Genocide Prevention for Dummies

A new handbook aims to teach the U.S. military the do's and don'ts of humanitarian intervention.

U.S. President Barack Obama, in his March 28 speech on Libya, justified the international intervention by raising the specter of "a massacre" in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, which he said "would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world." It isn't the first time an American president has employed U.S. power to stop senseless killing. But despite the prominent role humanitarian intervention plays in U.S. foreign policy, the United States has never had a blueprint for responding to potential mass atrocities -- until now.

As the U.N. Security Council resolution imposing the no-fly zone makes clear, it's not only Obama who has been moved by fears of a modern-day genocide. "Look back to Rwanda: fail. Look back at Darfur: fail. Look back at the Balkans: partial fail," Kevin Rudd, Australia's foreign minister and former prime minister, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation soon before the decisive March 17 vote, as he made his appeal for international intervention in Libya to prevent what he called "large-scale butchery of Libyan civilians."

But as the Obama administration recently discovered, conjuring military might to vanquish evildoers, while noble, is not exactly a straightforward business. The Libya intervention continues to be challenged by ill-defined goals and ambiguous rules of engagement, not to mention intracoalition squabbling over leadership of the mission once the United States steps back.

That's where the Mass Atrocity Response Operation (MARO) Project comes in. A joint endeavor of Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and the U.S. Army War College's Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, the project recently released a handbook of considerations vital for effective military strategy for intervention into mass atrocities and genocide.

This body of hypothetical situations soldiers may encounter on the ground attempts to give life to rhetoric that can easily go limp in times of crisis. The guide attempts to provide the military with specific strategies for responding to a wide range of potential developments that it will encounter in volatile situations.

By providing a range of military options at the ready, the concept could help add a layer of legitimacy to interventions, such as the one unfolding in Libya, its planners say. "Currently there isn't anything official to help commanders, planners, or policymakers think through the operational challenges of how the military could prevent or stop mass atrocity," said Sally Chin, the project's director. "We hope that this advance thinking will not only make any potential response more effective, but given the complexities of responding to mass atrocities once they are ongoing, it will also help politicians better appreciate the value of preventive efforts."

The 160-page handbook, which is agnostic about the merits of intervention decided at the political level, is designed to help military officers respond to the sort of questions that frequently present themselves during humanitarian interventions. "How do you distinguish civilians from combatants?" said Chin, listing off some of the common challenges. "What happens if those groups who were victims become perpetrators? How much responsibility do the interveners have for the future well-being of the civilians they have saved? What happens if a MARO metastasizes into a different kind of operation such as a civil war? What are some of the potentially negative second- and third-order effects of the intervention?"

The handbook does not attempt to provide cookie-cutter answers for every foreign intervention. "What we try to do in the handbook is have 70 percent solutions and templates. If on short notice a force is told to get ready to go to this country to intervene to stop mass atrocities, then we have the planning frameworks and sets of assumptions and intelligence -- things to look for and likely tasks that would have to be accomplished," explained Dwight Raymond, a doctrine and concept analyst at the U.S. Army War College. "The planners could then take what we've got in the handbook and then tweak them to meet the particular circumstances."

One scenario, for example, envisions a military force beginning a campaign to stave off attacks against civilians with a defensive collage of land and sea patrols, and by collecting intelligence on atrocities through feeds from unmanned aerial vehicles. The handbook then imagines what would happen if the conflict escalates and MARO forces are ordered to go on the offensive, cutting enemy supply lines and introducing ground troops into a country. It notes that if such an intervention "unleashes centrifugal forces," causing an unexpected collapse of the government, the forces must be prepared to set the conditions for long-term stabilization of the country -- likely including prosecuting war criminals and supporting a transitional government.

Libya, however, offers a gripping example of how real-world scenarios are rarely as cut and dried as theory, Raymond notes. Arguably, Libya does not rise to the level of the mass atrocities committed in Rwanda, he said, highlighting the difficulty of drawing clear lines between ethnic cleansing and tactics that are simply repressive. "I think that terminology problem is a very real one," he said.

