Stopping genocide: Military intervention is the best method

Data and the understanding it can yield become increasingly important as the challenges to policy development become increasingly complex.
– Policy Research Initiative report

Evidence-based policy has replaced idealistic programming in much of the public service, as we find that unintended consequences and poorly thought out logic models can have the opposite effect from what was intended. In the 1960s and 1970s, if a program was ineffective, the answer was to spend more money. Fiscal limits and increased transparency have reduced the lifespan of ineffective programs.

In terms of peacekeeping and military intervention, however, the debate continues to be acrimonious and based on personal values – whether one is a hawk or a dove, an interventionist or an observer – and depends to a large extent on values.

While no one would support genocide, there are differing beliefs about how to reduce it, and about one nation’s ‘right’ to intervene in another nation’s affairs. More data is needed to support the decision-making process on military intervention.

Professor Matthew Krain, of the College of Wooster, says that when it comes to genocide, the data is pretty clear.

Based on a study of 36 genocides from 1955 to 1997, Krain concludes, “Overt military intervention is the most effective way for the international community to reduce the severity of an ongoing genocide.” Intervention needs to directly challenge the perpetrator or aid the targets of the brutality, he says. “Attempts to intervene as impartial parties seem to be ineffective.”

Impartiality, it seems, should be reserved for the reconciliation and rebuilding efforts once the murders have been stopped.

Krain’s thesis is based on the understanding that, “State murder is rational, in that it is a means to an end. Some agents may act out of passion, but for the sponsor it is a policy to forward personal goals – power, wealth, access to land.”

Religious differences are usually not at the heart of it, Krain adds. “But religion helps mobilize support for the aggression and may influence the choice of the target…even though the leader doesn’t necessarily feel that hatred. The identified group is a threat to the leader due to politics or economics, not religion. For Milosovic, for example, I believe it was means to an end, to rally Serbs to his cause.”

Canada’s new international policy calls for Canada to have an important role in protecting the citizens of failed and failing states, through defence, diplomacy, and development. But when do you send in the diplomats, and when the soldiers?

“Appealing to their good sense and ethics is not likely to work – if they had any, they wouldn’t be killing their countrymen. So what is needed is to prove their murders will not achieve their goal,” Krain advises. “And impartial observation works in civil wars and wars where there is agreement the fighting should stop, but not in genocides,” he adds.

“Go big or go home” is an expression used in card games, meaning play a card big enough to win the trick. It is the same in genocide. Sending a token force to wave the flag and act as a moral deterrent is rarely effective. In fact, it tends to be seen as evidence the intervener isn’t really interested in preventing the conflict. Larger numbers of troops are better able to do the job, and more likely to be seen as meaningful.

Consistent with the three-block war model of intervention used to analyze failed states, Patrick Regan observes that mixed strategies (military, diplomatic, economic) are more effective than military ones alone.

Samantha Power says, “The response usually offered to the question of why the major powers did so little to stop genocide is that any intervention would have been futile. Each time states began slaughtering and deporting their citizens, Western officials claimed that the proposed measures would do little to stem the horrors, or that they would do more harm than good. For all the talk of the futility of foreign involvement, in the rare instances that the US and its allies took even small steps, they appear to have saved lives.”

But responding, even with rapid response, takes days or even weeks. Might it be possible to predict which states and groups are most likely to fall victim to large-scale atrocities? That’s what Krain is working on now. Some of the risk factors identified by Barbara Harff of the US Naval Academy include recent state upheaval, such as a civil war, a neighbouring war, isolation from the international community, and limited civil freedoms. Prior genocides, autocratic governments and elites that have an exclusionary view or are an ethnic minority all increase the risk.

For the full paper, see

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