(Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a symposium on “The Future of Atrocity Prevention,” organized in collaboration with the Programme on International Peace and Security at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. An introduction to the symposium and links to future installments can be found here.)

Despite expert warnings of imminent genocide in Darfur, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Gaza, as well as other atrocity crimes continuing unabated in many parts of the world, the United Nations remains impotent in the face of such horrors. While the U.N. Security Council is usually blamed for the organization’s inaction, the U.N. is much more than the 15-member council. When the U.N. has done little or nothing to stop atrocity crimes in Myanmar, Yemen, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, it means that not only the Security Council has failed, but also the system as a whole – including the 193 member States that make up the U.N. General Assembly, and all of the different offices, agencies, and funds charged with protection responsibilities. Besides a lack of political will by member States, tensions between the U.N.’s competing agendas present a major obstacle to action on situations of atrocity risk. To turn this situation around, strong leadership from the Secretariat that prioritizes atrocity prevention and response, combined with pressure from committed member States, is urgently needed.

A View from the Inside

As an academic outsider, I was granted a view into the inner workings of the U.N. while I served as the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect from January 2019 to July 2021. I witnessed a dynamic in which many committed and professional individuals tried to do their best, but were consistently undermined by an organizational structure that is resistant to change and innovation. They were also hostage to power hierarchies between different parts of the U.N. system, which impeded their ability to carry out their work. (For historical, institutional, and political reasons, entities like the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs have more resources and agenda-setting power than smaller offices such as the Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. Political undercurrents, apparently in deference to certain member States, also tend to steer the agenda of these entities.) Overall, my experience was that despite lip service to the contrary, atrocity prevention and response – not unlike human rights more generally – is treated as an afterthought and an annoyance that distracts from what is regarded by the more powerful entities as the more important business of the U.N., namely political and humanitarian affairs.

Indeed, already 23 years ago, a main finding of the inquiry into the U.N.’s failings in Rwanda was not that there was insufficient information indicating the potential for a genocide, but rather that this information did not reach those who were able to act on it, including the Security Council, due to a lack of direct communication channels. One of the rationales for establishing the position of the Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide (SAPG) in 2004, the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect (SAR2P) in 2009, and subsequently the joint Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect (OSAPG) in 2010, was precisely to address this gap. Yet, the U.N.’s many subsequent failures to adequately prevent or respond to atrocities make evident that it is not only early warning that is the problem, but also timely action in response to early warnings. So, where did – and do – things go wrong?

Aside from the challenges the joint office faces with regard to information gathering and monitoring all U.N. member States with a staff of less than 15, the main obstacle more often is the difficulty of converting early warning into early action. And the challenges to doing so are both structural and political.

Resistance from Within

Perhaps the most significant challenge facing the work of the two special advisers in the joint office is resistance from within the U.N. system. This has its origins not only in a misunderstanding of what their mandates entail, but also in concerns that their mere presence in meetings or their public expressions of concern could undermine other U.N. agendas – whether reaching a political solution to a crisis, mediating a ceasefire, or securing or maintaining humanitarian access. Tensions between these competing agendas have contributed significantly to the lack of action on atrocity risk situations. Those parts of the U.N. system with mandates that relate to mediation and peacemaking, for example, fear the possible negative impact that the mere mention of atrocity crimes may have on peace processes.

In theory, the inter-agency and inter-office country and thematic meetings regularly held in the Secretariat to flag situations of concern are important opportunities for early warning. Yet, OSAPG staff are often unable to attend these meetings, in part due to staff shortages, but also because they are not always invited. Neither the SAPG nor the SAR2P are standing members of the Secretary-General’s executive committee, for example. The special advisers and the OSAPG are thus minimally integrated into the Secretariat’s decision-making processes on the framing of country situations, stymieing effective early warning and response.

For the SAPG, this may be due to a misconception that the presence of one of these advisers is always equated with imminent situations of genocide, rather than also with situations where there is a risk of genocide and other atrocities that can be prevented. In the case of the SAR2P, the fact that they are not physically present at UNHQ in New York – as it is an unpaid, part-time position – is directly correlated with their ability to effectively carry out their work. For political reasons, and to placate states who argue that the position was never approved by the General Assembly, the position has never been fully institutionalized since the joint office was established in 2010. The issue is hotly debated each year in the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACBQ) and the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee, but little to no progress has been made, with Cuba leading the pack of States that argue that the position is illegitimate and should not be funded. The implications of this for the amount of time the SAR2P is able to dedicate to the position – as well as for their visibility and attendance at meetings and regular consultations with member State delegates and UN counterparts, and for their engagement in the day-to-day work of the office – are obvious.

Different special advisers have deferred to a greater or lesser extent to the exhortation that the U.N. should “speak with one voice” on situations of risk, and there is an unwritten rule that it is not desirable to sound the alarm on a risk of atrocities when the rest of the system is opposed to doing so. The unclear relationship between the respective special advisers as well as between each of them and the Secretary-General further complicates matters. Rather than advisers, they operate more like representatives, which raises questions about when and whether they can speak on behalf of – or in fact dissent from – the Secretary-General.

In general, early warning activities can take the form of public statements, advisory notes to the Secretary-General, behind-the-scenes diplomacy, or a combination of the above. Yet, there is no clear procedure for when or how these activities should be done, resulting in an ad hoc, case-by-case approach. Another major challenge is that of timing, or assessing when in the continuum between early signs of atrocity risk and their commission the red flag should be waved. As former SAPG Juan Mendez said, “If I wait until all the elements of genocide are in place according to international law, then by definition I have not prevented it.” While a lack of early engagement could undermine the mandate’s aim of prevention, the special advisers must toe a fine line, for it could also be interpreted as prematurely alarmist and raise concerns about interference in the internal affairs of States by the international community, further jeopardizing the perceived legitimacy of the joint office.

Going Forward

In summary, a lack of political will on the part of U.N. member States is not the only the obstacle inhibiting global atrocity prevention and response efforts. A separate if related reason the U.N. has failed to act in a number of atrocity situations is that prioritizing atrocity prevention – and human rights more broadly – is often regarded as an unwelcome interference in the organization’s other aims, which are pursued by politically more powerful actors within the system. Until this imbalance is addressed by U.N. leadership, and also taken seriously by member States, there is little hope for timely and decisive international action to protect current and future victims of atrocity crimes.

Rectifying this state of affairs will require strong messaging from the Secretary-General that atrocity prevention and the responsibility to protect are priorities and not subsidiary to other agendas. It will also require U.N. member States to pressure the Secretariat to institutionalize the SAR2P position, fully integrate the special advisers into the Secretariat’s decision-making processes on whether and how to respond to crisis scenarios, and provide additional funding to enable the work needed for early warning and early action.

At the same time, given the apparent lack of political will by many States to live up to the promise of “never again,” more thinking must be done by civil society organizations and advocacy groups on how to mobilize public opinion to push member States and U.N. leaders for the kind of commitment to preventing and responding to atrocity crimes that those affected desperately continue to hold out hope for.

IMAGE: Coffins are lined up next to graves as a mass funeral takes place to bury victims of a military strike on a camp for displaced people near the northern Myanmar town of Laiza on October 10, 2023. Twenty-nine people were killed and dozens wounded in a military strike on a camp for displaced people in northern Myanmar, a spokesman for an ethnic rebel group that controls the area told AFP on October 10. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)