis greatly preoccupied sociologists, anthropologists and cultural historians of the 20th century: the indisputable human tendency to create us-versus-them categories at every level of society from the macro state to the micro family. It is easy to interpret many conflicts according to these criteria, especially the ethnic hatreds that characterize so many of the current clashes. The question is, can one usefully apply such principles to the subject of western international interventions, with or without a template, and come up with anything other than a predetermined conclusion that the latter are simply wrong-headed in their assumptions? By prioritizing the social collectivity over the individual, Marchak is able to find serious fault with all of these initiatives, which are largely premised on individual, not collective, accountability, especially in the case of courtroom trials.

Although several chapters contain long sections of back history for each of the countries under study, this reader wanted more persuasive evidence to support a number of the author’s categorical statements. For example, when the topic of the book itself is international interventions, it seems hardly enough to offer a potted history of state sovereignty — which, like it or not, has been the foundation of the world order for hundreds of years — only to summarily dismiss it: “State sovereignty has little credibility in view of history and … equally little value in terms of the global context of modern states,” she says, calling traditional sovereignty “a canard.” There is undoubtedly a trend away from rigid adherence to the centuries-old rules regarding national sovereignty, but where is the substantive argument for this surprising claim? Second, since legal interventions in the shape of international courts are central to her subject, it is disappointing to find little or no discussion about the law that underpins the prosecutions. Within the law itself lies an entire philosophy of individual accountability and its meaning to the post-war interventions under study. Without an analysis of this “centrepiece” of intervention, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to analyze the purpose of these tribunals and to properly evaluate their effectiveness.

Regarding methodology, Marchak attempts to ground her work by taking field trips to meet and interview a few people, but for apparent security reasons most of these are quoted anonymously. Not naming sources leaves the reader wondering who these people are. Do they represent a fair spectrum of opinion about the consequences of interventions? It is impossible to know.

Finally, the most important, and controversial, humanitarian intervention to date, the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo, occupies a mere two pages in the text. In these few paragraphs, Marchak favours the explanation advanced by the old left: that the Kosovo intervention was organized to further the interests and careers of the western interveners and that Kosovar Albanians fled, or were expelled, as a result of the bombing, rather than the other way around. A lengthier probe into this disputed subject might have encouraged more balance in the reporting. For example, in May 2000, the respected American Association for the Advancement of Science, having undertaken a statistical study of the data, reported that a small fraction of Kosovars did flee as a result of the bombing, but that the massive flight was a result of the deliberate Serb policy of “cleansing.” Regardless of her conclusions, an event so central to the subject of the book surely deserved more space and analysis.

An underlying problem may lie in the very premises of the work. There is a basic incompatibility deriving from Marchak’s attempt to examine western-initiated interventions, which have as their philosophical base the rescue or prosecution of individuals, according to theoretical criteria premised on an opposite philosophical assumption, the seminal importance of groups and group identities. The most glaring example of this mismatch occurs in her discussion of the new international criminal courts. While it is true that some war-torn societies have ongoing problems with lower-level criminals escaping prosecution, with the complicity of bystanders, with poverty and with snail-paced reconciliation, the essential move away from collective to individual culpability for major war crimes was one of the great breakthroughs of the 20th century, starting with Nuremberg. Although Marchak statedly eschews the principle of collective guilt, her thesis about the primary importance of groups and group identities leads her to conflate all levels of perpetrators and possibly bystanders into a social collectivity in which everyone identified with the group is more or less guilty. This is especially problematic when followed to its logical conclusion. If everyone is presumed to be guilty, then no one is guilty, and criminal impunity remains the order of the day. The struggle for personal accountability informed centuries of western thinking about major crimes such as genocide — by definition an attack on an identified group — and resulted eventually in the Nuremberg tribunal, the new ad hoc courts and the revolutionary International Criminal Court, the first permanent institution of its kind.

Marchak’s claim that the West is imposing its laws and culture on non-western countries is similarly problematic. While it is true that local forms of traditional justice exist in many places (and some of these are being incorporated into justice procedures, including truth and reconciliation tribunals), the concept of “crimes against humanity” is universally understood, and always has been. One need only return to the writings of the ancient Greeks for the first written accounts of the taboos surrounding such deeds. So, too, is the victims’ need for accountability universally understood. These shared human impulses transcend cultures, perhaps because they protect personal and social survival and deter revenge taking.

No Easy Fix is aptly titled, for we do not as yet have a clear idea about where the new post–Cold War initiatives are headed. They are effectively so new that they have never before been tried. Although ambitious in scope and commendable for bringing the subjects of cultural particularity and the often-ignored fate of women to the fore of her study, No Easy Fix is circumscribed by its theoretical limitations. The result is a too-narrow perspective on one of the world’s most pressing contemporary issues.