Last spring, the world expressed outrage when Boko Haram abducted nearly three hundred girls in Chibok, Nigeria. But international outrage does not last. The Chibok girls have hardly been in the news lately, as Ebola, ISIS and Russia have taken over as principle concerns in the Western press. It would be easy to look at the plight of those girls and conclude that the international community is hypocritical. Many are willing to express outrage, while few are willing to act on it. But does it really matter that the international community is hypocritical?

Certainly it is crushing for the victims to be promised assistance and for none to come. That disappointment causes backlash in the long run, but there is a more immediate concern. The perpetrators, who are warned, threatened, and told that their actions are “intolerable,” are undeterred and even encouraged by outrage unaccompanied by action. If they just wait for the media storm to pass, they can carry on with impunity.

The global #BringBackOurGirls campaign helped to raise awareness of the Chibok girls, and statements from US First Lady Michelle Obama and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai underscored just how much the world cared. Mrs. Obama said the she and the President were “outraged and heartbroken,” and that the United States would do everything in its power to assist the Nigerian Government in getting the girls back.

While 57 of the girls managed to escape, 219 never came back, and little action was taken to recover them. Statements by Boko Haram suggest that by the time the hashtag campaign was in full swing, the girls had already been sold, converted or married off.

On account of Nigerian sovereignty, foreign states were limited in what they could do, so in some ways, it is understandable that they have not succeeded in bringing the girls back. But sovereign limitation should have come as no surprise – states should not promise results they cannot produce. Recent reports [] suggest that the families of the missing girls feel abandoned and betrayed by the international community; several have publicly questioned why there was such an extensive outpouring of support if there was no will to take action. That disappointment could prove toxic in the future, but it is not the only consequence of the international community’s lack of follow-through.

Since the April abduction, Boko Haram has significantly strengthened its position, claiming more and more territory in Northern Nigeria. On 10 November 2014, a Boko Haram suicide bomber, dressed as a student, blew up an assembly at a boys’ school, killing at least 58 students. If international indignation was all that came of abducting hundreds of girls, then there is no reason to think that killing a few dozen boys would produce any other response. By not following up on the professed “outrage and heartbreak” over Boko Haram’s crimes, the international community sent a clear message: it will actually tolerate a great deal.

Empty displays of outrage only teach perpetrators that moral indignation is toothless. If no consequences follow the outcries, then perpetrators proceed with impunity. Quiet action means far more to the suffering victims than loud inaction. In other words, expressing outrage without taking action can be worse than remaining silent and doing nothing. Before leaders drum up support for a cause, they had better be certain of their ability to take decisive steps in furtherance of that cause.

At this point, the international community and some key players in it run the risk of becoming like the boy who cried wolf. Cries of outrage and threats of action are losing their credibility. Will aggressive states or terrorist organizations even care the next time they hear a chorus of denunciations? Or has the international community cried wolf too many times already?


Dr. Ian Ralby is Founder and Executive Director of I.R. Consilium through which he and his team work with governments and organizations on solving complex security-related problems. He has worked extensively with governments in West Africa, the Caribbean, and the Balkans among others. He holds a BA in Modern Languages and Linguistics and an MA in Intercultural Communication from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; a JD from William & Mary Law School; and both an MPhil in International Relations and a PhD in Politics and International Studies from the University of Cambridge.

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