The MARO blueprint attempts to boil down the lessons from decades of military interventions into a handful of digestible approaches. One particular approach, known as "partner enabling," has particular resonance for the current international intervention in Libya. This strategy refers to the practice of using special operations forces and air assets to bolster an indigenous force -- in the case of Libya, the rebels based in the country's east. The MARO handbook warns, however, that partner enabling means that the intervening powers can lose control to a poorly trained force that could, through misconduct, undo the gains of the intervention.

The MARO plan, though not yet woven into official military code, recently received a four-paragraph mention in the Army's operational concept, the overarching statement of its military doctrine. The brief passage acknowledged the Army's obligation to prepare for the domino effects inherent in such missions and recognized the need to cooperate with nongovernmental groups, such as academia and think tanks, to better understand the early warning signs of atrocities. Although this is an important first step toward integrating MARO into military thinking, the pared-down reference still remains devoid of any specifics for operational forces in need of actionable guidance.

Even as the Libyan rebels try to seize additional territory from Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces, their own disorganization -- and Qaddafi's well-documented brutality -- make it all but certain that Libya will face any number of challenges before the country regains a measure of stability. The rebels' lack of training and lack of command structure make those who possess weapons more dangerous and Qaddafi's armed supporters more able to terrorize the population, said Fred Abrahams, special advisor to Human Rights Watch. "In other words, [creating] a plausible deniability for any violations by armed supporters," he concluded.

It will be a long time before Libyan civilians are out of danger. But as international forces attempt to end the bloodshed in Libya and define their evolving role in the country, the world is reminded once again that a little bit of planning can be decisive in prolonging a war or creating the foundations for future stability. MARO just might be the start.

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The Debate that Changed Goldstone's Mind?

Four days before Justice Richard Goldstone's shocking retraction on Israeli war crimes, I heard him waver.

Just four days before Justice Richard Goldstone's shocking admission that his controversial report on Israeli war crimes committed during the 2008-2009 Gaza war was flawed, I participated in a panel debate with him at Stanford Law School. During the debate, Goldstone repeated one of his standard talking points -- that none of the factual accounts in his report had been challenged. But then, under pressure from a line of argument, he backed off and acknowleged, perhaps for the first time, that some of the facts in the Goldstone Report were in dispute. And he suggested that his report might have been different had his fact-finding mission had access to Israeli evidence.

Four days later, Goldstone published his mea culpa op-ed in the Washington Post -- an admission of fault he had reportedly been unwilling to make in a draft op-ed submitted to the New York Times less than a week before the debate. In the Post article, Goldstone wrote, "If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document." But he went further still, acknowledging that his report was wrong to allege that Israel had deliberately targeted civilians.

I can only speculate about Goldstone's discomfort at having his professional work challenged in such sharp terms -- and whether the debate in some way precipitated his admission of fault. But the criticism was deserved. The Goldstone Report asserted that the Gaza war was an Israeli assault on the "people of Gaza as a whole ... aimed at punishing the Gaza population for its resilience." Choosing to focus on 36 specific incidents involving alleged Israeli wrongdoing, the report gave Hamas a free pass for most of its war crimes while concluding that Israel's campaign "was a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability."

Peter Berkowitz and I represented the side challenging the Goldstone Report against Palestinian panelists Noura Erakat and Victor Kattan. Goldstone participated as a "discussant," speaking for 10 minutes at the beginning and end of the debate, but he kept a stone face during the two-hour back-and-forth.

Berkowitz and I focused on evidentiary problems, such as the report's refusal to credit any exculpatory Israeli evidence, even photographs. We highlighted the discrepancies between the legal standards applied by the Goldstone Report and those required by international law, such as the report's insinuation that any collateral damage to civilians constitutes a war crime. And we noted the disturbing tone of the report, which employed inflammatory language against Israel, while treating Hamas so tenderly that it never once, in the course of its 575 pages, acknowledged that Hamas is a terrorist organization under international law, that it had carried out suicide bombings, or that it explicitly seeks the destruction of the state of Israel.

Goldstone's retraction addresed some of these points: that the allegations were not based on evidence of Israeli motives, but, rather, on his team's presumptions in the absence of any hard evidence -- a point we made repeatedly in the Stanford debate. Goldstone also admitted that Hamas is "an organization that has a policy to destroy the state of Israel" and that Hamas should be called to account for its violations of the laws of war. Finally, Goldstone noted that the U.N. Human Rights Council, which commissioned the report, has a "history of bias against Israel [that] cannot be doubted," and he denounced the council's refusal to address "heinous" acts by Hamas against Israelis.

