Responding to Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide:

Where Has the World Gone Wrong and What

Can the U.S. Do About It?

Joshua Burg | July 2021

(Left to right) A Sri Lankan U.N. Peacekeeper in Haiti (2010); a refugee camp in Wau, South Sudan (2016); Rohingya refugees protest in Bangladesh (2018)


s millions of people worldwide continue to face mass expulsion, imprisonment, and killings, the failure to prevent these occurrences weighs on the collective conscience of the developing and developed world alike. Why is it that the Rohingyan Genocide, the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans, or the mass detention of Uighurs can persist despite decades of precedent, and what should we or can we, as Americans, do differently?


Ineffective Intergovernmental Organizations


Before diving into the discussion of how the United States can better combat ethnic cleansing and genocide abroad, a brief discussion of where the international community has failed is necessary. The term “ethnic cleansing” gained popularity in the 1990s during the Yugoslav Wars but is not itself a legally defined term. Although used in numerous U.N. reports and various tribunals, the term is not explicitly defined nor directly prosecutable. That being said, ethnic cleansing often constitutes various crimes against humanity or possibly even genocide: offenses that are undoubtedly prosecutable.


The ability to prosecute atrocities, however, often collides with the limitations of intergovernmental institutions. The International Criminal Court (ICC), for instance, is rather constrained in its ability to prosecute perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and genocide due to its limiting legal framework and inability to ensure compliance.


More specifically, the ICC is unable to engage in investigations of non-member states, limiting the capacity of the enforcement of international law in states that simply refuse to adhere to it. Non-compliance is a problem only compounded by the unfortunate fact that only two of the five members of the U.N. Security Council have signed onto its charter; China, Russia, and the United States do not recognize the legitimacy of the ICC.


In fact, the United States has actively taken actions to undermine the ICC. In June of last year, then-President Trump ordered sanctions against various high-ranking ICC officials investigating possible U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. Such actions only serve to harm the credibility of the most significant institution fighting against crimes against humanity, and makes the United States a hindrance to achieving justice.


Making matters worse, the ICC is often lobbied by parties with political motives in ways that undermine the pursuit of justice. For instance, numerous authoritarian leaders– such as Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004– have asked the ICC to prosecute rebels for various fabricated crimes. Even if the ICC rejects these cases, the Court has still unintentionally granted a degree of legitimacy to the claims by providing abusive regimes with legal channels to justify their actions.  


The Failures of Peacekeeping


The United Nations has also experienced numerous failures when intervening in genocides and ethnic cleansings. U.N. peacekeepers are supposed to be the principal agents of monitoring and intervening in such conflicts, but they have often been ineffective at reducing violence and have even been known to worsen crises.


In an article from the International Political Science Review titled “Human Trafficking: The Unintended Effects of United Nations Intervention,” the authors conclude that peacekeeping operations often facilitate the development of sex trafficking networks in target countries. The authors attribute the development of these networks to the propensity for U.N. peacekeeping operations to lengthen the duration of conflicts (allowing more time for networks to form and strengthen). Additionally, they speculate that peacekeeping forces themselves may directly contribute to human trafficking networks.


Evidence that peacekeepers have engaged in improper conduct extends well beyond the previous study’s investigations into Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and Haiti. A U.N. investigation from 2016 identified 41 peacekeepers as suspects in various sexual abuse cases during operations in the Central African Republic (CAR). This comes in addition to the 150 accusations of sexual abuse in the CAR from 2013 to 2015.


The United Nations, despite its often good intentions, has routinely failed to respond to claims of ethnic cleansing and genocide adequately. Beyond high-profile failures of peacekeeping operations in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, recent operations in South Sudan have shed light on its unimpressive track record. An internal U.N. investigation of peacekeeping operations in the South Sudanese capital of Juba found that peacekeepers had failed "to protect civilians under threat of physical violence..." Time and time again, the U.N. has shown that peacekeeping, at least as currently structured, is ineffective and possibly detrimental to the cessation of ethnic cleansings and genocides.


The judicial arm of the U.N., the International Court of Justice (ICJ), is also riddled with problems similar to those in the ICC. Besides issues of non-compliance, the ICJ does not allow for the representation of non-state actors. This means that various nations that lack formal statehood cannot represent their interests in the ICJ and present the crimes they have suffered to the Court. 


Although an in-depth investigation of how best to reform peacekeeping operations and the international judicial system is much needed, the rest of this article will instead focus on how the United States can best stop ethnic cleansing and genocide abroad, given the current structure of international organizations. That being said, one such solution the United States should certainly be considering is leading a movement to reform and fully participate in these intergovernmental organizations.

