A different approach to curbing atrocities

We have seen this in too many places – from Rwanda to Bosnia to Syria – over recent decades. A country erupts in extreme violence between different groups. The rest of the world condemns the human rights violations and either intervenes with force, imposes sanctions, or does nothing. Afterward, lessons are drawn on how to fix the international moral order.

Now it is Myanmar’s turn. The majority Buddhist country, also known as Burma and still largely under the thumb of the military and not Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, is being condemned for recent attacks on the minority Muslims known as Rohingya. More than 480,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh. At least 1,000 have been killed.

On Sept. 28, the United Nations Security Council held its first open session to discuss the crisis. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called it a “humanitarian catastrophe.” Another UN official said Myanmar’s military operation is a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. France went further and called it “genocide.”

Such responses by those upholding the universality of human rights presume that exposing such evil is good enough. That it will somehow shame the Myanmar government into submission. Or that extolling universal values such as tolerance will somehow persuade the Buddhist nationalists to view their country’s Muslims not as “the other” but as individuals in a shared society.

Yet, as in other crises with similar atrocities, this kind of condemnation or the assertion of rights does not always work.

Why is this too often the case?

A new book by a leading human rights advocate, Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian scholar and rector of the Central European University in Hungary, offers a compelling case for a different approach. The book, “The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World,” took him on a three-year, eight-nation journey to listen to vulnerable communities under stress. He talked to slum dwellers in Brazil, people in an isolated village in South Africa, those in a Japanese town devastated by a tsunami, former enemies in Bosnia, and people in the diverse neighborhoods of New York’s borough of Queens. He even talked to militant, anti-Muslim monks in Myanmar.

Dr. Ignatieff discovered that societies living under harsh social, economic, or physical conditions do indeed have their own inherent values, or “ordinary virtues,” such as compassion and mercy. But they may not regard this “moral operating system” as…

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