Of Russia's many excuses for invading Georgia, its claim of preventing genocide has set back a new idea in human history. In 2005, the UN said the international community must intervene in countries suffering mass atrocities – putting mercy before sovereignty. Russia abused this idea in Georgia. The world now needs to save this humanitarian impulse to prevent real genocides.
No mass atrocities were occurring, or were likely to occur, in Georgia's breakaway enclave of South Ossetia on the night of Aug. 7-8 when Russia invaded. Later reports by journalists indicated Georgian forces had been attacked first by Russian-backed insurgents. A few hundred civilians on both sides were killed in the crossfire and bombardments.
While tragic, the killings hardly rise to the level of genocide. And Russia had other means to calm or prevent the situation.
The fact that Russia didn't first use diplomacy or didn't restrict its forces to South Ossetia only reinforces reports that Moscow instigated the conflict in order to send a message. It really wanted the West to acknowledge its territorial imperium and its ability to command the region's oil reserves.
Instead, Russia claims the same moral and legal authority to intervene to protect South Ossetians as did NATO in 1999 to rescue Kosovo's ethnic Albanians. But the two conflicts are very different. And the distinctions are important in order to preserve the UN's 2005 mandate, which is often called "responsibility to protect," or R2P.
In Kosovo, Serb forces were massacring innocent ethnic Albanians, just as Serbian forces in Bosnia had killed 8,000 men from the town of Srebrenica in 1995 and committed ethnic cleansing in other parts of former Yugoslavia. The UN refused to act. NATO then decided to bomb Serbia into submission to prevent another Srebrenica-type atrocity.
NATO's action, while not legal without UN authority, was widely considered legitimate. Russia's action in Georgia is neither. And it fails to meet justification for humanitarian intervention. The gravity of the threat to human rights was not high enough and other options were not pursued.
The UN has yet to be specific on the exact criteria to trigger such interventions. That has left many small countries afraid that large countries will misuse the concept. Just ask the Georgians.
The moral imperative for R2P arose out of the failure to prevent the 1994 Rwanda genocide. It had a precedent in the 1993 US intervention in Somalia. The 2005 mandate limits such interventions to those cases where a government fails to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.
A global consensus on its use, however, remains fragile. After all, the idea challenges the centuries-old concept of the inviolability of borders. But R2P is rooted in the idea that individuals deserve as much sovereignty as a nation and that a massive loss of life requires a massive response by humanity.
Before Russia's excuse for its invasion becomes accepted, the world must renew its commitment to R2P with more clarity and precision.
Mercy must not be abused by bullies cloaked in false motives.