Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 09:18 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 09:18 | SYDNEY

Humanitarian intervention and the Genovese Syndrome


Sam Roggeveen


13 June 2008 14:42

If you saw any TV news last week you might have been shocked to see footage of a hit-and-run incident in America. After a 78-year old man is knocked down, cars just continue to pass by and pedestrians walk on. Nobody stops to help the seriously injured man until the police arrive.

Charlie Edwards at Global Dashboard pointed out that the reaction of bystanders was not unusual, and is in fact an example of a well-known psychological phenomenon known as the Genovese Syndrome, so named after a woman stabbed to death in New York in 1964. Perhaps dozens of people either saw the incident or heard Kitty Genovese's cries for help, but no one lifted a finger.

Edwards fears that the Genovese Syndrome has implications for societal resilience, with governments unable to put in place voluntary organisations to help deal with big national emergencies. But the parable has lessons for international relations too, and may shed some light on the humanitarian intervention debate regarding Burma, which Madeleine Albright recently joined in this op-ed.

In The Shield of Achilles, Phillip Bobbitt argues that the Genovese Syndrome helps explain state inaction in the face of humanitarian disasters such as the one that occurred in the Balkans in the 1990s. Bobbitt says it's not apathy or cowardice that paralyses individuals or states in such emergencies, but ambiguity. Is this really an emergency? If so, is outside action justified? By whom? And what type of action? There are uncertainties involved in addressing each of these questions, but until they are all resolved, action is impossible. And emergencies, says Bobbitt, 'by their very nature involve actual harm or the threat of harm'. So we are also constantly weighing up the risk to ourselves in deciding whether to act.

Last, says Bobbitt, the anarchical nature of the international system adds one more layer of complexity: in the international sphere, without an overarching authority to enforce the law, states must ask themselves whether the benefit of enforcing the rules justifies the cost of doing so.