Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 9 November 2006

Morality and legality surrounding Rwandan genocide


By Chuei Deng Mareng

Nov 8, 2006 — Genocide has been a dichotomy in international relations in which the moral and legal issues have become the theatre for arguments. Some scholars have argued that the Rwanda’s genocide has changed the landscape of international law, rendering the debate concerning humanitarian intervention. However, it can be argued that this tragedy took place in a developing country, which nobody was interested in because powerful states often claim human rights violations only when it is in their national interests. Thus, this is not the basis ground for this argument; however, just trying to put the reality of what happened on the ground across the line. Furthermore, there have been numerous interventions since the end of the Second World War, both with and without United Nations authorization, which were legally justified on the basis of preventing widespread and grave violations of fundamental human rights. This opinion article is an attempt to examine the moral and legal issues surrounding the Rwandan genocide in which decisions were made regarding the ugly killing.

The standard review of humanitarian intervention has been carried out, within the scheme of sovereignty, concerning the use of force under the Charter of the United Nations and the development of customary international law. In this regard, there has been considerable controversy over the legality and the morality concerning the use of force in response to the Rwandans genocide. Thus, it is not my intention to enter into this debate; however, I am merely analyzing the arguments that were presented by the individuals involved in the debates. It appears to me that people are still confused with legality and morality in which arguments are presented. This confusion over distinctions between morality and legality has made it difficult for an ordinary person to understand what is going on in the world politics. This confusion has made it possible, in one way or another; however, some people still believe that moral actions are justifiable if these actions promote vital interests of the specific groups.

To understand the distinctions between morality and legality, I think we should know the terms first before discussing what each entail in the world of international relations. It sounds to me that legality is lawfulness by virtue of conformity to a legal statute in which action is taken on the basis of law. On the other hand, morality is a complex of concepts and philosophical beliefs by which an individual determines whether his or her actions are right or wrong; oftentimes, these concepts and beliefs are generalized and codified in a culture or group, and thus serve to regulate the behaviour of its members. These definitions tell us that an action must be carried out under the legal framework as our sense of morals and personal interests may jeopardize legality in the world if a decision is made solely on the basis of morality.

This confusion has drawn my attention to write what I consider to be the distinctions between these two perspectives. Also, the definition of the term genocide has great controversial in the academic community, as some social scientists have differing definitions of genocide, both from each other and from the definition in international law. In such circumstances, we are not going to look at the differences between the social scientists, but what is considered genocide under the international law. To make the argument, we need to know what genocide is before we can discuss the issues that surround the term. The definition of the term genocide is taken from the United Nations archive of 1948 of the Convention for the Prevention and the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was undertaken. The delegates who attended the convention made a universal definition for genocide, which defines the genocide as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, such as: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; or deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to eliminate them.

From this definition, the Geneva Convention recognized the term that if genocide occurs, the use of force is justifiable in stopping the perpetrators or bringing them to justice by any mean which was permissible by international law. I would simply say that the recognition of the term came as a result of the realization that some people might carry out a purposeful killing of particular group as it has been seen in the past. This sighted problem led to genocide being recognized as a legal term under the Geneva Convention so that people can be rescued from such actions. This concept of protection prompted the idea that actions are legal and justifiable if those actions have been carried out in the name of genocide, regardless of how the Security Council may vote.

Despite the recognition of the term genocide, there is still debate concerning the type of killing because there have been a number of massacres carried out by governments in pursuit of their national interest. This has made it difficult for an intervention to be authorized because people feared that the state might be acting in their national interests. For example, in 1979, Uganda was invaded by Tanzanians troops when Idi Amin was killing people with Asian decent. This intervention has not been justified as a right action because Tanzanian government was not authorized by any institution which authorized intervention such as the United Nations to take that action. Thus, the action itself may be right because Tanzania’s intervention has reduced the massacre of people that would have reached a much greater. The question of right or wrong regarding the intervention in the Rwandans genocide has remained a matter of discussion. But under the Geneva Convention, it is clear that genocide will not be tolerated if such action occurs anywhere. This consciousness was overshadowed by the moral choices in which some states acted in their national interests. These actions have clearly proven that international law is not functioning as it was intended to be applied in the world affairs.

In the distinctions of legality and morality, it would be fair to say that moral actions are appropriate when promoting the interests of those who are being rescued and not in the interests of those who are taking the action. If the action is legitimate when it servicing the interests of the states that have taken the action, then we are losing the moral ground of choices in which we can claim that we are doing the right thing. The fact is that genocide is a serious crime against humanity and this is why it was made clear under the Geneva Convention that states must take action if there is a sign of genocide, but the UN Member States let it happened in Rwanda without looking at the legality in which the term was adapted.

From this perspective, it would be argued that in the case of genocide it is not a human right that can be claimed; instead it is a vital right with protection under the law. In this case, there must be a distinction between the legal rights and moral rights claimed in political arena because moral rights provide the basic demand for social change. For example, a claim to equal pay for equal work that might attract the voters to change the government if they deem that this is right thing for them to do. Carew notes that individuals exercise two sets of rights in the social context: “the right to pursue an individual good or interest and the right to an environment that is not limiting or threatening to one’s interest or well-being.” This citation makes it clear that we should be more concerned about the moral action that we take, even though the close relationship between morality and legality is like relationship between buttock and hand, there is a clear distinction that one cannot sit on his/her hands, but must sit on his/her buttocks.

