Mass Violence and Atrocities | Analysis and New Insights

Responsibility to Prevent in Africa: Leveraging Institutional Capacity to Mitigate Atrocity Risk

Kwesi Aning and Frank Okyere | January 2015


Prevention of atrocity crimes is a key element in advancing the responsibility to protect (R2P). The 2001 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty report defined the “responsibility to prevent” as addressing “both the root causes and direct causes of internal conflict and other man-made crises putting populations at risk.”

However, in advancing R2P, prevention is the element with the least support in spite of the strong international rhetoric. This worrying trend indicates a diminishing international will and capacity to prevent or mitigate mass atrocities where such mechanisms have either been neglected or failed, such as in Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, Syria, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Limited desire for prevention, particularly on building state capacity for atrocity prevention, contributes to this failure.

This raises critical questions: How do we ensure protection for populations in places where the state is either absent or virtually usurped by nonstate actors? Does the absence of the state automatically signal the lack of capacity or risk of failure? How do we address the question of responsibility as well as streamline international assistance in such isolated and virtually ungoverned spaces?

This brief addresses these pertinent questions as well as risk and risk-mitigation factors critical to atrocity-prevention efforts in Africa. It shifts the discourse on protection capacity beyond issues of state responsibility as well as international assistance in building state capacity for atrocity prevention, to a reassessment of assumptions about the nature of the African state. It argues for broader engagement with nonstate preventive mechanisms most prevalent across the continent.