As the great powers lose enthusiasm for addressing mass human rights abuses with large-scale armed interventions, the international community must search for less risky alternatives that accomplish more than the symbolic and generally impotent condemnations from bodies like the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. One such measure would be to monitor, counter, and block radio and television broadcasts that incite widespread violence in crisis zones around the world.

Mass media reach not only people's homes, but also their minds, shaping their thoughts and sometimes their behavior. Many of the humanitarian disasters of the twentieth century were spawned or exacerbated over the airwaves: radio was used to propagate Nazi ideology in Germany and spur genocide in Rwanda, Somali warlords used it to incite civil war and widespread violence, and it has been instrumental, with television, in fomenting ethnic animosity and bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia. Countering such incendiary transmissions systematically, using information warfare techniques, will go a long way toward securing human rights short of costly, large-scale military investments.


Consider Rwanda. In January 1994 U.N. observers reported that Hutu extremist leaders were mobilizing to slaughter the minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Threatened by peace negotiations that could have undermined their political base, Hutu hard-liners began broadcasting fiery calls for a "final war" to exterminate Tutsi "cockroaches." After a suspicious April 1994 plane crash killed the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, the genocide began. Announcers on the Hutu extremist-controlled Radio-Televisions Libre des Milles Collines helped organize the militias and goaded the young killers, reading lists of enemies to be hunted down and butchered. Recognizing that these broadcasts were whipping Rwanda into a killing frenzy, the U.N. military commander in Kigali, General Romeo Dallaire, a few international human rights organizations, and several U.S. senators called for them to be jammed, but nothing was done. Instead, the small U.N. military contingent was drastically reduced, and the world stood by as 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered.

Perhaps the best course of action in Rwanda would have been for the U.N. Security Council to immediately authorize a heavily armed multilateral intervention to stop the genocide. The major powers, however, were unwilling to consider this option. The United States in particular was still smarting from the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers during an attempt to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Aideed. For the American people, this was too high a price to pay for the sake of a little-understood, faraway land. In the aftermath of this incident, the Clinton administration drafted Presidential Decision Directive 25, which established a rigid framework for U.S. involvement in peacekeeping operations. Any hopes that the end of the Cold War would finally allow the world to live up to the U.N. Charter's aspirations to foster peace and protect human rights were dashed.

The world community's failure to halt the genocide in Rwanda exposed the weakness of an international system that forces states to choose between the extremes of massive, armed humanitarian intervention and mere symbolic action. A number of intermediate measures have been suggested, including trade embargoes, targeted development aid, and an African "crisis response force." All these can be appropriate in some situations, but General Dallaire has

asserted that in Rwanda, simply jamming Hutu broadcasts and replacing them with messages of peace and reconciliation would have had a significant impact on the course of events. The time has come to develop, refine, and institutionalize information-based responses to incendiary mass communications.


There have been an increasing number of successful "information interventions" in recent years. U.N. radio stations and programs in peace missions in Namibia, Cambodia, and eastern Slavonia have disseminated impartial, reliable news and information in conflicts rife with propaganda. Broadcasts organized by nongovernmental organizations (ngos) in Liberia, Burundi, and Bosnia have brought individuals from different sides of the conflicts together to discuss issues openly over the airwaves and develop conflict-resolution strategies. In Burundi, for example, the American group Search for Common Ground provides the government radio station with ethnically balanced programs produced by a Hutu and Tutsi staff.

In Bosnia, NATO has been even more aggressive in its response to inflammatory broadcasts. This summer, the Pale-based Serb Radio Television, loyal to Bosnian Serb leader and indicted war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic, began an anti-NATO campaign, mixing footage of NATO soldiers with that of Nazis in World War II. The station also broadcast reports denying that civilians had been killed in Srebrenica or that Muslim women had been raped by Serbs. Believing that these broadcasts threatened the successful implementation of the 1995 Dayton agreement that ended the fighting in Bosnia, 300 American troops seized one of the station's transmission relay towers. They held it for five days until Serb hard-liners agreed not to air "inflammatory" anti-NATO broadcasts and to set aside one prime time hour a day for programs expressing "other political views." At the same time, the North Atlantic Council authorized NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia to take all actions necessary to "suspend or curtail programming that is hostile to the spirit of the Dayton accords." When the Pale station continued to air inflammatory footage after the September 13 municipal elections, NATO troops seized four of its main broadcast towers, effectively shutting it down.

With the notable exception of NGO broadcast activities, most successful information interventions have been backed by the potential use of force and a strong mandate. In the 1991-93 Cambodian peace mission, for example, machine gun-toting U.N. troops guarded the United Nations' radio station in Phnom Penh when it appeared that broadcasts advocating free and fair elections and an open political process were antagonizing local authorities. With a similarly strong mandate and the support of NATO troops, the U.N. Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia has set up its own station in Vukovar that transmits information on voter registration and U.N. policies and has promoted dialogue between the Serbs and Croats.


