Combating Genocide: A Key Component of U.S. Foreign Policy

Lorne W. Craner
Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State

When President George W. Bush was presented in the fall of 2001 with an article on the subject of the Rwanda genocide, he inscribed in firm letters in the memo’s margin:  “NOT ON MY WATCH.”  President Bush resolutely determined that while he is commander in chief, he plans to do everything he can to ensure that the plague of genocide that afflicted Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s will not scourge the earth again.[1

From Nuremberg to Arusha, the United States has been the world’s leader in ensuring accountability for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Nothing is more central to our values as a people and our interests as a nation than the prevention of genocide through the promotion of the rule of law and democratic governance.  President Bush’s decision to retain the Office of War Crimes Issues demonstrates the administration’s continuing commitment to the subject.  Genocide is an act of tyrants, of cynical cabals clinging to power through mass murder, a persistent toxin in the international arena curable through the expansion of freedom, justice and democracy.

America’s commitment to preventing genocide and promoting democratic societies that respect human rights is not new.  It has been an essential aspect of our foreign policy for years and is one of many stances that form a comprehensive approach to war crimes, human rights and foreign policy in general.  By ratifying the International Convention on Genocide in 1988, the United States officially adopted as its policy “never again.”  But the events of September 11th and the war on terror have given our efforts renewed and heightened significance.  On Human Rights Day 2002, President Bush proclaimed:  “Across the globe, we will continue to stand for those who fight for fundamental freedoms…our fight against oppression demonstrates our Nation’s dedication to a future of hope and understanding for all peoples.”

No country is immune from the evil of hateful groups and individuals.  The battle against terrorism has reminded us of our common humanity and vulnerability.  It has reminded us that lawlessness and impunity anywhere in the world is a threat to civilization everywhere.  In our struggle against genocide, it does not matter whether people are victimized in Europe, America or Africa.  No one can be forgotten.  Crimes cannot be ignored because they occur in distant lands.

 The key to the prevention of genocide starts at the local level.  We believe that states, not international institutions are primarily responsible for ensuring justice.  Every state must accept its obligation not only to international law but to humanity to prevent serious violations of international law and to hold perpetrators accountable.  We, the members of the international community, have an obligation to ensure that each state fulfills this responsibility.  We believe the best way to combat genocide and other grave atrocities is to build domestic judicial systems, strengthen political will and promote human freedom.  If a state is unable or unwilling to accept its sovereign responsibility, we must not let that state abdicate this responsibility but must strive toward the goal of one day establishing and securing the rule of law throughout its territory.

 Genocide is a product of tyranny and lawlessness.  Democratic nations with free and fair elections, a professional military under civilian control, open media and citizen access to government insulate themselves from the threat of genocide.  Freedoms such as the right to criticize one’s government, the right to practice freely any religion and the right to associate with others shine light into the darkness of ignorance and despotism.  When these rights are protected by the rule of law, it is less likely that genocide will occur.  A society ruled by laws and not by tyrants ensures that equality and the rights of each person are protected, systems exist to uphold accountability, and strong courts render no one above the law.  Nations that have transformed themselves in this manner have seen the threat of genocide diminish. 

 Because genocide is a crime against our dignity and existence as humans and often a threat to international peace and security, it is in the interest —indeed it is the responsibility—of every nation to combat it with vigor.  The issue of genocide presents three distinct challenges for the international community and demands that every member do its part.  First, we must work together to prevent the seeds of genocide from growing by using the range of tools at our disposal.  Second, we must act to halt atrocities when they erupt.  And third, we must hold accountable perpetrators of egregious crimes. 

 In all three challenges, a broad coalition of state and non-governmental actors must come together if we are to succeed in ensuring that the crime of genocide remains a relic of the last century.  Private groups and nongovernmental organizations play a valuable role in sounding the alarm before genocide occurs.  These groups also provide comfort and aid to surviving victims and displaced persons.  It is essential that public-private relationships with nongovernmental organizations be crafted and sustained.  Organizations such as the Center for the Prevention of Genocide are critical components of that policy:  They serve as agents of early warning, advocates for swift action, and defenders of justice. 

 The United States is committed to fulfilling its longstanding role as an advocate for the principle that there must be accountability for war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law.  We will continue to play a leadership role to right these wrongs.  The U.S. armed forces will obey the laws of war, while our international policies are and will remain completely consistent with these norms.  We will continue to discipline our own when appropriate.  We will remain committed to promoting the rule of law and helping to bring violators of humanitarian law to justice, wherever the violations may occur.  We will support politically, financially, technically and logistically any post-conflict state that seeks to credibly pursue domestic humanitarian law.

With strong U.S. leadership, the U.N. Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR), acting under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which empowers the Council to maintain international peace and security.  Everyone has a part to play to ensure the success of these Tribunals.  The Bush Administration has encouraged other member states to assist the Tribunal in all possible ways, including by providing the Tribunals with adequate resources and by urging states with indicted persons within their territory to apprehend and transfer those individuals to the Tribunal.

