In 2005, the world's heads of states, gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York, agreed that they had a responsibility to protect their own peoples from mass atrocities -- and that the responsibility would fall to the larger community when a state proved unable or unwilling to prevent such crimes. Since that time, violence reaching the legal threshold of crimes against humanity (the other specified constituent crimes are genocide, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing) has been perpetrated in Sudan, Sri Lanka, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and arguably in Kenya, Burma, and Zimbabwe, among other places. In almost every case, the world has failed to muster an even remotely effective response. So far, it looks like we can add Kyrgyzstan to the list; but it's not too late to get things right.
In the explosion of ethnic violence that rocked the southern city of Osh starting June 10, as many as half the country's 800,000 Uzbeks were forced to flee their homes before marauding mobs of ethnic Kyrgyz, apparently abetted by government troops. An untold number, which the New York Times now puts at "thousands," have been killed. Arson, rape, and other atrocities have been widespread. Late last week, the very fragile government in Bishkek finally seemed to gain control over the army; or perhaps, with the victim population largely terrorized and dispersed, the violence simply burned itself out. But this might be the lull before another storm: Uzbeks may seek revenge, in turn provoking new attacks from Kyrgyz or from the Kyrgyz-dominated security forces. Naomi Kikoler of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect calls the violence "a textbook case of R2P," as the norm has come to be abbreviated. Her organization as well as Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group have called for urgent international action.
In the first moments of the crisis, Kyrgyzstan's interim president, Roza Otunbayeva, issued a desperate call to Moscow to provide troops. Instead, Moscow referred the matter to its own regional body, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which then declined to authorize action. Russia had cited R2P -- with transparent cynicism -- to justify its 2008 invasion of South Ossetia and Georgia. Why not now, with a willing government and a genuine crisis? It is morally satisfying to say, as human rights advocates often do, that nobody is acting because nobody cares. And that's often true: The death of several hundred thousand Darfuris weighed far less with most states than assuring "African solutions to African problems" or preserving commercial ties with an oil-rich regime. But Kyrgyzstan, the world's only country with both a U.S. and a Russian military base, is scarcely a geopolitical orphan; and because the government, in this case, is not perpetrating the atrocities, potential actors do not have to defend a regime at the cost of neglecting citizens.
Whatever its strategic or moral preferences, Russia faced an extremely daunting calculus, as Peter Zeihan, an analyst for Stratfor, which provides "strategic intelligence," pointed out in a recent article. Kyrgyzstan is 1,800 miles from the Russian heartland and has a rugged geography and little economic value. There is also the huge complicating factor of Uzbekistan, which borders the inflamed area, aspires to be the regional hegemon, and would almost certainly have objected to the Kyrgyz request. Indeed, any dispatch of Russian troops to the periphery would have instantly reminded both Russians and their neighbors of very painful experiences in Afghanistan and Chechnya. The CSTO is widely viewed in the West as Russia's Potemkin NATO, but Moscow would have been loath to act unilaterally in the face of opposition from other members (one of which is Uzbekistan). Finally, ethnic Uzbeks were the victims -- and "Russians and Uzbeks don't like each other," as Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, puts it bluntly.