Grave Violations of Human Rights

Does the international community care?

The Human Rights Movement is constantly evolving, and universal respect for human rights has improved dramatically in the past century. Although the international community has progressed in it’s recognition and attempt to protect individual human rights,  it has been widely unsuccessful in it’s ability to prevent the violation of grave human rights, or to intervene and stop them when they do occur. At the same time, however, the international community has been successful in it’s actions to bring justice to those responsible for the violations, both in terms of state and individual responsibility. Three examples of the international community’s actions regarding the violation of grave human rights include those involving genocide, ethnic cleansing and starvation.


The gravest violation of human rights is genocide. In 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations passed the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, or the Genocide Convention. It took effect in 1951,and  provided a legal definition of genocide and established genocide as a crime under international law. According to the Genocide Convention, any of the following actions, when committed with the intent to eliminate a particular national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, constitutes genocide:  killing members of the group,  causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,  deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to kill, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and  forcibly transferring children out of a group (powers, 57).

The most dramatic case of genocide was the Holocaust of WW II, in which the Nazi regime systematically murdered 6 million Jews and 5 million other “undesirables” (powers, 47). The Allies had abundant intelligence of Hitler’s Final Solution, yet almost no intervention was attempted to stop it. The policy of non-intervention was fueled by several issues, most importantly, the refusal to violate the sovereign power of the German state. Government officials and journalists also played down the intelligence, claiming they were not substantiated, and exaggerated. Allied leaders were also convinced that the most efficient way to stop the murder of civilians was by the military defeat of Germany. Most significantly, however, the vast majority of the population simply did not – or could not – believe the reports. It was almost impossible for a rational human mind to accept that it was possible for such revolting, inhuman and evil atrocities to be carried out against an entire race of people (powers, 32-45).

With the end of the war, and liberation of the concentration camps, the international community was forced to fully accept the carnage that had occurred. They demanded justice for the 11 million dead, as well as the survivors. An International Military Tribunal was established  in Nuremberg, Germany, to try leading the Nazi Party officials who were responsible for the planning and design of the Final Solution (powers, 48).

The term “genocide” wasn’t yet fully accepted by world leaders and the first indictments the Tribunal placed against the defendants were crimes against humanity, including crimes against peace, for starting an aggressive war (powers, 49).

The Tribunal was significant because it not only was holding individuals accountable for violating human rights, but also because it was the first time that government officials were held accountable and faced punishment, for crimes committed against their own citizens. The notion of state sovereignty was still highly valued, though, and the charges focused  on the crimes against peace, and prosecuted only those crimes that had been committed after Germany had initiated an aggressive war with the invasion of another sovereign nation (powers, 49).

The term “genocide” was included in the 3rd count. The defendants were accused of “…genocide, viz., the extermination of racial and national groups, against the civilian population of certain occupied territories” (powers, 50).

Determined to prevent such a horrendous event from occurring again, . In 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations passed the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (powers, 57). That same year, The United Nations took the next dramatic step in 1948, when it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It wasn’t adopted as a treaty – but rather it was meant to “proclaim a ‘common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” (burns, 25).

Despite the passing of the Genocide Convention, and the determination to never allow genocide to occur again, it did, and surprisingly, the international community once again stood by and let it occur. In 1994, Rwanda suffered a 100 day massacre of Tutsi’s by the Hutu’s, which left more then 800,000 dead (powers, 334).   Although Belgian UN peacekeepers were stationed in Rwanda, they were ordered to not intervene, and all foreign diplomats, etc. were evacuated. The world sat by and refused to intervene (powers, 364-385). After the genocide had stopped, and the true horrors could not be ignored, President Clinton decided to go to Rwanda to appease his nation’s guilt, explaining that the international community “did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror” (powers, 386). It can therefore be assumed that the international community didn’t fully appreciate the terror of the Holocaust, or what the promise of “never again” encompassed.

The United Nations did, however, make a substantial effort to bring the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide to trial. It passed a resolution to establish a Tribunal to prosecute the perpetrators of the Rwanda genocide, modeled on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at the Hague (powers, 484). Unlike the ICTFY, however, the process has been slow, few convictions have been made, and the success is still unsure (forsythe, 101-02).

Ethnic Cleansing is a strong example of a grave violation of human rights. The term was introduced in 2001 to identify and categorize the violations of human rights carried out by the Serbian military during the wars in former Yugoslavia.  The actions of ethnic cleansing include torture, murder, arbitrary arrest and detention, extra-judicial executions, rape and sexual assault, confinement if civilians in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation of civilians, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, and wanton destruction of property” (powers, 483). The United Nations Commission for the former Yugoslavia further defined ethnic cleansing as “rendering an area wholly homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups” (powers, 483).

