Bystanders and Interventionists: Where and When Do States Intervene to Stop Genocide?

32 Pages Posted: 17 Apr 2011 Last revised: 1 Mar 2014

Date Written: April, 17 2011


This paper examines the psychology of intervention to stop genocides, using the Kosovo crisis, Rwanda and other historical examples to try to generate a very preliminary framework for understanding where, why and when states intervene to prevent mass killing and genocidal slaughter. From the realist perspective, it is a mystery why states intervene at all to stop genocides, at least where they lack a compelling national interest for doing so. And yet states sometimes do intervene without a self-interested justification. The United States arguably lacks any compelling interest in intervention to forestall a mass slaughter in Libya today, for instance, and yet it has done so. In an initial effort to explain where and when states intervene or stand by, this paper examines the role of a situational force which dissuades states from intervening (the well-known ‘bystander effect’) and a dispositional factor which may pull decision-makers in either direction (the personal experiences of decision-makers and the historical analogies they draw upon). In Rwanda, for instance, President Clinton’s then recent experience of Somalia and the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident persuaded him not to intervene, while compelling analogies with Bosnia and Munich prodded Madeleine Albright and other decision-makers to resolve the Kosovo crisis quickly in 1999. Similarly, the Rwandan analogy seems to have influenced the reasoning of UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Obama officials during the current Libyan crisis, even as analogies with the arming of Afghan revels by the CIA in the 1980s push the administration in the opposite direction.

Suggested Citation

Houghton, David P., Bystanders and Interventionists: Where and When Do States Intervene to Stop Genocide? (April, 17 2011). Western Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN: or

David P. Houghton (Contact Author)

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