Book Review: Hypocrisy and Human Rights: Resisting Accountability for Mass Atrocities

January 26, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

What is the point of all the noise on human rights violations, all that ‘speaking truth to power’ to repressive regimes who don’t listen, if no-one is ever brought to justice? When all those lawyers, Amnesty reports, email campaigns and UN treaties simply bounce off the brute realities of national power?

Kate Cronin-Furman’s intriguing new book uses a political economy lens to understand what is going on, using (lack of) accountability for mass atrocities as a particularly grim entry point.

She writes really well, so no need to rephrase. From the intro:

‘This is a book about what human rights pressure does when it doesn’t work. Repressive states with absolutely no intention of complying with their human rights obligations often change course dramatically in response to international pressure. They create toothless commissions, permit but then obstruct international observers’ visits, and pass showpiece legislation while simultaneously bolstering their repressive capacity.’

As a human rights lawyer/activist turned scholar (she teaches political science at University College London), she peppers her analysis with horrific real life examples from Darfur to Sri Lanka to the Rohingya.

Her conclusion on the ‘so what’s’:

‘External pressure will never convince perpetrator regimes to prosecute their own. Never. Absent the threat of invasion, the stakes of international opprobrium cannot compete with the stakes of domestic politics. Under heavy international pressure, the most perpetrator regimes will do is create quasi-compliant institutions. But that doesn’t mean naming and shaming tactics or “unrealistic” absolutist advocacy positions have no value. It’s true they won’t materially affect perpetrator regimes’ disincentives to provide justice for mass atrocities. However, they can have powerful demonstration effects.

The value of making unrealistic demands becomes clear when we consider the consequences of not making them. Take the dilemma activists faced in 2017– 2018 over whether to push for a Security Council referral of the Rohingya crisis to the ICC. Critics of the approach rightly pointed out that it was a nonstarter, given China’s support for Burma and Russia’s statements that it would veto any future ICC referrals. Even if one did miraculously pass, they added, it would be toothless and unlikely to materially increase the chances of prosecution of those most responsible for atrocities against the Rohingya.

But, however flawed of a prospect it is, UN Security Council action is the primary mechanism that exists for pursuing accountability for atrocities committed by non-ICC member states. Failing to pursue the option risked signaling to the Rohingya victims of Burmese atrocities that their suffering is less worthy of international concern than that of victims in Darfur, Syria, or Libya. Not only that, but abandoning the effort to get such an obviously qualifying case—one of truly horrific atrocities bearing the hallmarks of genocide—to the ICC would have downstream effects, potentially further undermining an already deficient and poorly entrenched system.

Unrealistic demands can also be part of an effective advocacy strategy aimed at third-party state audiences. Repressive regimes can use their peer states as a shield against international censure. The success of these tactics relies on the fig leaf that quasi-compliance offers to spare third-party states the embarrassment of being associated with an unambiguous rights abuser. Even if they go unmet, loud and cohesive demands for international recognition of a genocide, for referral to the ICC, or for sanctions can increase third-party states’ potential reputational consequences for supporting atrocity perpetrators.

This analysis is not analogous to the classic bargaining advice that it’s strategically sound to make maximalist demands because you’ll land at a compromise position. I am not suggesting that “unrealistic” asks like ICC referrals are an effective tactic through which to wring lesser concessions from the international community. They aren’t. Rather, because of the complex context in which victims’ pursuit of justice plays out, their demands have impacts on audiences other than those to whom they’re addressed. They can therefore produce valuable results through indirect paths.

Because advocacy asks like Security Council action are unlikely to lead to justice directly, victims and their allies should pair these demands with other tactics. The evidence presented in this book shows that domestic support is a necessary precondition for robust accountability exercises. This is not something victims will have an easy time effecting themselves, particularly in contexts where they are a marginalized minority and the dominant group opposes transitional justice. However, they can push civil society allies from the majority community to take this up with their co-ethnics, they can ask international NGOs to pursue it in their advocacy, and they can lobby for Western governments to include education and sensitization about atrocities as a priority in their funding and capacity building for local civil society.

Also, having elite members of accountability-resistant communities acknowledge atrocities and the need for justice can be an important step toward transforming public attitudes. Those engaged in advocacy with Western governments can push those governments to more vocally support soft-liners in perpetrator-aligned post-atrocity regimes. This may understandably be an unpalatable move for victims’ representatives to make, so is likely better left to their international allies, but we know from the study of transitional societies that it is usually in-group elites who are most able to effect change. International recognition of officials who have signaled a commitment to pursuing accountability can strengthen their position in internal power struggles. This can help ensure that justice doesn’t fall off the agenda when international attention moves on.

Finally, even (or perhaps especially) in situations where domestic and international politics make the chances of justice advocacy’s success very slim, victims and their allies can and should work to document atrocities and preserve evidence. This is no simple task when perpetrators remain in power. The state may surveil and intimidate victims and witnesses, restrict access to massacre sites, or even criminalize allegations of war crimes. In such contexts, evidence of atrocities can be extremely dangerous to collect and possess. But gathering it and keeping it safe—while working to chip away at international tolerance for impunity and pushing those actors who can affect domestic sentiment to commit to doing so—is one of the most effective ways to increase the chances that perpetrators will be held accountable for mass atrocities.

This is slow and frustrating work. But it’s worth remembering that justice for atrocities is, in some sense, unnatural. Shifting conditions of impunity requires a herculean effort and weak institutions and absent or inconsistent political will at the international level do little to mitigate this. Nevertheless, victims and their allies have managed it, often after decades-long campaigns of what appeared to be futile efforts. The absence of an easy path to justice doesn’t mean there’s no way to get there from here.’

I found this a really subtle and important book. And short (120 pages). The idea of ‘quasi-compliance’ as a logical form of defence by repressive regimes, and the observation that the true audience for all the noise is often other countries and societies, was really illuminating. Great book.

And here she is discussing the book on an NPR podcast

January 26, 2023
Duncan Green