At this juncture, I will consider the argument which Rawls has raised regarding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which he made a distinction between what he calls “human rights proper and liberal aspirations” that do not count as Universal Human Rights. Rawls believes that special convention, by which the code has been adapted, such as genocide, would count since its provisions are implied by these basic human rights. This argument is due to the fact that an individual can take an action that promotes their interests and use what is available to justify their actions. Macleod argues that the problem of conflicting national interests in the field of international relations has the same structure as the problem posed in many other contexts by the conflicting interests of individuals. In this regard, should we let ourselves be driven by moral choices of interest? Of course not, however, we may not be able to completely eradicate a moral disagreement, but we can substantially limit its scope through the legal applications, which is appropriate under the conventions that could be applied to limit an individual’s interest.

The world’s failure to intervene in the Rwandans genocide has made morality evil, as they could not be justified whatever the arguments may be. It sounds to me that there are a number of moral choices that have been carried out in this world which have clearly indicated that morality is on the verge of question. The world is complex, but powerful states should respect the human cost when pursuing their national interests. Powerful states should respect human cost because many extremist groups also used moral choices to justify their actions, although their actions were wrong in the way they have been presented. These claims by everyone have shown that morality will be strong enough to override legality, in international relations in which nation-states would be functioning in the real world life.

I am afraid that based on these relationships, putting more weight on morality may lead the world into “evil spirit.” Evil spirit is referred here as actions that are taken without conformity to the rule of law, but on the basis of moral choices of nation-states. This evil spirit is reflected in the failure of nation-states to take appropriate action in the Rwandans genocide because there were no justifications for why the world did not intervene. For example, Barnett noted that Dallaire’s aide: “used the language of ethnic cleansing, and not genocide, to describe the threat.” The moral choices in the Rwandans genocide were given more weight than the definition of genocide in international law. To this extent, it should be noted that the world’s failure to act in Rwandans genocide was not grounded on the basis of racism, but instead on the basis of national interests of the powerful states; by which the Security Council failed to call the mass killing of Tutsi people a genocide.

Up to this point, it would be fair to say that the failure of the United Nations to respond to Rwandans genocide had many factors associated with it. The main tension was between the Security Council and Member States. For example, the United States Congressmen were not impressed with the actions of the UN in the past few years plus the Somali crisis. These problems fuelled the angry of the Congressmen to criticize Clinton’s foreign policy in which Clinton’s administration was unable to take actions regarding the Rwandans genocide. Thus, there is no point to debate this since everybody knows what factors contributed to the failure of the UN to respond to Rwandans genocide. But my point in this paper is to look at how the moral choices can shape the nature of reality in the international political landscape. As Barnett said, he did not see any kind of national interests applied when member states were discussing the Rwanda’s case at the Security Council. To this extent, national interests imply all sets of choices in which nation-states opt to do what will be consistent with the public views due to the fact that all expenditures are tax-fare money. National interests do not necessarily refer to foreign policy alone; it also encompasses all sets of choices that states take in dealing with problems in global politics.

Some people have argued over the reasons of why international law was formed in the first place if such actions are not protected by it. It seems to me that some people still do not make a distinction between domestic laws and international law. In the beginning, it was clear that international law is not like domestic law in which a case could be used as an eye for an eye. In such circumstances, it is obvious that states usually break international law and take credit for it without a punitive consequence because of the resolution process, in which nation-states make decisions based on their vital interest. Riza notes that: “We have to go by the mandate we are given by the Security Council. It is not up to the Secretary-General or the Secretariat to decide whether they’re going to run off in other directions.” In the context of morality by which those actions are taken, it could be argued that there is no right or wrong since the actions are taken on the basis of ones interest.

Thus, it would be argued that an action could be wrong under the legal perspectives, but not on the basis of an individual wills. Jokic notes that: “We choose the actions that we do because our characters; but we do not, and could not, wholly choose our characters, for this would involve a vicious infinite regress.” We are still wrestling with the right or wrong of making decisions in international politics. It seems to me that people often judge individual actions as wrong when their actions do not promote community vital interests. In this regard, the question of right or wrong remains a matter of debate and this was a reason why states failed to define the Rwandans’ massacre as a genocide in the first place. It would be nice to remind ourselves here that right or wrong in international relations can be distinguished through the consequences of actions that have been taken. It is obvious that wrong or right in international relations is not clear because of nation-states actions in which they do everything on the basis of their national interests are many variables.

In the summary of morality and legality, it seems to me that a moral choice has an awful reputation in regard to intervention due to the fact that some cases are virtually ignored and some are seriously taken into account. In relying on moral choice, it could be argued that only powerful states will survive and weaker states will be vulnerable in pursuing their national interests. In all these issues, there is a fear that if we heavily rely on morality then the legality of conventions will be in question. It is obvious that morality and legality work hand in hand with the political system of the world life, but the reality of it remains that legality is the only way of equity in treating humankind’s actions. Thomas Aquinas claims that legality is to promote the Common Good in which the weaker will be acknowledged, and I think he is perfectly right in this aspect of legality. To this extent, it would be fair to say that turning a blind eye on the real genocide indicated that moral choices grounded on the basis of cases in world politics, were based on national interests. National interests cannot be justified as a means of achieving the ends. I will conclude that the world’s failure to respond to Rwandans genocide was the world’s greatest mistake in humanitarian perspectives.

*The author is a Sudanese based in Canada. He can be reached at chm605@mail.usask.ca

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