Why is it that while we may say “never again” regarding human rights violations, we tend to see “over and over again” on the global stage? Despite the establishment of the ad hoc tribunals, truth commissions, and a permanent International Criminal Court, deterrence has yet to take effect to the degree that most would desire. Naturally, the notion that establishing laws and enacting punishment will deter all potential perpetrators is unrealistic; if deterrence worked that well, we would not see crimes on the domestic level. But one may expect the rate of these violations to strongly decrease. Of course, I have not crunched all the numbers, but even a cursory look at the latest international news suggests that perpetrations continue at a frightening rate. Why? One argument could be that the ICC is too new to have fully established its credibility. As we have discussed in class, most cases are still underway and the only conviction thus far is Lubanga. Under this argument, the passage of time and more successful convictions could lead to an effective deterrent effect.
But will the passage of time be enough? Or, are there other factors that make deterrence more difficult than convincing a rational actor that the costs will outweigh the benefits? Based on an observation of some current international situations, I would argue that there is an inherent difficulty (though by no means impossibility) in deterring human rights abuses. This is because some human rights abuses are arguably crimes of desperation.
Before elucidating further, it is important to recognize that seeking to explain behavior and justifying that behavior are different things. Behavior can be explained without being justified. Therefore, as I continue, I hope that my attempt at explaining why perpetrators commit human rights abuses will not be misconstrued as an effort to justify such atrocities. Furthermore, this explanation does not apply to all human rights abuses, but may explain some.
Human rights abuses are often committed in the context of wars; either during, or shortly after violent conflict. Wars create desperate situations in which actors may believe that their survival (political and/or physical) is at stake. Furthermore, many of these conflicts are asymmetric; for instance, a government’s army versus a rebel group (or often a group of distinct rebel groups). In such situations, where survival or other non-negotiable goals are at stake and asymmetry exists, there is often an incentive to participate in unconventional warfare. Unconventional warfare often involves attacks in civilian centers and other locations where collateral damage is highly likely. Furthermore, facing such a situation, government forces will often resort to extra-judicial means to combat such vulnerabilities. Essentially, both sides choose to fight fire with fire. Conflicts then spiral, as each seeks to counter the new threats posed by the other. As the conflict deepens, desperation worsens and human rights abuses proliferate.
Two current situations present this clearly. The first is the conflict in Colombia. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, this conflict has raged for decades between the FARC and the Colombian government. The FARC, in an attempt to maintain sufficient forces, has been recruiting child soldiers. The government, desperately trying to root out rebels, has engaged in illegal surveillance and extra-judicial killings. Until peace is arranged, such crimes of desperation are likely to continue and collateral damage will perpetuate. The latest example being a suitcase bomb that killed the two suspected bombers and injured 37 people, including some children celebrating Halloween: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2012/11/201211121458588358.html.
Another example is Nigeria, where men and teen boys in certain neighborhoods, have been rounded up and shot on sight by government forces. Why? Because these neighborhoods are believed to be strongholds of the Boko Haram, an anti-government Islamist group. The Boko Haram for their part have attacked Christians in churches and recently assassinated a former general in his home, entering his residence disguised as guests. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/11/2012112202514554204.html.
Regardless of which side initiated the violations of human rights, once such violations begin there is a high likelihood that both sides will participate in violations. This may be because of the desperate nature of these conflicts, where confrontations between conventional forces on a separate battlefield will not occur. Such an observation is frightening because if these violations are motivated by desperation, the ability to deter them may be highly difficult because those acting in desperation are usually more concerned with the short-term (survival and achievement of vital goals) than the long-term (accountability for crimes).