The ethnic cleansing taking place in Bosnia, and later Kosovo, wasn’t a secret. In “A Problem From Hell“, Samantha Powers claims that “no other atrocity campaign in the 20th century was better monitored or understood by the U.S. government” (powers, 264). They had intelligence reports, photographs, even satellite imagery. Despite overwhelming evidence however, the U.S. Government, led by President George Bush, decided not to intervene militarily (powers, 264).

Pressure began to build however, as the reports and vivid images were widely introduced to the public. President Bush was finally compelled to make a public commitment to document Serbian aggression, and develop a plan to stop it (powers, 266). a UN-EU peace conference was scheduled, and the United States pledged humanitarian aid (powers, 281). In August of 1992, the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to insure the delivery of the humanitarian aid (powers, 281). However, the International Community was still not prepared to intervene militarily. A small UN contingent of approximately 6,000 peace keepers were deployed. Ironically, several United Nations sanctions in place in the former Yugoslavia were actually aiding the Serbian forces in their campaign of violence. An arms embargo was in place, and this prevented the Muslim civilians in Bosnia to obtain weapons to defend themselves.

The United States decision of non-intervention was fueled by several factors. First, the belief was that the situation in Bosnia was a civil war, not a war of aggression. Government officials also felt that measures like lifting the arms embargo would actually cause more harm then good. Government leaders also did not want to risk the lives of American soldiers, and finally, the cost of intervention would be steep (powers, chapters  9 and 11).

By November 1995, the Clinton Administration was in the White House and domestic and Foreign pressure finally forced the U.S. government to take action. They supported NATO air strikes, and the Clinton administration brokered a peace accord in Dayton Ohio, the Dayton Accords. By this point, however, 200,000 people had already been killed and one out of every 2 people had lost homes (powers, 440).

Although the war in Bosnia was over, intense violence soon sprung up in Kosovo, which had long been a location of intense Serb – Kosovo Albanian hostility. NATO was quicker this time to launch a bombing campaign in Kosovo, hoping to force the Serbian violence to ease, as had happened in Bosnia. Yet this time, the Serbian military retaliated by severely stepping up it’s brutality against the citizens of Kosovo (powers, 450).

If the International community had failed to stop the ethnic cleansing from occurring, it succeeded in redeeming itself in the aftermath, with the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at the Hague (powers, 483). The Tribunal focused on individual responsibility, including holding Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic on charges of crimes against humanity (powers, 458). Defendants from Military leaders to prison guards are being indicted at The Hague, and are being forced to take personal responsibility for their horrendous actions.

An example of a grave violation of human rights which receives less attention is starvation. In the 1930’s, Stalin and his Marxist regime in the Soviet Union were determined to crush resistance in the Ukraine. They decided that the most effective strategy was “mass terror throughout the body of the nation” (chalk and jonassohn, 291)., the body being the peasantry – and  they initiated a program of terror-famine in 1932 (chalk and jonassohn, 291).

The Soviet leaders began by demanding an increased percentage of the Ukrainian wheat harvest, even though the harvest had been low. Next, a decree was passed that all collective farm property including cattle and grain were considered state property and therefore “sacred and inviolable” (chalk and jonassohn, 293). The punishment for disobedience to this decree was execution. Searches were conducted and usually all food, livestock and valuables were confiscated (chalk and jonassohn, 293). The formal searched became routine, and those who did not appear to be starving found themselves under suspicion.

The famine intensified through the winter, when Stalin issued a new decree that all distribution of grain would be held from the peasants until the grain quotas he had demanded were delivered. Desperation accompanied the starvation, and high rates of suicide, murder and even cannibalism emerged (chalk and jonassohn, 295). Within only a short period, millions were dead – approximately one quarter of the rural population(chalk and jonassohn, 291)..

Intervention by the International community was not forthcoming. Although knowledge of the forced famine existed in western Europe and the United Sates, only slight pressure was placed on the Soviet regime – pressure which was ignored (chalk and jonassohn, 298). There has never been an official investigation of the mass forced starvation that occurred in the Ukraine in the early 1930’s (chalk and jonassohn, 298)..

Although the international community has progressed in it’s recognition and attempt to protect individual human rights,  flaws still exist in its to prevent the violation of grave human rights, or to intervene and stop them when they do occur. However, the international community has been successful in it’s actions to bring justice to those responsible for the violations, both in terms of state and individual responsibility. Examples of the international communities’ efforts, or non efforts, can be seen in the violation of the grave human rights of genocide, ethnic cleansing and starvation.


Works Cited

Burns, Weston. “Human Rights”. International Human Rights Overviews. Claude-Weston.
page 25

Chalk, Frank and Jonassohn, Kurt. The History and Sociology of Genocide. U.S.A. Yale University Press: 1990. pages 291, 293, 295, 298

Forsythe, David P. Human Rights in International Relations. Cambridge, United Kingdom. Cambridge University Press: 2000. pages 101-102

Powers, Samantha. A Problem From Hell. New York. Basic Books: 2002.
pages 32-45, 47-50, 57264, 266, 281, 334,  440, 450, 458, 483-4, 392-440, 248-327

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