The United States remains on the precipice of widespread human rights violations against its own civilian population.
As scholars of armed conflict and human rights with a combined five decades of experience, we are deeply troubled by recent developments. Our motivation for writing this article is to voice our concern that recent events in the United States, such as Trump’s repeated endorsements and approval of violence against peaceful demonstrators, are strikingly similar to those that preceded eruptions of large-scale political violence elsewhere. This is not a theoretical exercise – it is happening in real time before our eyes. We are by no means alone in holding this view. In its June 3 “Atrocity Alert” which “highlight[s] situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes,” the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect included the United States, alongside Iraq, Syria, and Sudan as places of serious concern.
Most Recent Events
Last week, the U.S. government deployed active-duty military units in Washington. Soldiers in combat uniforms, without identifying insignia, fired smoke canisters and rubber bullets at protestors in front of the White House – all so President Trump could walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church and pose for photographs while using religion as a political prop. Earlier that same day, Trump threatened to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act and assume federal control of the National Guard to “dominate” protestors, against the will of many state governors. The day after, the White House announced that 1,600 additional active-duty quick-reaction troops were being deployed from Fort Bragg and Fort Drum to the capital region.
The constitutionality of Trump’s response to the protests, following the murder of George Floyd, an African-American man, by a white police officer, have been hotly debated by legal scholars. Whatever their legal status, conventional norms about the proper role of the military in securing domestic public order have been shredded. Few would disagree that the images of military professionals being mobilized against fellow citizens is an unsettling one – even for a country that is by now well acquainted with the increasing militarization of our police forces, especially in African-American communities. Nonetheless, recent developments represent only one among many troubling telltale signs of a growing atrocity risk in the United States.
What the Future May Hold
We do not suggest that the commission of mass atrocities within the United States is imminent or inevitable, and we hope that our concern is misplaced. The United States possesses robust civil and political institutions, and since the Civil War at least, instances of large-scale violence, such as the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, did not engulf the country. However, it is clear to us that recent events on domestic soil have moved us down a well-trodden path that has led other countries to widespread and systematic violence. The risk of this outcome will be heightened in the coming months under certain circumstances – for instance, if Trump declares a federal state of emergency; if the general election is cancelled or postponed; or if Trump’s encouragement of far-right militias, whether tacit or otherwise, leads to actual armed confrontation.
While, for now, Trump appears to have backed down from his initial threats to deploy the regular military against protestors, every day new reports and videos of protestors and journalists being violently mistreated by authorities come to light. Moreover, even as violent backlashes against protestors and the press appear to be subsiding somewhat, the most dangerous period remains ahead of us, as the presidential election nears. Given that Trump is currently trailing by double-digits in national polls, has consistently undermined faith in our electoral system, and signaled repeatedly that he will not concede electoral defeat, our concern is that Trump may refuse to leave office and use violence to cling to power – much like authoritarians around the world have done for generations. A compelling case can also be made that the United States does not have the federal or constitutional procedures to deal with such a crisis.
Atrocity Indicators in the United States
Countries facing economic crisis and inter-group conflict – as the United States currently is due to the economic fallout of the ongoing pandemic and racial justice protests – can quickly descend into mass violence. This is especially true when political leaders flout the outcome of elections or repeatedly inflame social tensions during a period of acute inter-group tension, as is the case with Trump’s repeated inflammatory acts and statements. For example, as the governments in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda lost control of their territory, the heads of state of both Serbia (Slobodan Milošević) and Rwanda (Jean Kambanda) publicly called for state security forces and, pertinently, armed civilian militias to attack targeted groups en masse. Both of these conflicts rapidly escalated into catastrophic atrocities, inflicting deep wounds that are still mending today.
There is a voluminous literature on the main risk factors indicating an increased likelihood of state-sponsored mass atrocities against civilians (see e.g. here and here). We are worried that key indicators are now evident, and in fact increasing, in the United States. Prime examples include:
- Rising social and economic inequality.
- Worsening or historically woeful economic conditions.
- A surge of inflammatory political rhetoric, including at the highest levels of government.
- The creation of, or increased support for, armed militias or paramilitary groups.
- Racial or ethnic tensions, including a history of intergroup conflict.
- The stark polarization of political parties along mainly racial or religious lines.
- A loss of faith in the electoral system and/or a lack of free and fair elections.
- A near-term major national election.
On their own, of course, these factors might not trigger widespread violence, but when combined they significantly elevate the risk of atrocities against civilians. That so many of these elements are apparent in the United States today is profoundly troubling. In a stunning break with the usual trajectory of international concern, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on U.S. authorities to listen to the peaceful protestors and to exhibit restraint. Additionally, while the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has, in the past, been a critical U.S. partner in atrocity prevention worldwide, current Commissioner Michele Bachelet issued strongly worded statements on both June 1 and June 3 in light of the violence in Minneapolis and elsewhere across the United States. In an unusually terse admonition, Bachelet in fact stated on June 1 that “serious action” must be immediately taken to “stop such killings and to ensure justice is done when they do occur.” Meanwhile, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard warned that U.S. police responses have likely violated various provisions of international law. Finally and perhaps most notably, no less than 46 U.N. experts issued a joint statement calling out the systemic racism that persists in the United States alongside a joint statement issued the same day by a group of 28 U.N. Human Rights Council special rapporteurs and working group members.
