the intervention ratchet’s lexicon: human rights cultures and the genocidal duck rule

This is the second post in a series on the lexicon of intervention’s slippery slope. The series is intended to educate human rights advocates about the opportunities, costs, and opportunity costs of coercive responses to mass atrocities.

In my past two posts on the disaggregation of mass atrocities prevention, I addressed two components of our present understanding of the field: the moral teleology of atrocities termination research, and the need for an expanded concept of policy leverage’s role in preventive action. I based my conclusions on Alex de Waal, Jens Meierhenrich, and Bridget Conley-Zilkic’s excellent Fletcher Forum essay on the intellectual paucity of the contemporary atrocities prevention project. The essay eviscerates the multi-level cognitive failure of the atrocities prevention community: with aggregated, un-nuanced research, academic perceptions of genocide’s origins and evolution impact policy officials’ decision-making processes, creating an unproductive and, frequently, irresponsible insulated feedback loop. At their core, the contemporary failings of atrocities prevention policy are cognitive, founded in an understandable, perceptive bias towards simplification, gratification, and accessibility.

The essay’s third section addresses the “ethical imperative” underlining our current perception of atrocities termination. De Waal et al. appropriately cite a diplomatic scuffle between US/UN ambassador Susan Rice and then-US/Sudan envoy Scott Gration over the trajectory of atrocities in Darfur. In 2009, Gration categorized Khartoum’s “coordinated” genocidal campaign in Darfur as complete, in contrast to Rice’s (and the U.S. government’s) insistence on the “ongoing genocide” in Sudan’s western province. For the Sudan advocacy community, Gration’s statement demonstrated the rocky road towards the Obama administration’s delayed Sudan policy, placed in stark contrast to the Bush administration’s near-decade of moral certitude and condemnation. From a statistical perspective, Gration was correct: a 2010 Lancet epidemiological survey of Darfur mortality rates (ungated) placed the October 2007-December 2008 death count at 2,160–indicating a sustained, exponential decline in atrocities–and by 2010, inter-communal conflict had supplanted civilian-targeted atrocities as the primary cause of conflict-related death in Darfur. But, lest Stalin’s age-old, too-oft-quoted adage be reinforced, advocates reverted to the “genocidal duck rule“: if it walks like genocide and quacks like genocide, it’s probably genocide.

The genocidal duck rule lies at the heart of our current perception of mass atrocities prevention and termination. In the case of Darfur, advocates understand IDP and refugee camps as integrally intertwined with genocide and mass atrocities, a symptom of a similar, systematic crisis. Under de Waal et al.’s (appropriate) assessment, the rule demonstrates a cognitive bias towards normative, rather than positive analysis. The perceptive continuity between acute violence and the sustained suffering of displaced persons necessitates a convergence in policy goals, objectives, and mechanisms. Economic and political sanctions, which previously served as a short-term mechanism for incentivized decision-making, become a long-term point of leverage against the Sudanese regime, to be removed only after a comprehensive, inclusive solution to the displacement crisis is achieved. Never-mind that acute violence and displacement result from differentiated policy objectives and incentives; at a cognitive level, the duck rule reinforces persistence of political evil, with little room for dynamic evolution. As in the case of Nick Kristof’s latest column (more on this in a later post), policy analysis is reduced to the thematic (Ahmed Harun’s overlapping presence in Darfur and South Kordofan) and the tactical (the actions of a genocidal counterinsurgency campaign), rather than the strategic (the Khartoum regime’s varied political motivations, regime stability concerns, and the like). As de Waal et al. suggest, the more minute “political marketplace” of violence is under-emphasized, with prevention advocates focusing unrealistic expectations on cataclysmic regime shifts.

Why does this happen? After two decades of substantive, valuable criticism on the moral hazards and political shortcomings of international human rights advocacy, why does our perception of mass atrocities remain stifled and un-nuanced? As I’ve mentioned, de Waal et al. view cognitive bias as the primary explanatory mechanism. The criticism is appropriate, but insufficient. Cognitive failure can create poor analysis, but its impact on the policymaking process is indirect, due to the varied, multi-actor nature of organizational decision-making. Rather, policy failures represent the confluence of cognitive failures and exclusive, siloed organizational cultures. To use Philip Tetlock’s cognitive-actor model, human rights organizations’ liberal ideological commitments prioritize “human rights hedgehogs”–committed ideologists–over “foxes,” who adopt critical analysis and flexible thought. As Severine Autesserre describes in her latest analysis of “dominant narratives” and policy interventions in the DRC (ungated), human rights bureaucracies, including advocacy organizations, policymaking bodies, and international institutions, continuously reinforce ideological rigidity, marginalizing policy dissent. For the atrocities prevention enthusiast, non-competitive, non-disruptive conflict analysis is an easier, more reliable course of action than the disaggregated, cautionary narrative. In an industry that places morality over politics, action over caution, and universalism over nuance, cognitive biases are easily reinforced, with problematic consequences for policy action.

In addition to the Intervention Ratchet’s Lexicon series, this post is the last in a three-part assessment of contemporary narratives of mass atrocities prevention and genocide termination, sparked by de Waal et al.’s essay. You can read the first two parts here and here.

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