Rethinking the United States’ Role in Genocide Prevention

 /  Dec. 21, 2019, 5:54 p.m.


Tech. Sgt. Timothy Moore

On October 29, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 296: “Affirming the United States record on the Armenian Genocide” in a 405-11 vote. On December 12, the Senate passed the resolution unanimously. Despite Turkey’s sustained political pressure campaign to preclude the US government from recognizing the genocide, Congress recognized the 1915 genocide, which had been verified by expert consensus. In addition to spending $12 million in direct lobbying, Turkey threatened to suspend everything from investments in American industry to cooperation with American soldiers in Iraq. However, the Trump administration, which is not bound by the resolution, recently reemphasized its position that that Armenian Genocide was not, in fact, a genocide.

In the past, American leaders caved to Turkish pressure to preserve friendly relations with the long-time NATO ally and theoretically valuable foreign partner. In that regard, President Donald Trump is not an exception. Former president Barack Obama initially vowed in his 2008 campaign to formally recognize the genocide, and then declined every opportunity as president to admit that it was more than an unfortunate episode in the historical record. Most presidents before him avoided the topic entirely. That silence is not an anomaly in American foreign policy. The United States has long prioritized immediate diplomatic and political concerns over acknowledging and acting to end atrocities.

In 1994, the assassination of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana created a political power vacuum in Rwanda and paved the way for a planned genocide. Rwandan government forces and allied militias, led by a Hutu ethnic majority, carried out a systematic campaign to wipe out Rwanda’s Tutsi ethnic minority. Decades of class strife between the two ethnic groups escalated into genocide. In just one hundred days, Hutu militias killed an estimated seven hundred thousand Tutsis. The Tutsis eventually reclaimed control of the government, and a combination of revenge killings and internal conflict among the Hutus led to an additional hundred thousand deaths.

The United States was well-aware of the Rwandan genocide. A comprehensive collection of evidence assembled by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research and archival institution, leads to several conclusions. First, American intelligence officials knew the genocide would occur, but decided against direct intervention. Second, the United States was capable of jamming radio broadcasts which were used to facilitate mass killings, but chose not to. Third, US officials did not use the term “genocide” to describe the violence out of a fear that doing so would then require an intervention. 

The Holodomor, a man-made famine in the USSR, serves as further precedent of American spinelessness. From 1931–1943, General Secretary Joseph Stalin of the USSR implemented policies specifically designed to create a famine in Ukraine. As a result, at least five million people died, about four million of whom were ethnic Ukrainians. Soviet officials denied the famine and turned down foreign aid. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt negotiated a lucrative trade deal with the Soviet Union. The deal was crucial to Stalin’s industrial strategy, and the United States did not attempt to leverage American economic power to help the Ukrainian people. It was only seventy-five years later, in 2018, that the United States recognized the Holodomor as a genocide. 

Ignoring repression and atrocities committed across the world is a game of realpolitik that continues today at the expense of innocent civilians. The United States provides millions of dollars in aid to President Yoweri Museveini of Uganda, who uses those funds to continue mass human rights abuses throughout the country. American weaponry sold to Saudi Arabia is directly linked to war crimes in Yemen; American officials have long ignored clear evidence that the Saudi military is intentionally targeting civilians. The Senate has repeatedly attempted to block these sales, but Trump has vetoed those resolutions. 

The recent US recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the Holomodor are good-faith efforts to correct past wrongs, but those efforts will be fruitless if they do not also engender a new approach to genocide. The only way for the United States to hold other countries accountable is by weighing value-based truth telling with realist foreign policy pursuits, not allowing the latter to overrun the former. Even today, genocidal activities are developing or occurring in places like Myanmar, Sudan, China, and the Central African Republic.

The United States has to go beyond rhetorical denunciations of genocide after the fact and find ways to undergird current foreign policy agendas with positive visions of the kind of world America wants to lead. The first step must be the United States removing its support for the perpetrators of atrocities. There is clear evidence, for instance, that the Saudi Royal Air Force would be severely hindered in its capacity to kill Yemeni civilians if the United States were to stop equipping them through arms sales. In Uganda, too, the United States can undercut rationales for human rights abuses by changing its aid policies. 

There is no question that the United States ought to acknowledge and prevent atrocities; there is only a question of whether it has the courage to bring morals into greater harmony with foreign policy priorities.

The image featured with this article is in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law. The original was taken by Tech. Sgt. Timothy Moore and can be found here.

Daniel Harris


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