Atrocity Prevention, or R2P for the USA
Historically, atrocity prevention and a “responsibility to protect” civilian populations (or “R2P”) have been the purview of U.S. foreign policy professionals and academics with an eye toward the world beyond our borders. The current situation, however, demands an inward reckoning. Since World War II, the United States has worked with allies to establish international institutions with the aim of preventing and responding to armed conflict and subsequent humanitarian disasters. As such, one critique has long been that the United States – and the West in general – has concerned itself more with finger wagging and grandiose moralizing than addressing societal shortfalls and human rights abuses at home. That time is over. The events of last week portend the death knell of American exceptionalism.
It is therefore time to bring existing strategies for preventing and mitigating the likelihood of large-scale human rights abuses to bear at home in the United States. At this perilous moment in history, key de-escalation measures that have been proven to slow the likelihood of violence must be implemented in the United States. These include:
- Initiating local dispute resolution processes involving respected community leaders.
- Countering speech from national political leaders that incites hatred or violence (here, we applaud the recent decisions by Snapchat and Twitter to apply their terms of service to inciting speech by President Trump).
- Demilitarizing the police and instead using community policing strategies, especially in major conflict hotspots.
- Ensuring criminal accountability for security personnel and civilian actors who coordinate and commit acts of violence.
- Implementing long-term strategies that reduce material and social inequality while creating paths for social mobility for historically marginalized groups.
Most importantly, steps must be taken to reduce social tensions and to elevate justice and reconciliation over confrontation, which is accelerating America’s headlong fall toward widespread violence. Given the recent shocking scenes of police brutality, it is apparent that U.S. police and security personnel must undergo intensive training in conflict de-escalation and effective crowd control, with a major emphasis on nonlethal techniques that better reflect international best practices. These measures should also include an immediate review of officer misconduct and clear guidelines for criminal accountability – mechanisms that would have prevented the officer in the George Floyd case, for instance, from being in uniform in the first place. All of these steps are essential – and arguably long overdue – to restore the waning credibility and remedying the lack of trust in the police that American citizens, especially those of color, currently hold.
The proposed federal Justice in Policing Act and various state police reform initiatives, such as those underway in New York, are welcome first steps. However, these efforts may not sufficiently address the demands of protestors. Additionally, even moderate reform efforts have already been met with strong opposition from police unions, while Trump continues to deny the very existence of pervasive racism in U.S. policing.
The United States has long championed, funded, and taken an active role in efforts to prevent atrocities abroad. Most recently, President Obama in 2012 established the Atrocity Prevention Board (APB) through an executive order. Under the Obama administration, the APB consisted of senior-level U.S. officials tasked with watching for warning signs of potential mass violence to help prevent it. The APB was premised on the proven fact that early action is less risky, both politically and practically, and far less costly in terms of lives and resources lost. There has even been some moderate success in preventing the escalation of violence in Burundi, Central African Republic, Guatemala, and Nigeria to cite a few prominent cases. Because the APB was created through an executive order, it does not have the power of law, which means Trump can reverse the order or ignore it altogether. To a significant extent, atrocity prevention has indeed been deemphasized over the past several years, which has included downgrading the APB to a lower level “task force.” Nevertheless, the spirit with which the APB was created lives on – and importantly, nonpartisan and professional government officials from diverse agencies such as the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Treasury Department, and Department of State, at least in theory, remain involved in its operations.
Conclusion: It Can Happen Here, Unless We Act Now
Today, immediate action by relevant federal agencies with an expertise in atrocity prevention must interdict the potential slide toward greater levels of violence in the country. Senior nonpartisan appointed officials in the Trump administration could, for instance, task our intelligence services with assessing the potential for mass violence in the lead up to the November election, which will likely be the most volatile of our lifetimes. This would necessarily entail elevating this issue to the APB task force, which is already equipped to address early warning indicators and devise coherent strategies to prevent the real potential for violence. This may in fact be an opportune moment to reconstitute the task force, albeit with a novel domestic focus, and capitalize on the concern already being expressed by senior U.S. security agency leaders. That agency officials might start planning for a constitutional crisis, and the possibility of widespread political violence, is not unreasonable. Importantly, there are signs of pushback against unconstitutional measures from high-ranking members of the serving defense establishment – for example, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley recently rebuked Trump’s threat to assume control of the National Guard.
Our consideration of the atrocity prevention framework must also recognize its weaknesses, such as its over-emphasis on late-stage massive violence that can neglect a fuller comprehension of the daily and incremental immiseration that underprivileged communities have endured for centuries in the United States. As such, addressing the deep-seated and structural conditions of racism and exclusion must be the first order of business by the federal government once we effectively navigate this crisis, which is indeed possible. This might include establishing a national task force to draft further legislation that would increase police accountability and restoring the status and authority of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division so that it can once again perform its historic role in combatting civil rights violations.
Most Americans have been taught to believe that “it can’t happen here” when it comes to mass violence and atrocity. It can, and indeed it has in the past. We had a Civil War over race once in our history, but we never dealt with, or genuinely came to terms with, its horrific legacy, the shadow of which looms over us to this day. Our government, our law enforcement agencies, and relevant state authorities continue to ignore the mounting warning signs of mass atrocity at our nation’s collective peril. Armed with lessons of the past, and with the widely accepted notion that we can and must do better as a nation, there is no excuse to stand idly by and accept the currently unacceptable status quo.
NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 06: Protesters confront police officers on June 6, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough in New York City. This is the 12th day of protests since George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)