(Ця стаття також доступна українською мовою тут.)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Burma’s violent persecution of the Rohingya, and Ethiopia’s assault on Tigrayans are each unique, complex disasters. And yet these instances of large-scale, deliberate attacks on civilian populations underscore an important reality: once widespread war crimes, crimes against humanity, or even genocide are being committed, few if any good options exist to bring these atrocities to an end.

Across the political spectrum, U.S. presidents have described the decisions they faced in response to genocide and mass atrocities as among the most wrenching of their time in office. President Barack Obama said in late 2016 that Syria “haunts me constantly.” Upon leaving office, President George W. Bush voiced serious frustration about his inability to resolve the crisis in Darfur, Sudan—more than four years after declaring that it amounted to genocide. President Bill Clinton called failing to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda “the biggest regret of my administration.”

Had these presidents been alerted to significant risks of mass atrocities earlier and responded to warnings with preventive action, they might have avoided much harder choices later. While better warning doesn’t guarantee successful prevention, identifying when and where risks are greatest, but before blood begins to flow, is essential for averting catastrophic atrocities.

The enormity of mass violence and its costs, both on a human and political scale, have spurred attempts to develop tools that can anticipate where and when it is most likely to occur. A growing number of universities, NGOs, governments, and intergovernmental organizations are now conducting this type of analysis.

Since 2014, the Early Warning Project–a joint initiative of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Dartmouth College–has zeroed in on risks of mass killings against civilians. The project seeks to leverage knowledge about atrocities with advanced data analytics to provide policymakers with reliable assessments of atrocity risks across the globe.

How can this kind of data analysis mitigate a problem as enormous and complex as mass atrocities?

First, genocide and mass atrocities are devastating, but not inevitable. We know from studying the Holocaust and other genocides that these events are neither spontaneous nor inexorable. They are always preceded by a range of warning signs that represent opportunities to alter the course of events–and ultimately, save lives. Second, it is possible to identify historical patterns associated with mass atrocities and use that knowledge to identify countries at highest risk today. In essence, we want to know which countries today most closely resemble countries that have experienced mass killings in the past, in the year or two before those killings began. Publicly available data on mass atrocity risk factors and machine learning techniques enable us to address this question systematically, generating a risk estimate and ranking for more than 160 countries each year.

Third, publicizing mass atrocity risks before large-scale violence begins encourages governments and other influential actors to help prevent these crimes. Better warning helps focus limited resources to countries at greatest risk. Earlier recognition of mass atrocity risks makes for a wider range of viable preventive options, such as support to civil society programs and pre-crisis diplomatic initiatives. And making risk assessments public shows advocates one way that policymakers can translate vague commitments into action in specific cases.

There are important limitations to the kind of risk assessment the Early Warning Project produces. For example, we assess the risk of new mass killings taking place inside a country, not those perpetrated by foreign armed groups, as exemplified by Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian civilians. Different analytic methods would be required to fill this gap. And no forecast of the future–including our risk assessment–is perfectly accurate.

Yet, a risk assessment doesn’t need to be comprehensive or perfectly accurate to be useful. Our analysis indicates that two out of every three new mass killing episodes should be captured in our 30 highest-ranked countries. In cases like Burma and Ethiopia, we can point to consistently high rankings in the years before mass killings began. Had these warnings been heeded, many lives might have been saved.

To be clear, history shows there is no simple formula for preventing mass atrocities. Even the most accurate risk assessment is just a starting point. Policymakers need in-depth country assessments and ideas for how to adjust policies, strategies, and foreign assistance programs to mitigate atrocity risks. Policymakers must consider plausible worst-case scenarios—even when they aren’t the most likely outcomes—and be prepared to invest preventively as insurance against potential catastrophes.

As the world reacts in horror to the continuing atrocities in Ukraine, Burma, Ethiopia and elsewhere, many will ask how we can prevent future atrocities wherever they might occur. As in the aftermath of the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the wake of these latest failures to prevent mass atrocities could make for a rare moment of opportunity. Investing seriously in early warning systems and linking them firmly to early action is one concrete way to seize on this opportunity.

Some encouraging signs can be found in the recently released United States Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities. This first-ever public U.S. strategy document on atrocities reaffirms that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States,” outlines the lead role to be played by the White House-led Atrocity Prevention Task Force (a successor of the Atrocities Prevention Board created by President Obama and the Atrocity Early Warning Task Force, as it was rebranded under President Trump), and spells out roles and responsibilities of the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, and other federal agencies.

Regarding early warning, the strategy commits to “use quantitative and qualitative assessments, drawing upon input from civil society, to identify priority countries for atrocity prevention efforts.” This assessment and prioritization is meant to feed directly into preventive action: according to the strategy, the Atrocity Prevention Task Force will “develop targeted response plans for priority countries,” working with officials from geographic bureaus who manage all policy toward these countries.

This basic vision–using risk assessments to identify priority countries and prompt risk mitigation measures–is far from new. Very similar ideas can be found in the 2008 report of the Genocide Prevention Task Force and in President Obama’s 2011 directive on mass atrocities.

With a new strategy and advances in early warning analysis, steadfast and energetic efforts to identify and respond to atrocity risks can help save future lives. The horrors that civilians are being forced to endure in Ukraine, Burma, and Ethiopia, among other places, and the geopolitical dangers they will cause for the United States and other nations, should shake our government out of bureaucratic complacency.

Image: A teacher examines destructions in a school destroyed as a result of a shelling in Bakhmut, Donetsk region on July 24, 2022 (Photo by Igor TKACHEV / AFP).