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Preventing Atrocities in the Mid-21st Century: What States Can Do

Fresh Perspectives

Kate Ferguson and Fred Carver call for a devolution of the Responsibility to Protect from the UN to national actors and civil society in order to live up the original visions of the principle and to properly confront the specific pathology of mass atrocities.


As the threats of climate crises, democratic backsliding and technological change deepen, the uneven balance of power in international relations is shifting. Amid this flux is the opportunity – and responsibility – for states to engage more creatively in both the collective response to these challenges and in shaping the coming era of global rights. The prevention of atrocities lies at the heart of the transformation that is necessary, and provides a model of response which can usefully guide the transformation in other areas.

Our recent paper, Being the Difference – A primer for states wishing to prevent atrocity crimes in the mid-twenty-first century, makes the case that states aspiring to prevent atrocities will need to redesign their national policy structures with that goal in mind. In response to that need, and underlying this paper, is our call for a devolution of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P): moving the concept out from under the United Nations - demanding it be integrated into the working methods of states and be more consciously adopted and invoked by civil society - is a necessary, and perhaps inevitable, progression of the principle.

Through our work, we know that too many continue to see atrocities as extreme and aberrant phenomena; in reality they are not particularly exceptional. They are fairly frequent and predictable given that risk factors of atrocities are present in all societies, albeit to greater and lesser degrees.

The approach of understanding atrocity prevention as a subset of work in areas such as conflict, development or fragility has been tried and tested and has failed. Lazy assumptions, such as that atrocities occur in circumstances of instability and thus can be prevented by investing in stability, do little good and can occasionally do harm. Sometimes increased stability can increase a perpetrator’s ability to abuse.


The Pathology of Mass Atrocity and the Need to Move R2P to the Grassroots

We are setting out a new approach to state-level atrocity prevention informed by two keystones:

i) that the pathology of mass atrocities is different from other forms of violence, and ii) that their prevention necessarily requires horizontal approaches to change in partnership with the grassroots.

A significant proportion of modern atrocities (genocide, crimes against humanity and, frequently, war crimes) have their roots in a particular pathology of violence. This pathology has the following features:

  • it is commonly motivated by – or legitimised through – a politics of identity-based grievance, discrimination and/or human rights deficits.
  • It is perpetrated by means of an organised criminal conspiracy. Many parts of this conspiracy might be acting legally, or have been legitimised by state authorities, but nevertheless are participating in a conspiracy to commit an international crime. Unsurprisingly therefore, the architecture of the conspiracy will resemble the architecture of other forms of organised crime.
  • It takes advantage of the opportunity provided by unchecked power, even if such power is enjoyed in a limited environment.

Unchecked, the outcome of this pathology is widespread and systemic human rights violations, frequently reaching the threshold of international atrocity crimes such as genocide or crimes against humanity.

Our work has found that this pathology of violence is for the most part missed by contemporary approaches to conflict, stability, democratisation and development. We therefore argue that to be effective in preventing mass atrocities, state action must address this pathology. States must acknowledge the deliberate, political and ‘rational’ motivations of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. States must be alert to the risk of atrocities occurring in areas of both stability and fragility. Where such risk is present the response must not be, or must not exclusively be, to increase stability, but must prioritise protecting and increasing the resilience of communities at risk of atrocity crimes and their antecedents.

The state must approach atrocities in the way it approaches organised crime: criminalising the parts of the conspiracy that currently operate under the protection of the law, and using all tools at its disposal to map, disrupt and dismantle the structures and networks that enable atrocities.

Perhaps most fundamentally, states – and all those who seek a world without genocide and crimes against humanity - must understand that the politics of identity-based grievance are present in all contexts and cultures, and must develop a whole-of-society approach to addressing grievance and combatting bigotry at home and abroad.

Such a transformation requires our second keystone: the devolution of R2P to ‘open up’ how R2P and atrocity prevention is understood, ‘taking it out’ of the UN, and integrating it into state structures and civil society practice. Such an approach would neither remove nor reduce R2P’s influence at the UN but would represent better mainstreaming of the principle and build consolidated means for action.


Towards National Strategies of Atrocity Prevention

To implement these two keystones we are calling on states to develop and pursue national strategies of atrocity prevention.

We understand that all states are grappling with the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and competing priorities but past lessons painfully learned indicate that preventing atrocities requires distinct strategies, systems, and skills. Further, such approaches need not increase costs.

We propose four core and low cost-high impact approaches that should inform any national strategy of atrocity prevention:

  • Prevention-first policy thinking which seeks to stop atrocities before they occur by addressing the causes of atrocities, by disrupting and dismantling the organised criminal architecture of atrocities, and by investing politically in preventing circumstances of impunity
  • Investing in network analysis which monitors and evaluates the propellants that cause atrocities, maps motivations and interrelations of both potential perpetrators and the coalitions that can help prevent atrocities, and identifies the points where leverage can be effectively applied and which actors can apply it
  • Institutionalisation that finds the balance between integration and specialisation, ensuring that atrocity prevention is neither mainstreamed nor siloed to death but instead leads to more effective action by all practitioners by coordinating, convening, and unlocking responses
  • Developing resilient societies where cohesive equitable communities, high public trust and strong inclusive institutions limit and mitigate the damage from internal and external shocks

The world’s rule-based system is in great flux. A small number of large powers can no longer establish and maintain international norms on their own, and nor should they. The approach we propose needs to be led by small and medium-sized states. But it must not stop there. As with other global challenges such as climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals, state action is essential to provide leadership, but so is the contribution of a broad coalition of non-state actors and civil society.


Dr Kate Ferguson is a foreign policy expert specialising in the prevention of mass atrocities. She is Co-Executive Director at Protection Approaches which works to transform how identity-based violence is understood and so transform how it is prevented. She is Chair of Policy and the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of East Anglia. Her book, ‘Architectures of Violence, the Command Structures of Modern Mass Atrocities’, was published by Hurst and Oxford University Press in 2020. She tweets @WordsAreDeeds.

Fred Carver is a consultant, researcher and author specialising in the United Nations, Peacekeeping, Atrocity Prevention, civil wars and political violence. He has previously worked as Head of Policy for the United Nations Association - UK, and Campaign Director of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice. He was editor of the journals "Sustainable Development Goals" and "Climate 2020" and co-editor of the UNA-UK magazine. His writing has appeared in multiple publications, and he has given evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, while also appearing frequently on Sky News, Al Jazeera, and talk radio.


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