The My Lai massacre took place on March 16, 1968, but 20 months elapsed before the world found out that US soldiers had brutally murdered around 500 civilians in a Vietnamese village. The story was broken by the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. On August 21 of last year, a chemical weapon attack killed around 1,000 people in Ghuta, a suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus. Just a few hours later, anyone with an internet connection could see the horrific images that several citizens recorded and uploaded to YouTube. In fact, these days anyone can use their mobile devices to watch testimony of North Korea’s gulag survivors.
Technology has meant that it is getting harder to use the “If only we had known” excuse to do nothing about human rights violations. And while the technical revolution has changed the way these violations get reported, turning this kind of document into accepted evidence in court is still an uphill struggle. Meanwhile, civilian protection and punishment for the guilty still follow the rules of realpolitik, which is guided by strategic interests, relationships of power, and, only when it suits a nation’s needs, grand principles.
It is a paradox that while the technological revolution expands global knowledge of (and public indignation over) crimes against humanity, several geostrategic factors are working to reduce the scope for implementing the “protection of civilians” principle, as adopted by the United Nations in 2005. According to this doctrine, which was invoked to justify intervention in Libya, if a sovereign state does not guarantee protection of its own civilians, the international community has the right and a duty to step in.
One of those constraining factors is the fact that the United States — which has the greatest military capability for humanitarian intervention — is currently showing a reluctance to get involved in such endeavors.
Witnesses of North Korea’s horror
The testimony of dozens of survivors in either public or confidential sessions make up the backbone of a recent United Nations report documenting crimes against humanity and other gross violations of human rights in North Korea. Here are some:
—Jee Heon A. detailed how a female prisoner managed to carry her pregnancy to term and give birth inside a detention center. “We were so curious. It was the first baby being born [normally they were forced to have an abortion]. A guard showed up and told her to stick the baby’s head in the water. The mother begged, ‘Forgive me.’ He kept hitting her. The baby was crying. With trembling hands, she stuck it in the water head down. The baby stopped crying. We saw bubbles coming out of its mouth. These things were routine.”
—Kim Hye-sook said she was interned at a camp for political prisoners at age 13, along with seven relatives. One day her father asked why they had been jailed; they never saw him again. Kim was released in 2001 after 28 years of forced labor and starvation. She then found out that her family had been punished because her grandfather had fled to South Korea during the war.
—An unidentified witness said his 17-year-old son was arrested in 2011 “for watching South Korean films.” The torture disfigured him. He was released in exchange for a bribe, but died of brain hemorrhage.
—A former guard named Ahn Myong-chol testified that in the event of a war he had orders to “liquidate” all prisoners “to eliminate the evidence.” The UN estimates North Korea holds over 100,000 prisoners.
“In some way, the failed experiences of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya undermined the lessons of Rwanda [where the international community passively stood by while a genocide was perpetrated in 1994],” says Robin Niblett, director of the London think-tank Chatham House, in an interview conducted in Madrid. “US public opinion is weary of high-cost deployments with uncertain results. In general, following those experiences, Western societies have become very skeptical as to what those actions can achieve, and to government promises as well. Besides, the crisis has reduced available resources.” Complicating things even further is the rising influence of China and the renewed role played by Russia, both of whom enjoy veto power in the UN Security Council and share a historical unwillingness to allow these interventions.
“The truth is, the responsibility to protect only works in those areas where the great powers have no interests,” notes Niblett. “So the Central African Republic is okay, but Syria is not, and neither is North Korea.” Even so, adds this expert, this low propensity for action following the numerous interventions of recent decades — Bosnia (1992), Kosovo (1998), Sierra Leone (2000), Libya (2011), among others — will probably give way to some intermediate attitude somewhere between hyperactivism and today’s reluctance.
While it may be that the technological revolution and citizen activism cannot conquer realpolitik, they can help turn public opinion around, and this is also a key element. Documenting crimes is now a possibility for millions of people, and so is reporting them. Cellphones, video cameras and tweets have replaced the letters, postcards and telegrams that Amnesty International (AI) used for decades to flood the offices of tyrants to demand the release of political prisoners.
“Even if the reports do not translate into complete accountability, it is accumulated pressure,” says Sherif Elsayed-Ali, deputy director for global affairs at AI. His colleague Tanya O’Carroll, an expert in technology and human rights, underscores that the new systems break the state’s monopoly on information and open up new avenues of investigation, but that real change is always a result of a combination of tools: mobilization (much easier through the social networks), pressure on politicians and other powerful actors, and the courts. Yet O’Carroll warns about the ambivalence of technology: the same tools that are highly useful to report abuse in very closed countries with strong censorship, can also be used by authorities to spy on and arrest the same activists. She also insists that traditional methods — contrasting the information with sources on the ground, for instance — are still essential to authenticate abuse reports obtained through new means.
In any case, many shadows remain despite the tech revolution. The Central African Republic is still the scene of flagrant human rights violations, and the UN has already alerted about an ethnic cleansing of Muslims there. Peter Bouckaert, of Human Rights Watch, tweeted last week that journalists are leaving that country and asked internet users to retweet the reports of those who remain on the ground.
Only one US soldier received punishment for My Lai. Meanwhile, Bashar al-Assad is destroying his chemical arsenal in Syria, but he has reverted to killing people with air raids that drop barrels full of explosives, while the military deployment in Central African Republic seems insufficient to stop the killings. All the while, though, the evidence keeps piling up.