Mass Violence and Atrocities | Selected Article

Matching Words With Deeds

Keith Porter | October 2014

The UN Dialogue on the Responsibility to Protect

Humanitarian crises in Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine, Gaza, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere fill today’s headlines. In some of these places, political violence has already led to mass atrocities and genocide, and others are at risk. Meanwhile, the rest of the world seems capable of providing only inadequate and unequal responses.

At the Stanley Center, one of our main areas of work involves preventing this kind of political violence before it becomes a reality. In 2011, a center policy brief written by Professor Alex Bellamy articulated how inequality, resource mismanagement, political exclusion, an absence of the rule of law, and an unprofessional or corrupt security sector are often the preconditions to genocide and mass atrocities. This past summer we were pleased to see much of the international community embrace the long-term, more structural approach to preventing these crimes we’ve been advocating for.

Inhibitors to Atrocity Crimes

Every year since 2009, the UN secretary-general has released a report on implementation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). R2P is the internationally recognized norm that says each nation has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide and mass atrocities and that the international community has a collective responsibility to prevent and halt these crimes as well. The annual report is then followed by an informal dialogue with the member states of the United Nations General Assembly.

This year, the report and the dialogue centered on exactly the kind of preventive measures that have animated the Stanley Center’s work for the last several years. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Indeed, the responsibility to protect is closely intertwined with a responsibility to prevent.”

Ban’s report indicated that there are “specific inhibitors that enable States to address the early signs of crisis that could lead to the commission of atrocity crimes.” These are:

  • A professional and accountable security sector.
  • Impartial institutions for overseeing political transitions.
  • Independent judicial and human rights institutions.
  • Capacity to assess risk and mobilize early response.
  • Local capacity to resolve conflicts.
  • Media capacity to counteract prejudice and hate speech.
  • Capacity for effective and legitimate transitional justice.

International Assistance and R2P

Days before the General Assembly’s informal dialogue on R2P, the Stanley Center, along with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, and the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect convened an expert panel to further explore the practical implications of mass atrocity and genocide prevention.

At the event, Lawrence Woocher, senior atrocity prevention fellow at the United States Agency for International Development, focused his remarks on the role of development practitioners in preventing mass atrocities. For Woocher, “mass atrocities represent the antithesis of development” as they destroy human and physical capital, cause mass displacement and humanitarian emergencies, and disrupt productive social and economic activity across all domains. He believes that successful development— broadly conceived—helps “inoculate countries against mass atrocities.”

Woocher outlined several steps development practitioners should take to bolster mass atrocity prevention:

  • Recognize and communicate the risks of mass atrocities to better inform their own programs and broader actions taken by domestic and/or international actors.
  • Respond to escalating atrocity situations with life-saving humanitarian assistance, as well as support programs to help halt spiraling violence.
  • Support recovery from mass violence to reduce risk of recurrence and support overall development prospects through programs focused on rebuilding social cohesion and transitional justice—including accountability, reconciliation, and trauma healing.

Panelists also tackled audience questions on an array of issues, including how to enhance early warning systems for prevention and how best to ensure that development actors and the international community are credible. “Credibility,” said Woocher, “comes from consistency.” This includes repeated messaging in both the public and private spheres. Allison Giffen, senior associate and codirector of the Future of Peace Operations Program at the Stimson Center, added that providing dispute resolution for intercommunal violence and working with communities to recognize what is happening on the local level can bolster early warning efforts.

Consensus Consolidated

The dialogue at the General Assembly carried forward this theme of prevention while also underscoring the growing international understanding of and support for the R2P norm. The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect published a summary of the dialogue that included these highlights:

“This year’s dialogue consolidated the global consensus on the Responsibility to Protect, with the overwhelming majority of member states continuing to focus on the operationalization of R2P as opposed to debating its theoretical foundation. Most speakers shared practical examples of building partnerships to effectively uphold [their prevention] responsibilities. A large number of states reiterated the importance of developing national capacity, as well as the principle of ‘do no harm’ in the provision of support to states. . . .

“The vast majority of member states reaffirmed their commitment to R2P and the trend of less strident opposition from ‘R2P skeptics’ continued in 2014. . . .

“Many member states raised concerns with the increasing number of situations where civilians face mass atrocities and the urgent need for the international community to respond more effectively in upholding its protective responsibilities. The ongoing situations in Iraq, Syria, Central African Republic, and South Sudan were cited. Many member states emphasized the need for the international community to match words with deeds when prioritizing prevention and the protection of civilians from atrocities.”

Prevention Before Killing

While this growing consensus among states on both individual and collective responsibility for prevention of genocide and mass atrocities is very encouraging, there is a need to translate this consensus into real action for the prevention of these crimes and the protection of vulnerable populations.

Taking all of this into account, the Stanley Center’s work in this area is driven by the belief that mass atrocities and genocide are preventable and that all states should work to prevent atrocities as early as possible, even before the first killing.

Halting ongoing atrocities is crucial, but preventing atrocities is far better.


The Role of Human Rights, Development Assistance, and Peacekeeping: Building State Capacity for Atrocities Prevention