The United Nations and Genocide Prevention: The Problem of Racial and Religious Bias

Genocide Studies International, 8(2) (2014), pp. 122-152

2 Pages Posted: 2 Oct 2014 Last revised: 28 Mar 2015

See all articles by Hannibal Travis

Hannibal Travis

Florida International University College of Law

Date Written: September 22, 2014


Could racial or religious bias within the United Nations be hindering efforts to prevent and punish the crime of genocide? I answer this question by surveying UN responses to a variety of alleged genocides, ranging from Biafra starting in the late 1960s to contemporary Iraq and Syria. In terms of quantitative analysis, the article explores whether UN responses to claims of genocide have been proportionate to the scale of actual harm, using absolute death tolls and percentage reductions in the populations of specific minority groups to assess harm. It finds that voting blocs based on racial or religious identity may be warping the UN response to potential genocides, resulting to inattention to many cases in which the extinction of unpopular or ignored racial or religious groups is threatened.

The article finds that the United Nations devotes disproportionate attention to some conflicts, based on the identity of the perpetrators or victims rather than the scale of actual or potential harm to life and property. In this regard, the Arab League, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Republic of Turkey appear to play important roles in shaping UN responses. In terms of qualitative analysis, the article surveys evidence that key actors at the United Nations may have been motivated by bias in framing collective responses to claims of genocide and other mass violence. This evidence ranges from politicians' or diplomats' statements suggesting solidarity or the lack thereof with certain racial and religious groups, and hatred or suspicion of some racial or religious groups.

The stories told within the United Nations often ignore indigenous populations, including in the Western Hemisphere and Australasia, but also in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East and North Africa. This article explores failures to prevent genocide since 1945, with a particular focus on how prevention may be inhibited by ethnic, racial, and religious bias within the United Nations. Although the United Nations has the primary responsibility under the Genocide Convention to deal with allegations of genocide, its members have ignored numerous large massacres of indigenous racial and religious minorities in Nigeria, Iraq, Sudan, and elsewhere. The Arab monarchies and the Republic of Turkey have managed to mobilize voting blocs within the United Nations in favor of their idiosyncratic view of genocide as primarily affecting their co-religionists. The definition of genocide employed by diplomats at the United Nations varies dramatically in practice, as the members of the United Nations are very selective in condemning certain states' persecution or killing of minorities as criminal or genocidal.

Keywords: genocide, United Nations, Arab League, Sudan, Darfur, Turkey, Kurds, Iraq, Yezidis, Assyrians, South Sudan, Dinka, Nuba, Nuba-mountains, Uighurs

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Travis, Hannibal, The United Nations and Genocide Prevention: The Problem of Racial and Religious Bias (September 22, 2014). Genocide Studies International, 8(2) (2014), pp. 122-152. Available at SSRN:

Hannibal Travis (Contact Author)

Florida International University College of Law ( email )

11200 SW 8th St.
RDB Hall 1097
Miami, FL 33199
United States

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