What Can the U.S. Do to Promote Stability Abroad? 


A simple step that the United States should consider going forward is to analyze and consider redesignating numerous “ethnic cleansings” as “genocides.” The Biden administration has shown some commitment to this idea already. In April, President Biden formally recognized the Armenian Genocide, perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during World War I.


The perceived denunciation was met with an immediate dismissal by Turkish President Recep Ayyip Erdogan and a rebuttal decrying that Americans “need to look... in the mirror and make an evaluation” based on our own history. Of course, Erdogan’s remarks do not change the reality of Turkey’s culpability in the Armenian Genocide. However, Erdogan’s remarks show that we must take the darkest aspects of our own past seriously if we want our recognition of other nations’ atrocities to be taken seriously as well. Perhaps the most straightforward and meaningful way to do so is by seriously reviewing numerous atrocities against Native Americans, issuing a formal apology, and considering labeling various chapters of our history as acts of genocide. Even if this is not sufficient in reconciling with our past, it shows a commitment to taking leadership against acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and it helps to eliminate fodder for criminal regimes looking to point fingers back rather than accept their own past or present.


The Biden administration may have done the right thing by continuing to label the Uighur Genocide in Xinjiang as genocide, following the Trump administration’s decision in January to label it as a genocide formally. However, now is an ideal time to correct the Trump administration’s failure to designate the genocide in Myanmar as a genocide. Now is the ideal time to recognize the “ethnic cleansing” in South Sudan in 2017 as a genocide. Formal recognition of genocide will not only put direct diplomatic pressure on the target nation, but it also puts diplomatic pressure on our allies, and even our adversaries, to make similar declarations and pursue policies consistent with such designations.


Another worthwhile consideration in response to genocide and ethnic cleansing is the use of economic sanctions. In the June release of Midwestern Citizen, Senior Editor Raj Ashar gave an analysis of economic sanctions that emphasized the dangers of comprehensive sanctions– sanctions with broad restrictions aimed at disrupting the entire economy of the target nation. It is right to conclude that Western powers must be cautious in leveraging such comprehensive sanctions as a response to ethnic cleansing and genocide as they may inadvertently worsen the humanitarian crisis. That being said, targeted sanctions– sanctions leveraged at specific industries and individuals– are much more promising than their more comprehensive, all-encompassing counterparts.


In April of this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced just such a measure: the imposition of sanctions on two Burmese state-operated enterprises. The idea behind these sanctions is quite simple. By restricting the Burmese regime’s economic capacity and access to markets, the United States is placing diplomatic and economic pressure on the regime and reducing access to wealth that could be used to perpetrate atrocities against Rohingya Muslims situated within the country’s borders.


For instance, various segments of the gemstone market serve a critical role in funding the military of Myanmar and supporting their genocide against the Rohingya people. Targeted sanctions against this industry would have a profound economic impact on the military regime, especially considering that Myanmar controls more than 90% of the world’s fine jade and rubies.


Besides directly combatting the regimes behind atrocities, dealing with the influx of refugees that coincides with genocide and ethnic cleansing is arguably of equal importance. In this capacity, the United States has already done reasonably well. In May of this year, the Biden administration vowed to fund an additional $155 million to continue supporting Rohingya refugees and host communities in Bangladesh. This follows the contribution of over $1.3 billion in humanitarian aid to those affected by the crisis since 2017. The policy of funding improvements to the living conditions of displaced persons is undoubtedly helpful in reducing mortality rates and improving quality of life in refugee camps. Additionally, the provision of humanitarian aid for refugees is a nonpartisan issue– funding has persisted under the last two administrations– making it one of the least controversial ways the United States could alleviate the suffering inflicted by genocide and ethnic cleansing.


Concluding Remarks


Although there may be an argument to be made that international law works far more often than it fails, we must continue to obsess over its failures. When international law fails, that is when the greatest atrocities and darkest dimensions of humanity manifest themselves. The United States has the potential to serve as a safety net for at least some of these failures, and as we move away from the “America First” diplomacy of the Trump administration and re-engage with the global community, moral leadership is becoming a paramount ingredient in our foreign policy. 

Joshua Burg is a Senior Writer at Midwestern Citizen and a rising senior at the University of Michigan studying Political Science, Economics, and History. Raised in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, Joshua, though a devout Wolverines fan, has a soft spot for the Northwestern Wildcats. He is interested in environmental policy, political theory, international politics, and early medieval history. Outside of MC and academics, Joshua has been picking up chess and crossword puzzles to help pass the time during lockdown.