Everyone Supports Preventing Atrocity Crimes, But What Works?

Rohingya refugees are seen in Balukhali camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Over 650,000 Rohingya had crossed the border into Bangladesh by January 2018, fleeing the violence in Rakhine State in Myanmar when their villages were attacked. (Allison Joyce/Stringer/Getty Images)

Mass atrocity crimes are presently occurring in seven countries, according to the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and populations are at imminent risk of falling victim in at least two other countries.

We continue to develop new tools to respond to atrocities—for example former US President Barack Obama’s Atrocities Prevention Board or Ban Ki-moon’s Human Rights Up Front initiative. And yet we keep failing to prevent or stop these crimes. Why? Are we using the wrong tools? Do we have some fundamental misunderstanding about the role of international action and its capacity to stop mass atrocities?

At a time when the entire United Nations system is talking about “prevention”—from the Sustainable Development Goals, to the proposed reform of the peace and security architecture, to Secretary-General António Guterres’ new report on peacebuilding and sustaining peace, and the UN/World Bank report on “Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict”—it is important to get concrete about what we mean when we talk about preventing or stopping atrocity crimes.

The Security Council has been particularly unable to take effective action. There have been 12 vetoes by Russia in relation to the Syria conflict, with China joining them 6 times. As a result, 113 member states have signed the Accountability, Coherence, Transparency (ACT) Group’s Code of Conduct, which calls upon Security Council members to avoid voting against any credible draft resolution related to the prevention of mass atrocities. But this has been to no avail.

Even if these Syria resolutions had passed, do we know whether Security Council action would have helped? Two years ago this month, the Security Council passed Resolution 2286 condemning armed attacks on healthcare. In the months that followed, the rate of hospital bombings and other attacks on medical facilities tragically increased. There is a noticeable, yawning gap between rhetorical support for atrocity prevention and effective action in response to the rising number of crimes.

It is easy to be rhetorically in favor of prevention or of stopping mass atrocities, but it is much harder to articulate and implement concrete policies that have a history of working. What works?

One way to answer this question is to look at the past—to learn from history—to see, if not what has worked to prevent atrocities previously, at least to analyze how episodes of atrocities have actually ended, and ask, what can this tell us about our current policies and aspirations?

A recent research project at the World Peace Foundation seeks to find answers to this question by examining cases of violence against civilians in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burundi, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iraq, and Sudan and concludes that atrocity endings are highly contingent and very context specific. This means it is very difficult to articulate a general policy that would fit all cases. The study found that in each case the perpetrators were motivated by a strategic political goal. That is to say, mass atrocities occur in a political space and perpetrators are driven by political dynamics.

Research also tells us that there are limits to the effectiveness of international action for atrocity prevention. In the majority of cases of ending mass atrocities, internal dynamics made the difference, not international policy or intervention: national and local actors hold the key. This suggests that international action would be most effective when it begins from a specific analysis of local political dynamics, and looks to change the political calculus on the ground. Thus it offers opportunities for reframing policy to better leverage that insight.

Indeed the United Nations Office of the Special Advisors on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect are developing a project that seeks to gather similar research for an evidence-based policy to make atrocity prevention more effective. They come to similar conclusions. The secretary-general is expected to release a report in June. Recently, Alex Bellamy, alongside Special Advisor Ivan Simonovic, provided a preview at a seminar at Columbia University.

Much of their approach revolves around the need to make atrocity prevention a systemic, daily practice that is incorporated into all levels of UN work. The key is to build up capacity to assess situations along four axes: risks, resilience, triggers, and windows of opportunity.

The risk factors for atrocities are well known, including autocratic regime types, exclusionary ideologies, and a history of past violence, to name a few. But not all countries with the same risk factors experience the same levels of violence. More research needs to be done to understand why countries (or locales within a country) are more resilient than others. Sometimes it is about local histories or mechanisms of conflict resolution or, more importantly, principled leadership: individuals do matter.

Sometimes it is only about the timing of a trigger event like a coup or a hotly contested election that can precipitate violence if incited by political elites. These triggers must be anticipated so that international actors can take advantage of the short-lived windows of opportunity when preventive diplomacy or other action can work.

It is important to emphasize the point about resilience in the context of the broader reform of the UN peace and security architecture and the secretary-general’s commitment to a strengthened policy of prevention. This entails a long-term perspective that recognizes the need for holistic strategies that combine operational tools, like peace operations and preventive diplomacy, with structural approaches, like sustainable development, in the interest of stopping violence where it exists and in making peace endure where it has begun to grow or long existed.

This approach entails going beyond thinking in negative terms about how to prevent conflict. It requires the development of positive policies that actively promote peace. This includes support for local level initiatives and a commitment to more seriously study peaceful societies. Instead of focusing on the root causes of conflict, such studies ask, what makes a society peaceful? Some of this we already know through the work of the Positive Peace Index and others. It includes factors like gender equality, inclusive decision making, low levels of corruption, inter-communal respect, etc.

The trick will be to reorient the UN peacebuilding architecture to take better advantage of these insights, as proposed in the secretary-general’s new report. The report and the secretary-general’s proposals for the reform of the UN approach to peacebuilding were discussed at the recent high-level meeting on peacebuilding and sustaining peace. A strong indication by member states that they back these reforms and will provide the required financing would go a long way in ensuring that the cause of prevention is more than just rhetoric and thus narrow the gap between principled support and concrete action.

An edited version of this article appears in “Peace Policy,” published by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Adam Lupel is Vice President of the International Peace Institute.