It has been 65 years since the Genocide Convention, drafted in reaction to the Holocaust, first came into force, but the international response to mass atrocities remains largely ineffective. The usual actions—the provision of humanitarian aid, the naming and shaming of war criminals, and peacekeeping, to name a few—are vitally important, but they have not done much of anything to dissuade criminals from abusing human rights.
Take the provision of humanitarian aid. It is a crucial first step in keeping survivors alive, but it is unable to address the root causes of mass atrocities: the incentives for officials and their collaborators to use violence and authoritarian rule to maintain or gain power. At times, when the aid is poorly conceived, as was the case in Somalia during the U.S.-led humanitarian intervention in the 1990s, it even helps reinforce abusive networks. In Somalia, the international community entered into contracts with companies owned by the warlords themselves to provide housing and other services to the population, delivering an infusion of resources to the very people who had been destroying the country. Other important but largely ineffective tactics—the naming and shaming of war criminals, the deployment of UN investigators or the establishment of UN commissions, and the passage of UN Security Council resolutions that threaten to punish but do not actually do so—might help build a record for future prosecutions and establish who is responsible for the crimes, but they fail to do much to the leaders who commit atrocities.
Even the prospect of prosecution by the International Criminal Court or by an ad hoc tribunal is not enough to rein in abusive governments. A number of African leaders are either withdrawing their countries from the ICC or threatening to withdraw because of what they say is the court’s bias against Africa. The court has issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for genocide, but he has openly mocked the institution by traveling to countries that