Mass moral atrocities and genocidal tendencies have not lessened with the supposed end of the Cold War. If anything, they have increased. Witness, for example, the tragedies of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda and central Africa, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Burundi, Liberia, and more. Even in the past week, on March 21 at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Biden administration, in huge irony, formally announced that Myanmar’s military violence against the Rohingya minority constitutes “genocide.” In all of these catastrophes, the priority of human dignity and human rights has been eclipsed—whether internally or externally—by socio-political evil. And in all of these tragedies, the line between various forms of killing has been blurred—or more accurately, obliterated—and often intentionally. Add to this list the present holocaust in Ukraine.
Created in 1945 with a mandate to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind,” the United Nations from its inception was resolved to prevent human rights violations. The passage in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), on the heels of which followed the 1949 Geneva Conventions, specified, “No one shall be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” This was only the beginning of international attempts to reconcile military ethics with human dignity and human rights. Never before had crimes against humanity been defined by international law and subjected to international scrutiny.
Also passed in 1948 by the UN’s General Assembly was the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Significantly, the parameters of the Convention extended beyond genocide per se; they also included conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, attempts to commit genocides, and complicity in genocide. The convention codified, in a universal and comprehensive manner, the moral obligation of nations—all nations—to prevent genocide, that is, to prohibit, or intervene to prohibit, the deliberate murder of a people group. This, of course, is what the world is presently witnessing in Ukraine. As the 1948 Convention construes it, “genocide” is defined not by the enormity of atrocity but by its criminal intent. Evidence of Putin’s criminal intentions—fully aside from evidence extending back over the last decade and a half—leaves no room for doubt, as the present displacement of over ten million people, siege being laid upon city after city, the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands, and the rape of Mariupol, in particular, well demonstrate. The war in Ukraine is past the point of no return. For Putin, two options as of this date remain: Ukraine’s subjugation or its obliteration. At the most basic level, genocide and mass egregious human rights violations confront relatively free nations with fundamental questions of justice. Do we have a particular (perhaps vested) interest in safeguarding human rights and freedoms against tyranny? Should we be willing to oppose—which will entail coercive force—such mass violations that are causing untold suffering? Do relatively free nations have a moral obligation to prevent the indiscriminate slaughter of a people and war crimes? And if we choose to do nothing activelyas these play out, why?
Crimes against humanity and genocide, regardless of where they occur, render the human community morally culpable at several levels. Not only are these unspeakable acts crimes being committed by specific and direct perpetrators, they also implicate those people groups and societies that either sanction or tolerate and stand by as these crimes are being committed. That is to say, they implicate neighboring nations or people-groups that might have the wherewithal to prevent them. It will not suffice to say, religiously speaking, that God will render justice in the next life to victims of genocide and mass suffering (the broadly pacifist and non-interventionist argument) or that we will not directly involve ourselves in intervening (President Joe Biden’s position)—in order to prevent further holocaust. Both positions, alas, are an abdication of moral responsibility. Putin’s intention, lest we deliberately choose to ignore the bloodbath going at present, is to utterly destroy Ukraine’s sovereignty and “return” her to the Soviet sphere, regardless of the human cost. As of week four of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, over ten million Ukrainians have been uprooted. Are these not crimes against humanity?
In contrast to Biden’s broadcasting of what we cannot and will not do (which plays into Putin’s hand), there is much that the US, in concert with NATO nations, can do. We can indeed deliver humanitarian aid, as many groups are already doing. But the humanitarian effort must be accompanied by military support that takes any number of forms, even when it does not entail the direct placement of US soldiering forces in Ukraine. It requires the transfer of weaponry, ammunition, military supplies and equipment, military intelligence, cyber-security protection, and the establishment and fortification of multi-national battle groups in neighboring nations—all of which must fortify Ukrainian land, air, and sea defense capabilities. To illustrate, even when many in the West oppose implementing a “no-fly” zone, NATO members and the US should acknowledge that Ukraine needs the military tools to establish, at the very least, a “hard-to-fly” zone, and this on the basis of self-defense and just-war moral grounds. Self-defense, after all, is the very least that is justifiable against an oppressor. Again, we must face the gravity of the present situation: Ukraine, based on Putin’s intentions, will either be subjugated or obliterated.
