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The Next International Right

The past century was one of barbarism and mass murder, one in which the world stood by while large populations were exterminated by governments bent on power and possessed of the means of killing.

After World War II, the "international community" determined that the most important goal of the new international system created for the post-war era would be the prevention of genocide. "Never again," we were told, and nations signed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in large numbers.

Among the nations who signed were Cambodia (1950), the Congo (1962) and Rwanda (1975), though Rwanda was originally covered by Belgium’s agreement in 1952, when Rwanda was a Trust Territory administered by Belgium.

These three nations, of course, went on to become the greatest sites of genocide in the second half of the 20th century. (China's mass murders and starvation under Mao are more properly called "democide," as they did not single out a particular group or culture.)

In every case, the "international community" stood aside while the genocide took place unimpeded by the parchment barriers of international agreement. Tea, sympathy and peacekeeping forces were provided after the killing was done, but no action was taken to seriously inconvenience the killers while they were at work. International agreeements, and the international community, have proved as useless as the League of Nations was in confronting Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia.

As one article on the Rwandan genocide in Foreign Affairs puts it:

As reports of genocide reached the outside world starting in late April, public outcry spurred the United Nations to reauthorize a beefed up "UNAMIR II" on May 17. During the following month, however, the U.N. was unable to obtain any substantial contributions of troops and equipment. As a result, on June 22 the Security Council authorized France to lead its own intervention, Operation Turquoise, by which time most Tutsi were already long dead.

Nor have efforts to deter genocide by trying killers after the fact done very well. As the magazine Legal Affairs reports, Rwandan killers have turned up actually on the payroll of the "International Court" designated to try war criminals. It is, said one observer, as if Klaus Barbie had turned up on the staff at Nuremberg. Pol Pot, meanwhile, apparently died in bed.

This has led some observers to suggest that genocide isn’t something that can be addressed by international conventions or tribunals. A recent article in the Washington University Law Quarterly argues that the most important thing we can do to prevent genocide is to ensure that civilian populations are armed:

The question of genocide is one of manifest importance in the closing years of a century that has been extraordinary for the quality and quantity of its bloodshed. As Elie Wiesel has rightly pointed out, "This century is the most violent in recorded history. Never have so many people participated in the killing of so many people."

Recent events in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and many other parts of the world make it clear that the book has not yet been closed on the evil of official mass murder. Contemporary scholars have little explored the preconditions of genocide. Still less have they asked whether a society's weapons policy might be one of the institutional arrangements that contributes to the probability of its government engaging in some of the more extreme varieties of outrage.

Though it is a long step between being disarmed and being murdered--one does not usually lead to the other--but it is nevertheless an arresting reality that not one of the principal genocides of the twentieth century, and there have been dozens, has been inflicted on a population that was armed. (Emphasis added).

The result, conclude law professor Daniel Polsby and criminologist Don Kates, is that "a connection exists between the restrictiveness of a country's civilian weapons policy and its liability to commit genocide."

Armed citizens, they argue, are far less likely to be massacred than defenseless ones, and armed resistance to genocide is more likely to receive outside aid. It is probably no accident that the better-armed resistance to genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo drew international intervention, while the hapless Rwandans and Cambodians did not. When victims resist, what is merely cause for horror becomes cause for alarm, and those who are afraid of the conflict’s spread will support (as Europe did) intervention out of self-interest when they could not be bothered to intervene out of compassion.

It is no wonder that genocide is so often preceded by efforts to disarm the people.

Current events in Zimbabwe appear to be playing out in the fashion that Polsby and Kates warn against. If this is the case, then surely the human rights community could be expected to take on the subject of armed citizens, particularly as the right to arms is far closer to the individual rights that make up the "first generation" of internationally recognized human rights.

After all, the human rights community has long argued that all sorts of dramatic changes in international law are justified if they might make genocide unlikely and has been nothing less than flexible in discovering such "post-first-generation" human rights as "developmental rights," "environmental rights" and a "right to peace."

In fact, the human rights community has addressed the issue -- but from the wrong side. They seem generally supportive of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s effort to put in place a global gun control regime "including a prohibition of unrestricted trade and private ownership of small arms."

In other words, in the face of evidence that an armed populace prevents genocide, the human rights community has largely gotten behind a campaign to ensure that there will be no armed populaces anywhere in the world.

It seems to me that the human rights community has things exactly backward. Given that the efforts of the international community to prevent and punish genocide over the past several decades have been, to put it politely, a dismal failure, perhaps it is time to try a new approach. International human rights law is supposed to be a "living" body of law that changes with the needs of the times in order to secure important goals -- chief among which is the prevention of genocide. Given that the traditional approaches of conventions and tribunals have failed miserably, the human rights community should be prepared to endorse a new international human right: the right of law-abiding citizens to be armed.

It may seem odd to make such an argument at a time when D.C. is being terrorized by a mysterious gunman. But no one should pretend that rights do not have costs. We recognize the right to free speech not because we believe that speech does no harm, but because we believe that free speech has benefits that outweigh the harm. We recognize the right to abortion not because we believe that it is costless, but because the cost of having the state supervise women’s pregnancies is seen as worse. And we recognize the freedom of religion not because religion is safe -- it can and does lead to violence, as the worldwide epidemic of Islamic terrorism demonstrates -- but because having the government prescribe what is orthodox is worse.

Similarly, an armed populace might conceivably lead to more crime (though the criminological evidence suggests otherwise). But even if one believes that widespread ownership of firearms by law-abiding citizens leads to somewhat more crime, that is not by itself an argument against creating such a right, merely a cost to be set against the increased protection from genocide that such a right would provide.

Given the high value that we (supposedly, at least) place on preventing genocide, it seems unlikely that minor increases in crime rates could justify eliminating such a protection.

I wonder if the Bush administration’s diplomatic corps will have the nerve and the integrity to push this argument at the U.N. and elsewhere, not merely as an argument in opposition to global gun control, which they have been making already, but an argument in favor of a positive right to be armed as part of international human rights law? Perhaps they will, if enough Americans encourage them to.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee and publishes InstaPundit.Com. He is co-author, with Peter W. Morgan, of The Appearance of Impropriety: How the Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Government, Business, and Society (The Free Press, 1997).

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