 To date, the United States has provided more than $300 million to the two Tribunals, making us by far the largest donor.  We have offered and paid rewards of up to $5 million through the U.S. Rewards for Justice program for information leading to the arrest and transfer of fugitive indictees to the Tribunals.  We have urged the Tribunals to keep a narrow focus on their mandate to prosecute the political and military leaders most responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law.  And finally, we have pressed the regional states to fulfill their international obligation to cooperate fully with the Tribunals, including arresting all persons on their territory, and to begin to undertake their responsibility to prosecute lower-level war crimes cases domestically.  Through this work, 51 ICTY and ICTR indictees have been apprehended in the past two years, more than in any other two-year period.

Meanwhile we are working in the Balkan states to provide political, financial, technical and logistical support to assist their current efforts to prosecute lower-level war criminals.  We are now seeing promising changes in a once devastated region.  Serbia and Montenegro is a case in point.  Not long ago this nation’s predecessor, Yugoslavia, was engulfed in the terror of ethnic conflict and genocide that gripped much of the Balkans. Today this nation is a growing democracy with improving legal safeguards for individual rights. 

 In other parts of the world our focus is just as sharp.  In Sierra Leone, the United States has been a founding supporter of the Special Court, a hybrid model combining international and domestic participation.  The United States has contributed $5 million for the Court’s first year of operation and expects to make similar contributions both for the Court’s second and third years.  The Court seeks to bring to justice those most responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law and relevant Sierra Leonean law committed during the country’s civil war.  The Government of Sierra Leone has appointed one of the three trial chamber judges and the deputy prosecutor; the U.N. Secretary General has selected the remaining judges, the chief prosecutor and the registrar.  This hybrid approach helps bring the expertise of international jurists to a war-torn country, gives the citizens of the country joint ownership of the process, and seeks to leave behind the foundations for the rule of law once the Court fulfills its mandate.  With judges sworn in on December 2, 2002, the court is up and running in Freetown and expects to issue indictments in the coming months.

We are also focused on avoiding another round of genocidal violence in Africa’s Great Lakes region.  This is most pressing in the Eastern Congo where our efforts are focused on preventing further atrocities and pursuing accountability for past crimes.  In Burundi, we are working with our partners to support the Arusha peace process, hoping to prevent further genocidal acts in a country that has had more than its share of violence.  While we hope for a peaceful transition, one of the lessons of 1994 is that we must also plan for the worst-case scenario.  We are supporting the deployment of South African peacekeepers and remain engaged on a daily basis in the effort to bring all the warring factions into the peace process.  At the same time, we are working with Burundi’s 19 political parties to ensure a just and lasting settlement to the conflict and urging that those who have murdered civilians or committed other violations of international humanitarian law be held accountable for their actions.  It is essential that survivors of genocide be able to resume their lives with the knowledge that their oppressors have been brought to justice.  Likewise those considering genocide must know that the world will not stand idly by while they slip away into the night and lurk to foment conflict another day.

 One of the main goals of U.S. security assistance to Africa is to prepare African militaries to respond to complex human rights crises in their regions.  Operation Focus Relief (OFR) in Sierra Leone, which trained seven military battalions from the West African nations of Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana, assisted in the deployment of effective peacekeepers under the U.N. Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL).  Prior to OFR and UNAMSIL, the people of Sierra Leone were at the mercy of brutal insurgencies, including the Revolutionary United Front.  By deploying a credible military deterrent, the international community is helping to protect the people of Sierra Leone and give them a chance to rebuild their shattered country.  Through the African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI) and its successor, the Africa Contingency Operations Training Assistance (ACOTA), the United States has helped to train soldiers in several African nations to conduct peacekeeping and humanitarian relief.  ACOTA seeks specifically to strengthen a country’s capacity to train its own troops and the ability of African militaries to work together.  This program aims to create a sustainable force for peace and stability.

Sometimes early warning programs and the promotion of democracy are not enough.  The United States is willing to act with other nations globally, regionally and if need be unilaterally to stop genocide from happening.  When diplomacy and action through international bodies such as the United Nations fail, the world must be willing to act to protect the lives of innocents and bring the perpetrators of genocide to justice.

Today some of the greatest threats of genocide exist in Central Africa.  Thousands have lost their lives in the last decade.  Their deaths are devastating to the continent, and to the world.  In Johannesburg in May 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell said of those who lost their lives:  “We will never know the gifts that they may have brought to Africa and the gifts they may have given to humanity.”A concerted long-term effort to prevent genocide through the promotion of democracy and human rights is a key part of U.S. foreign policy.  Nations must work together and with private groups to further these ends.  When prevention fails to stop genocide, the world must be willing to use principled force and bring the perpetrators of genocide to justice.  We must protect the value and dignity of every individual on a global, regional and even unilateral level.  The world today is a smaller place and any act of terror or genocide affects us all.  This is why the prevention of genocide and other crimes against humanity is a fundamental goal of U.S. foreign policy, one that should be shared by every nation on earth.


Lorne W. Craner is Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. Department of State.  Prior to his appointment, Mr. Craner was president of the International Republican Institute (IRI), a non-governmental organization dedicated to advancing democracy worldwide.  He received his Masters degree in national security studies from Georgetown University.


[1] Power, Samantha.  “Genocide and America.”  The New York Review of Books.  14 Mar. 2002,


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