This year the nations of the West celebrate the 74th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That declaration was not intended to be a purely rhetorical statement. Therein the post-war principle of international concern for human rights and human dignity took precedence over the claim of non-interference in foreign affairs. Coinciding with the UDHR was the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which placed all nations under an obligation to “prevent or punish” this most heinous of crimes. That moral obligation has not been lifted. Of course, since genocide is almost always committed with the connivance—if not the direct participation—of state authorities, it is hard to see how the UN might prevent atrocity without coercive intervention; after all, the UN engages in “peace-keeping,” not evil-preventing.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, the world witnessed several humanitarian crises that eclipsed standard notions of state sovereignty. At issue was whether nations have a moral obligation to prevent or stop genocidal tendencies (for example, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Somalia). In 2001 a report titled “The Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) from the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty created the beginnings of a shift that questioned the morality of non-intervention. In 2005 the UN adopted a document affirming the international community’s “responsibility to protect” its various populations and people-groups from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” In March 2011, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of “all necessary measures” to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas under the threat of attack.” Up until this point, the Council had authorized military force only with the consent of governing authorities or where the state had collapsed; this development, however, marked another significant shift. In the words of one international scholar, the overall effect of a “responsibility to protect” was not whether direct action is necessary in cases of outrageous social-political evil but what specific action is required, as well as by whom and in what context.
The moral obligation of specific—and immediate—action in the face of international trauma confronts us today with breathtaking force, despite our excuse-making and fear of war’s “escalation.” In recent days, the former chief of the economic section at the US embassy in Ukraine expressed both anger and shame. Anger because of the genocidal slaughter that is currently going on in her father’s homeland, and shame because “the US could do much more to stop this indiscriminate slaughter.” She is correct. Those fears need forceful amplification. Much more can be done—indeed, must be done, and immediately—to prevent further slaughter. US President Biden has chosen, in the words of one commentator, to lead “from behind, beside, above, or below”—that is, anywhere but up front. Biden simply cannot commit himself or his office to “anything equal to the scale of the Ukrainian catastrophe.” While Biden in timidity worries about “escalation,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is fighting for survival. If the US and NATO do not act in direct ways in the days ahead, notwithstanding the indirect effects of sanctions and diplomacy, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians will perish, and Europe, as we presently know it, has no future. Putin will continue bombing and laying siege to Ukrainian cities. After all, the rape and murder of the civilian population is central to a dictator’s war strategy.
Let us be honest: the US and NATO are not doing enough to confront and deter Putin and Russian forces, despite unforeseen Russian losses during these four weeks of war. Washington’s leniency, lack of moral backbone, and broadcasting of what we will or will not do all have the effect of emboldening Putin. If, for example, Russia’s nuclear threat works effectively now to deter Western nations from intervening, it will work against NATO in the future, in the post-Ukraine years to follow. (And, as I have argued elsewhere, the nuclear threat will involve Taiwan in the coming years, and most probably in the next five years.) In the stark words of Victoria Spartz, the lone Ukrainian-American US Congress member (R-IN), “This is not war. It is genocide of the Ukrainian people.” Hers is a sobering admonition: if the US president does not act “decisively” and “fast,” which he has not done, then “this blood of many millions of Ukrainians will be on his hands too.”
The difficult question for the US and NATO members—all of whom were in meeting this past week—is whether they are under moral obligation to undertake the involved and risk-laden action of intervention, in order to protect people-groups or nations beyond their borders in which they have no immediate self-interest. World War II was brought about precisely for this very reason: the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians and subordination of people-groups under Nazi military doctrine—a slaughter and intended subjugation revived by Putin and Russian forces in Ukraine. We do well to recall how Winston Churchill responded to Hitler’s aggression, despite the Allies’ early passivity and excuse-making.
Based on post-World War II moral intuitions, those nations having the wherewithal to actively defend and protect fellow human beings and people-groups against socio-political evil—which will entail the military deterrent of coercive force—are obligated to prevent “indiscriminate slaughter.”
One need not be Ukrainian to confess this disturbing truth.