(Editor’s note: This is the fourth 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 all installments can be found here.)
Mass atrocities are not going away, despite years of work to establish mechanisms for prevention. Today, millions of people around the world live amid unfolding genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. More than 11,000 people, including 4,600 children, have reportedly been killed in Gaza in an escalated war between Israel and Hamas following the group’s massacre of an estimated 1,200 people, many of them civilians, in Israel on Oct. 7. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has referred to “clear violations of international humanitarian law” in the conflict. Mass violence also is taking an enormous civilian toll in Ukraine, Sudan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Nagorno-Karabakh, and beyond.
In theory, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle, which defines the responsibilities of States and the international community to prevent and protect populations from mass atrocities, should help to identify and prevent such violations. Most States, however, have yet to fully implement R2P, particularly by formulating a coherent foreign policy agenda that can position them to meaningfully respond when atrocities occur.
R2P is thus stuck in a holding pattern, encumbered by hostile politics and bureaucratic hurdles that hinder cooperation and progress. To overcome this, States and international organizations must move R2P out of niche policy corners by “mainstreaming” atrocity prevention, including by developing formal strategies, action plans, and institutional mechanisms to oversee the agenda’s implementation.
In doing so, States and international organizations must also integrate atrocity prevention into wider policy programming to ensure that practical steps to address atrocity risk can be implemented. This requires investment in both atrocity prevention training and in early warning data collection, analysis, and response mechanisms. With a coherent strategy for atrocity prevention and appropriate foresight and planning, States and international organizations can ensure they are prepared to respond when atrocity situations emerge.
Atrocity Prevention: A Deliberately Deprioritized Agenda
The international community committed to R2P by consensus in 2005. However, despite two decades of research, advocacy, and diplomacy, mass atrocity prevention has failed to gain serious traction.
Deep political problems have beset R2P, mainly due to perceptions that the doctrine could be used as a smokescreen for intervention – including of a military nature – into the domestic affairs of other States. Perhaps the greatest political challenge to atrocity prevention is its association with R2P’s third pillar, and the idea that States can and should take coercive action against other States to stop atrocities from occurring. The enduring association of the atrocity prevention agenda as a whole with R2P’s coercive dimension sustains perceptions that furthering atrocity prevention may increase the likelihood that military interventions will occur.
To be sure, atrocity prevention entails far more than military intervention. Yet even non-coercive prevention measures invariably reach into the domestic affairs of other States, and often foreground highly sensitive political problems that may be perceived to conflict with other strategic priorities of foreign policy actors. The difficulty of holding China to account for the persecution of Uyghur minorities, as well as States’ inaction when the Burmese government committed atrocities against the Rohingya, are prime examples.
For these reasons, States have been reluctant over the past two decades to elevate atrocity prevention as a foreign policy priority, and have instead marginalized it as a niche policy area.
At the United Nations, for example, R2P is consigned to a small Joint Office on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect that receives little support in mainstreaming atrocity prevention across the U.N. system. Domestically, few countries have developed national atrocity prevention mechanisms, and the work of atrocity prevention has remained siloed with little reach across government ministries where coordination is needed.
At the same time, atrocity prevention has also faced hurdles to effective implementation because persistent and unresolved global crises requiring urgent responses tend to consume international political attention and resources, making it harder to justify and sustain preventive efforts in situations where conflict has not broken out.
Recently, global inflation and the cost of the war in Ukraine to both the global economy and to States supporting the Ukraine military effort have further pushed prevention from international political attention. A series of conflicts – including the latest escalation in Gaza – as well as the natural disasters experienced in Morocco, Libya, and Afghanistan have also shown how consecutive crises can overwhelm international capacity for humanitarian support and hinder engagement by States and international organizations in long-term preventive planning.
Too Little Salience in Diplomacy and Policymaking
Those seeking to prevent and halt atrocities cannot “go it alone.” Atrocity prevention efforts must be supported by numerous activities that are relevant to a wide range of international organization, State, and civil society actors working on other overlapping policy agendas, including conflict prevention, democratization, and peacebuilding. For atrocity prevention to be effective, it cannot afford to be treated as a niche policy interest, nor can it operate as a standalone agenda.
