Genocide Prevention by Democracies: OIMBY?

And now we arrive at a paradox of genocide prevention. Although one of the best preventives of the genocide of a state’s minority population is the existence of a liberal democratic regime within that state, quite the opposite is true of democracy in bystander states. Here, the desire to be reelected, as in the case of the Allied governments at Versailles, or simply to avoid negative public reaction, may preclude any governmental action on behalf of endangered citizens of another state. Recall … President Roosevelt’s refusal to authorize the bombing of Auschwitz because of the fear of embarrassment, not to mention his earlier narrowing of immigration possibilities for Jews seeking refuge in the United States. Opinion polls had revealed the high level of anti-Semitism in the United States that might make his governing more difficult and, of course, his reelection as well. The British followed a similar path, as did President Clinton more recently in the Rwandan genocide.

At the Evian immigration conference in 1938 …, the only state to open its borders to Jewish immigration was the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo, a dictator who was among the least responsive to public opinion. The Western democracies were extremely uncooperative in opening their borders. To be sure, public outcry on behalf of a threatened population potentially may reach a larger audience in a democracy than in an autocracy, if allowed, but on the whole the presumption in democracies, almost universally accepted, is that the electorate will be far more responsive to issues directly concerning its own perceived well-being than to the concerns of “alien” people….

Democracy, therefore, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, its spread will make the lives of minorities more secure within states that democratize successfully. This conclusion is suggested by the findings of Rudolph Rummel and Barbara Harff. On the other hand, populations threatened with genocide may find fewer islands of refuge within democratic states. Recent restrictions on the granting of political asylum in European countries, not to mention greater difficulties generally in immigrating to Europe, and all of this even after the European Holocaust experience, suggest the importance of this distinction.

SOURCE: The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century, by Manus I. Midlarsky (Cambridge U. Press, 2005), pp. 392-394

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