Nationalism, religion, imperialism, fear, or, most usually, an irrational hatred of the other, are the default driving forces.
A determination to resist change, to preserve the status quo and the privileges it confers, has often been at the root of brutal oppression. Determined campaigns to remove such regimes filled cemeteries too. As our history vividly records, we are not immune to such motivations or entirely innocent of dreadful atrocities.
It is almost 20 years since the Hutus slaughtered something around 500,000 Tutsis between April and July 1994. That genocide ran parallel to the murderous campaign by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica and Zepa where over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men or boys were murdered by forces under Ratko Mladic whose trial for war crimes began in the Hague in May 2012.
In recent days savagery as vile, though thankfully not on anything like the scale in Rwanda or Srebrenica, has been uncovered in civil-war torn Syria. The fear remains that further atrocities will be uncovered, pushing Syria and its unfortunate people into an even darker place. The probability of tit-for-tat carnage has grown too.
A report released on Monday included thousands of photographs of bodies of detainees supposedly murdered in government custody. Many corpses had been severely malnourished and showed signs of strangulation.
Such is the depth of the cruelty revealed that already human rights organisations and jurists have demanded unified action to bring President Bashar al-Assad to an international court so he can be tried for crimes against humanity. This is an entirely correct and valid response though whether it will ever happen is another matter entirely, especially as Bashar al-Assad seems able to rely on the comforting shoulder of another autocrat whose authority is increasingly expressed through force of arms — Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
This situation, and the escalating unrest in the Ukraine and Thailand and in so many other tinder-box states around the world, points to a growing weakness in the engineering of international relationships — no single entity is powerful enough to stop an al-Assad, remove a Mugabe, or neutralise a Kim Jong-un.
The United Nations is not united enough, nor does it have the resources to defend the standards of decency it was set up to safeguard. The US, riven by economic difficulties, cultural wars and an understandable war weariness, is less than enthusiastic — or able — about sending more young Americans to resolve faraway conflicts. China is more interested in securing ever greater quantities of the world’s resources rather than being a superpower policeman prepared to protect the rights it does not always afford its own citizens.
As ever, this lacuna is not entirely novel but it seems more than strange that as we begin the decade marking centenaries of some of the greatest calamities provoked by the failure of diplomacy, that it is the case. The coming days, as efforts to open Syrian peace talks, will show what can happen when the voices of sanity, decency and peace are weakened and fragmented.