To achieve this, broader engagement with atrocity prevention across all levels of governance – including the agenda’s integration into key national and international institutions of foreign policy, security, human rights, and development – is urgently needed. If it is to continue to receive any political or financial support, atrocity prevention must become central to, rather than compete with, adjacent international and foreign policy agendas that are seen as more pressing or less politically sensitive.
Importantly, mass atrocities such as genocides are by definition major logistical undertakings and require a permissive environment that facilitates large-scale, systematic, and targeted violence. Enabling factors for mass atrocities include social and historical cleavages, exclusionary and extreme ideologies, and the capacity of perpetrators to orchestrate, mobilize, and arm large-scale identity-based targeting campaigns.
The international community must be prepared to mitigate these factors early on and with sufficient capacity. To do so, States must integrate atrocity prevention into adjacent areas of bilateral and multilateral engagement such as development cooperation, economic engagement, promotion of human rights, and conflict and fragility programming.
This is especially important because the key actors positioned to identify early risk of atrocities are not only atrocity prevention specialists. In fact, given that few countries have either dedicated atrocity prevention expertise or an atrocity prevention policy strategy (the United States is a notable exception), development, human rights, and security actors are often uniquely positioned to assess the character of persecution and violence within local or national contexts. To do this effectively, they must be trained to distinguish atrocity violence from other situations of human rights abuse or armed conflict, as well as have a strategy in place with the resources to respond to early signs of atrocity risk.
Today, however, early warning training and resources for diplomats, policymakers, and international organizations remain limited. This, combined with the overall compartmentalization of the atrocity prevention agenda, contributes to slow international responses to atrocity situations when they unfold, even where local stakeholders can see the signs coming. For example, the conclusion of independent reports in Sri Lanka and Myanmar argued that the absence of an integrated, systematic approach to atrocity prevention led to dire failures by the U.N. to prevent mass atrocities in both these countries.
Moving atrocity prevention out of niche policy corners – and instead prioritizing atrocity prevention through adopting an interconnected strategy among a wide range of stakeholders including States, international organizations, civil society, and communities – is thus a crucial first step towards securing the future of atrocity prevention.
The Need to Invest in Situational Analysis and Country Expertise
Of all the steps States can take to prioritize atrocity prevention, investing in situational analysis and country expertise is perhaps the most easily implementable and politically palatable.
Early warning requires high quality and timely information, the capacity to analyze large volumes of data, and clear mechanisms to mobilize early response within and across States. Going forward, States and international organizations must invest in local partners who have both deep knowledge of and strong connections to communities where risks are identified. Detecting early warning signs of atrocities starts with an understanding of local social, political, and economic contexts and the ebbs and flows of violence and human rights violations within these contexts. Generic atrocity prevention training thus cannot equip external actors with the sufficient knowledge to identify the early warning signs and decide on the best course of action.
For example, it is well known that hate speech and incitement to violence are early warning signs of atrocities and enablers of atrocity violence, and that hate speech is on the rise globally with new technologies and social media. External analysts should partner with local actors who understand the nuanced meaning of language within a political context (such as this initiative in Indonesia, for example). Given the increased salience of emerging technologies and artificial intelligence in the conduct of armed conflict and commission of mass atrocities, further research is needed to understand if and how technological capabilities can be used to strengthen atrocity prevention outcomes.
States Need More Creative Solutions
The future of R2P and mass atrocity prevention is at a crossroads. Indeed, the current state of affairs gives reason to question whether R2P as a concept can be revived. The cost of not doing so, however, is too high – States must step up.
The international community must urgently invest in creative solutions to prioritize atrocity prevention within foreign policy and multilateral policymaking. This includes moving atrocity prevention out of niche corners of policymaking, developing national and institutional atrocity prevention strategies, and putting mechanisms in place to ensure coordinated and strategic implementation of atrocity prevention strategic plans.
Atrocity prevention must also be integrated across wider programmatic areas to ensure that atrocity risk factors and drivers are addressed at the earliest stage possible. States and international organizations must strengthen atrocity prevention knowledge and capacity among a much wider range of actors in fields such as human rights, development, and defense and security. At the same time, they must empower these actors to draw more regularly and deliberately on deep country expertise and leverage emerging technologies such as AI to develop new and better atrocity prevention capabilities.
It is only through pursuing such creative and practical solutions that are more amenable to broad political backing that the future of atrocity prevention can be secured.