Something Must Change by Chris Saville

Something Must Change


Chris Saville

The human rights violations in Syria and neighboring Iraq are almost unconceivable; the Syrian government’s intentional targeting of civilians during air strikes[1], the murder of hundreds of men due solely to their religion, and the forced religious conversion of young boys to fuel the ISIS war machine.[2] To anyone who has followed international conflicts over the past sixty, thirty, or even just fifteen years, these horrible events likely sound familiar, and they should. Since the creation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, there have been numerous genocides, often with little intervention from the United States. [3] Despite cries of “never again”[4], we have repeatedly allowed genocide to take place. And now, we are watching it happen again in the Middle East, with concurrent genocides by the Syrian government and religious extremist group ISIS.

The method for avoiding intervention is insidiously prescribed by the Convention itself. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as the killing, the deliberately inflicting conditions aimed at destroying, the preventing of births, or the transferring of children from one group to another, with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.[5] When genocide is determined, every party that has signed the Convention, including the United States[6], is required by international law to “undertake to prevent and to punish.”[7] But what happens when a country is bound by law to intervene when such intervention would cause international chaos or even nuclear war, a legitimate concern during the Cold War?[8] One method has simply been to refuse defining the actions as genocide.[9] This was the strategy famously adopted by the Clinton administration during the Rwandan genocide[10], and it appears that both the United States and even the United Nations have similarly adopted it for the current crises in Syria[11] and Iraq.[12] These atrocities, using the Convention’s plain and obvious meaning, are genocide, however the bare refusal to recognize them as such prevents an international duty to act. Using this ridiculous approach, the United States and United Nations are again relieved from intervening in a severely destabilized region.

The brazen rejection of the acts in Syria and Iraq as genocide detracts from what the true issue is. The question should not be “is it genocide”, when at this point it clearly qualifies. Focusing on the existence of genocide at this stage is utterly useless. The question should be “what do we do to stop it?” How do we utilize international intervention in conflicts that both preserves a nation’s autonomy and at least ends, if not prevents, genocide? Of course this is easier to speculate on than to actually achieve. Too strong of a response not only violates the principle of autonomy but also has the potential to destabilize the region and result in further conflict. At the same time, a limp effort will do little to stop the atrocities and may even embolden the perpetrators to push the limits.[13] Perhaps the sweet spot is simply unattainable. Maybe success in stopping genocide is hit or miss, and the public doesn’t recognize successful preventions because they never escalate into the mass horrors we’ve shockingly come to expect. Regardless of the answer, the events in Syria and Iraq are full scale genocide, and history has taught us that it will be very difficult to end the horror without further bloodshed and chaos. Indeed, severe consequences likely accompany a military intervention in Syria and Iraq[14] and thus the will to end the atrocities must be strong enough to overcome fear of those consequences.

The answer to “how do we end genocide” touches on more than simply actions. In prescribing a plan of action, countries need to determine how deeply they desire the goal. Without the will to do what is necessary, there can be no success. A poll taken in 1994 reported that sixty five percent of Americans supported a United Nations, and American, intervention in genocidal conflicts using “whatever force is necessary.”[15] This report echoes polls taken during the Bosnian and Iraqi genocides in the 1990s.[16] Clearly the American people support efforts against genocide, but why? Sixty five percent of Americans supporting whatever efforts are necessary to combat genocide is an impressive response, but twenty three percent responded they only supported whatever efforts were necessary if American interests were involved. [17] Sadly, the past decades of genocides proceeding largely unabated seem to indicate that the truth lies with the twenty three percent, rather than the sixty five. Stopping genocide is a cause that everyone rightfully supports, but actual intervention seemingly has only occurred when it is convenient or our interests are furthered.[18] Polls taken in 2014 are reminiscent of those taken during the 1990’s, showing that the American public supports airstrikes in both Syria and Iraq.[19] After observing the events in Syria and Iraq over the past four years, however, it is safe to assume that humanity alone is once again not a sufficient interest to warrant meaningful intervention from Western leaders.

In this forest of uncertainty there lie several simple truths. In order to move forward we must see the victims as individuals, persecuted on a mass scale. They are not a faceless group. The reason we should care is not because of economic or political interests, but because we are people. Others have championed the end of genocide from a multitude of standpoints, including morality[20], but morality should be the only impetus required. Genocide is a violation of our collective rights as human beings, perpetrated against individuals. Understandably the leaders of the world must act to further the well-being of their people and the answers are incredibly complex. But if the nations of the world intend to act within their respective moral compasses, as they undoubtedly claim, something must change. Ignoring the true nature of the acts as genocide ignores the humanity of the victims. Using statutory loopholes to prevent mandatory intervention not only cheapens the law, it cheapens the lives of those who are suffering. Escalation and destabilization are legitimate concerns but this cannot continue.

[1] Syria Conflict: Aleppo Civilians Suffer ‘Unthinkable Atrocities, BBC (May 5, 2015),

[2] Nick Cumming-Bruce, United Nations Investigators Accuse ISIS of Genocide, N.Y. Times (Mar. 19, 2015),

[3] Samantha Power, “A Problem From Hell” 503 (2002).

[4] Samantha Power, Never Again: The World’s Most Unfulfilled Promise, PBS (last visited Oct. 9, 2015),

[5] Power, supra note 3, at 62.

[6] Power, supra note 3, at 167.

[7] Power, supra note 3, at 62.

[8] Power, supra note 4.

[9] Power, supra note 3, at 508.

[10] Power, supra note 3, at 358-64.

[11] Jennifer Rubin, Kerry won’t Call what is Happening in Syria “Genocide”, Wash. Post (Feb. 27, 2014),

[12]  Nick Cumming-Bruce, supra note 2.

[13] Power, supra note 3, at 506-07.

[14] See Doug Bandow, Russia Follows U.S. Script and Intervenes, Forbes (Oct. 5, 2015), (discussing Russia’s military intervention in the Middle East).

[15] Power, supra note 4.

[16] Power, supra note 4.

[17] Power, supra note 4.

[18] See Power, supra note 3, at 508 (“American leaders did not act because they did not want to.”)

[19] Dan Balz & Peyton M. Craighill, Poll: Public Supports Strikes in Iraq, Syria, Wash. Post (Sept. 9, 2014),; Emily Swanson, Most Americans now Support Airstrikes in Syria, Huffington Post (Oct. 29, 2014),

[20] Power, supra note 3, at 512.


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