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Why did the United States fail to prevent and stop genocide in the past?

An optimistic analysis

von Georg Müller (Autor)

Essay 2013 9 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Thema: Frieden und Konflikte, Sicherheit


Why did the United States fail to prevent and stop genocides in the past? - An optimistic analysis

Only several weeks ago former U.S. president Bill Clinton admitted again in an interview with CNBC that swift action taken by the U.S. after the start of the genocide in Rwanda “could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost” (2013, lready years earlier president Clinton characterized the inaction of the U.S. during the 100 day period where over 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda as the “biggest regret” of his presidency (2005, This raises the question why the U.S., as well as other nations, did not act during the Rwandan genocide. This paper argues that the lack of action displayed during the Rwandan and Bosnian genocide is not merely due to a lack of political will, but rather due to the collision of economic, political, social and legal interests of the state. Firstly, this paper will look at the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and argue that while it lacks some specificity it is adequate to identify genocide. Secondly this paper will look at the reasons why the U.S. talked more about legal formalities than actually about ending occurring genocides. It will particularly analyze the influence of realpolitik, economic interests and public perception in the decision making process whether the U.S. should intervene or not. Thirdly this paper will argue that additionally to national interests the international interest in stopping genocides lacks a clear coordination and focus so to pressure the largest nations to meet their moral and legal responsibility, but is continuing to change. This argument shall be supported by the apparent attempt of the U.S. government to introduce a change in the public approach toward crimes against humanity. Finally this essay will conclude that while the non- or late intervention approach during the Rwandan and Bosnian genocide does not reflect the moral responsibility of the state it clearly identifies the political reality as influenced by various factors, which, however, seems to be changing in light of a newly established legal and moral responsibility in the international context.

While it is unanimously acknowledged by all states that genocide is a crime, there still seems to exist an insurmountable gap between the normative inclination to prevent and stop genocide and the actual practices of states. It is easy to argue that this gap is due to an insufficient legal standard, which is why nations dispute extensively about formalities thus ultimately preventing them from intervening in an, in hindsight, ongoing genocide. It is certainly true that the convention on genocide is lacking some specificity in that it does not include political groups, that it leaves open how many people need to be killed in order for a mass killing to qualify as genocide or how to establish the intend element of genocide (Lambrecht 1999). However, these arguments are firstly widely disputed as Lambrecht (1999, 6) points out and secondly and more importantly, they inherently neglect that rendering the convention now, will firstly be highly impractical due to the ratification process for every state, but furthermore would the change in language not address the underlying colliding interests this paper tries to address that prevent states from acting.

Realist theory is a powerful tool for analyzing the behavior of states in game theory type situations on the international level. What is typically categorized as realpolitik presents a descriptive norm on how to conduct policy within the power structure of different nations. Also considering the power constellation of the permanent five (P5) in the UN Security Council it is not surprising that good intentions and previous commitments stay behind current interests and power plays. Given the veto rights of the P5 in the Security Council, making a clear statement on a certain position therefore also means giving up potential bargaining power in the future if cooperation is needed to advance one’s own interests. The concept of realpolitik is closely related and intertwined with the lack of political will, which is also associated with economic interests that play an important role in determining the actions of a state beyond its moral or even legal obligations. In the case of Rwanda or even Bosnia the U.S. simply had no economic interest in the regions that would justify a full involvement. While this consideration is morally highly disputable, at least on a political level it seems to follow, according to realist theory, that a large scale involvement must have some benefit for the nation engaging. However, this does not explain that no involvement at all took place and that the U.S. rather chose to ignore the atrocities happening. Therefore other factors must have been in play that affected the decision of the U.S. not to act.

Generally it is easy to condemn the U.S. for its inaction or late response during the Rwandan and Bosnian genocide. However, condemning the non-action also requires for an action to have been feasible at this point both politically as well as militarily. While it cannot be denied that government officials new about the extent of at least the Rwandan genocide, as classified documents released in 2004 clearly indicate the knowledge of senior government staff of a “final solution to eliminate all Tutsis” (, the reasons for the behavior of the U.S. might not be straightforwardly explained with power politics. Particularly the case of Rwanda is characterized by a particular set of circumstances that seem to have influenced the decision or lack thereof whether to take action. Most importantly the Rwandan genocide took place during a time where the U.S. was particularly reluctant to intervene in foreign affairs1. This argument can be sustained through two main points. Firstly, the Rwandan genocide occurred shortly after the failed mission of the U.S. in Somali mounting in the battle of Mogadishu (


1 It hast to be noted that it was, at this point in time, still widely disputed whether nations had any legal obligation to intervene in ongoing cases of genocide. Today it has been established by court decisions by the International Court of Justice, as shall be looked at later on, as well as by various reports by international organizations that states are, in fact, responsible to protect groups in other nations in danger of being victims of genocide. See also the emergence of the concept of Responsibility to Protect (


ISBN (Buch)
1.2 MB
Institution / Hochschule
University of Richmond
united states


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    Georg Müller (Autor)


Titel: Why did the United States fail to prevent and stop genocide in the past?