The motivation for Goldstone's about-face is still unclear; what is not is that his contrition is far from complete. The Goldstone Report was full of disturbing accusations against Israel and no-less-disturbing omissions of Hamas's crimes; it distorted the factual record and digressed into vile anti-Israel propaganda. Goldstone has not yet disavowed these sections of the report. While Israelis are delighted by the measure of vindication, President Shimon Peres expressed the sentiments of many when he opined the weekend after Goldstone's op-ed appeared that Goldstone still owes the state of Israel an apology. In many respects, the report's damage to Israel's reputation and the attendant boost to Hamas's legitimacy are irreversible.

Nonetheless, Goldstone's disavowal of the central anti-Israel allegation of the report is sure to have some positive effect.

The most immediate effect will be on international campaigns by the Palestinian leadership and anti-Israel activists to haul Israeli officials into criminal court for their actions during the Gaza war. Just a few weeks ago, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution co-drafted by the PLO that called for International Criminal Court prosecutions of Israelis on the basis of the report. Activists have sought to arrest former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Peres, and other senior and junior Israeli officials like David Benjamin, a reservist attorney in the Israel Defense Forces, for crimes "proved" by the Goldstone Report. Efforts to prosecute Israelis will no doubt continue. Senior Palestinian figures like PLO Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo have furiously denounced Goldstone's mea culpa, and a news release from the spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas insisted that Goldstone's remarks "do not change the fact that Israel committed a massacre and war crimes in Gaza." But the legal campaign will likely now lose momentum.

A second possible result of the Goldstone op-ed could be that the public will learn to be more skeptical about future claims of Israeli wrongdoing. Like most international human rights organizations that deal with Israel, Goldstone's team treated allegations as sufficient evidence of wrongdoing. Terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas have learned to exploit this practice by providing human rights groups with sympathetic "witnesses" telling tales of woe about fictional Israeli monstrosities. Tragically, wars produce a lot of perfectly legal destruction and death, and distinguishing lawful from unlawful violence is extremely difficult after the fact. Without physical evidence, which is often lacking, such tales can be impossible to verify or disprove.

When challenged about their reliance on such poor evidentiary standards, many human rights organizations prove defensive. After the Economist observed that the Goldstone Report had failed to provide evidence of key anti-Israel findings, Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, responded that "Richard Goldstone's charge that Israel implemented a deliberate and systematic policy to inflict suffering on civilians in Gaza is ... the conclusion of the report, arrived at after a serious examination of the evidence." Now that Goldstone has come clean, perhaps the public will learn that often what are presented as "conclusions" are, in fact, little more than accusations.

What Goldstone's newfound forthrightness will not do, however, is bring about a rebirth of the peace process. The Middle East is in upheaval, the Palestinian Authority is currently boycotting talks, and, thanks in part to the Goldstone Report, Israeli doves are discredited. The Israeli left had justified Israel's 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza on the "pragmatic" grounds that greater Palestinian freedom would lead to better relations with Israel and that the international community would support Israel if it needed to defend itself in the case that things didn't go as planned. Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007 disproved the first argument. The Goldstone Report in 2009 helped bury the second.

The Israeli electorate will not easily be convinced to withdraw from the West Bank on the basis of such arguments in the future. Goldstone may have reversed his support for his report's central anti-Israel calumny, but he cannot reverse the lessons taught to the Israeli people from this unsavory episode. Israel's right has successfully taken advantage of the public mood that the Palestinians are uninterested in peace and that the rest of the world is unwilling to extend Israel fair treatment or hold Palestinians to account for criminal behavior. If the Palestinian Authority ever decides to return to peace negotiations, it will be greeted by an Israel that has learned to be skeptical of the international community's promises of fairness and support.

I spoke to Richard Goldstone and his wife for several minutes before the debate, but I did not see him leave. His subsequent op-ed came as a pleasant surprise -- a rare event in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It may be a while before the next one.