Since information interventions have typically been part of larger, armed humanitarian initiatives, there is a danger that, in a post-Somalia world less willing to respond forcefully to international crises, the baby of information intervention will be thrown out with the bath water of armed humanitarian intervention. To prevent this, the United Nations should establish an independent information intervention unit with three primary areas of responsibility: monitoring, peace broadcasting, and, in extreme cases, jamming radio and television broadcasts.

The unit would have access to the major radio translation services, the BBC’s Survey of World Broadcasts and the U.S. government's Foreign Broadcast Information Service reports, as well as regular communication links to embassies and U.N. offices in countries where crises are developing. This, along with input from ngos, would provide the unit with the information it needed to monitor local media that might be used to incite violence in troubled areas. In cases where little information was received, the unit could employ satellite and airplane-based listening equipment. By monitoring broadcasts in problem zones, the unit could identify crises likely to erupt and help build a case for more aggressive action.

The unit would also be equipped for the emergency "peace broadcasting" of unbiased -- or at least more responsible -- news and information into crisis zones. As a conflict heated up, the unit might prepare materials for broadcast in local languages. Whenever possible, this should be done in cooperation with local governments and groups, although such consent would not always be required, especially when the people refusing consent were the ones inciting the violence. Like the unit's monitoring functions, peace broadcasting activities could be authorized under the U.N. Charter's Chapter VI, which has recently been extended to allow the Security Council not only to investigate any situation that "might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute," but to take more aggressive action short of military intervention.

Radio and television jamming is the most potentially controversial of the unit's proposed tasks and ideally should be used only after peace broadcasting has failed, but often there may not be time for such piecemeal escalation. Jamming would be carried out in as low-risk a manner as possible, preferably from neighboring countries or from advanced aircraft, like the U.S. EC-130 Commando Solo with jamming and broadcasting capabilities, flying beyond the range of potentially hostile ground troops. The output of jammed stations would best be replaced by peace broadcasts. The information intervention unit would need rapid response capabilities, including immediate access to necessary equipment, and could be incorporated into the recently inaugurated U.N. rapid deployment force.

The proposed unit could have a major impact in many of the growing number of situations where media activities incite mass violence. Although jamming from the air or ground risks provoking an armed response, the danger is significantly less than that of full military intervention. Information interventions could be carried out by U.N. blue beret soldiers, making it more palatable to states fearful of sustaining troop losses, or the United Nations could authorize individual states to contribute men and equipment to a standing unit under the protective cloak of a U.N. imprimatur.

The creation of a specialized international force to counter domestic incendiary communications raises issues of accountability, and such a force should be closely monitored. One option is for the unit's activities to be authorized on a case-by-case basis under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, with the Security Council determining whether a given crisis constituted a "threat to the peace," but that could result in information interventions becoming as rarely used as military ones. Instead, it may be necessary to provide the proposed unit with standing authority to carry out its function, with the Security Council maintaining veto power over its actions. As in a domestic legal system, where the police power to limit certain extreme types of speech is overseen by a judicial authority that determines the appropriateness of such action, the proposed unit might be overseen by a special international judicial body, a standing committee of legal experts, or a committee of Security Council representatives. This body would develop standards for justifying escalation of the unit's activities and would oversee the implementation of its efforts.


Critics will likely argue that allowing interference with radio and television broadcasts will justify activities by states that hamper the free flow of information and ideas. During the Cold War, when the United States faced a Soviet adversary intent on jamming the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and a hostile Cuban neighbor jamming U.S.-based Radio Swan and Radio Marti broadcasts, it made sense for the United States to promote an absolute standard for the free flow of information. Now a more nuanced view should be possible. The free flow provisions of international telecommunications law hardly trump the provisions of the genocide convention that make inciting genocide illegal under international law. As in U.S. domestic law, where free speech can be proscribed when it incites imminent lawless action, incitement to imminent mass human rights abuses or genocide would justify jamming activities by a U.N. information intervention unit.

The internationally authorized use of jamming technology also raises important sovereignty issues. Nations of the developing world will likely view the proposed unit as another means by which big powers can exert their political and technological dominance over smaller states. Clearly, information intervention will be more feasible and effective against small-scale actors with a limited range of media activities than against more technologically developed groups with access to multiple media outlets. The proposed unit might also more easily be used in intrastate situations than in interstate ones, but such civil conflicts have posed the greatest threat to world order since the end of the Cold War. Preventing them from becoming regional conflagrations is in the interest of all nations, particularly states destabilized by nearby conflicts and massive refugee movements. Even if smaller states and emerging powers like China do not go along with the proposal at first, working toward the establishment of such a unit and testing its principles in substate conflicts with fewer international ramifications will certainly begin to set some standards and may well save lives.

Permitting limited radio and television jamming in defense of human rights is no magic bullet, but it is a potentially effective and relatively low-risk tool for countering dangerous messages that incite people to violence. As one of a larger set of intermediate actions between neglect and armed intervention, it can increase the panoply of tools available for responding to such violations until, in the name of morality, economics, public relations, revised notions of national interest, or whatever else, the world community decides to create stronger and more consistent mechanisms to address them.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Jamie F. Metzl, a former U.N. Human Rights Officer, is the author of Western Responses to Human Rights Abuses in Cambodia, 1975-80.
  • More By Jamie F. Metzl