International Order & Conflict

Overcoming obstacles to mass atrocity prevention

in Program

By Alison Giffen: 

Twenty years ago, a genocide unfolded across Rwanda, killing over half a million people in the shadow of UN peacekeepers and under the watch of the international community. Rwanda catalyzed major reforms to international norms, laws and institutions with the hope that such atrocities would never be committed again.  For nearly 15 years, these issues have been a core part of Stimson’s research agenda, and our work is recognized as playing a critical role in ensuring that policymakers and practitioners have the capacity and willingness to turn aspirational goals to protect civilians into a reality.

One of the most significant reforms born out of the events of the 1990s was the establishment of the responsibility to protect norm. The international community agreed that states had a responsibility to protect those within their borders from acts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide. If states didn’t have the capacity to do so, the international community had the responsibility to help them build that capacity. In extreme cases where a state was unwilling or unable to protect, the international community was also able to intervene, with or without the consent of the state or other parties to the conflict. Although many states still resist challenges to sovereignty, the evolving norm of the responsibility to protect is a notable shift from non-interference in other states’ business to non-indifference when atrocities are being committed.

The Stimson Center’s work has identified several obstacles to realizing this norm. For example, when policymakers are faced with situations of imminent atrocity threats in other countries, they often don’t have policies, guidelines or training that enable decision-making on whether and how to respond. As a result, civilian leaders often turn to the military to do something. However, Stimson’s research found that, like their civilian counterparts, the military components of the United Nations, NATO, other multilateral security organizations and individual member states also lacked the doctrine, training and assets to protect civilians in situations of widespread or systematic violence.

Stimson has helped to fill these gaps, first by raising awareness that guidance was needed and second, by engaging with policymakers, doctrine writers, military and civilian leaders, operational planners and other experts to develop guidance for military and civilian actors. Stimson’s work can now be seen in newly developed United Nations, African Union and United States policies, doctrine and training on atrocity prevention, and the protection of civilians.

One notable example of Stimson’s work in this area was its contribution to the 2008 report “Preventing Genocide:  A Blueprint for US Policymakers,” also known as the Albright-Cohen Genocide Genocide Prevention Task Force report. The report galvanized support within the US government, which resulted in a number of reforms including the establishment of an US Government Atrocity Prevention Board, which helps to focus high-level, interagency policymaker attention on situations at risk of atrocities.

Another example was Stimson’s authorship of a 2009 independent review of the protection of civilians in peacekeeping which was commissioned by the United Nations. The in-depth report and its recommendations served as a catalyst for and the basis of the majority of current UN reforms in relation to protection and peacekeeping.

Today, Stimson is working to ensure these new UN, AU and US policies and practices are reaching the people that the international community has promised to protect. We monitor whether and how they are being implemented from state capitals and UN headquarters down to the local level. To this end, over the last year, we’ve traveled to the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Mali. 

Of equal import, we are identifying ways that external protection actors, such as the US government and peacekeeping operations, can and should engage conflict-affected communities in the planning, implementation and monitoring and evaluation of their protection strategies. We achieve this through partnerships with civil society organizations in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo who conduct research with conflict affected communities to ensure their voices are included in protection planning.

Many of today’s crises raise serious questions about whether the international community has learned any lessons over the last 20 years. In 2013, 10.7 million people were forced from their homes by conflict, contributing to a record 51 million people displaced by violence and persecution around the world. In places like the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Syria, civilians are being deliberately targeted in incidents that likely rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

These numbers and the stories of suffering can often overwhelm onlookers and overshadow some of the important progress that has been made. But it is important to recognize these initial efforts for what they are – crucial first steps that can and should be built on. It is going to take at least another decade to continue to identify gaps, test new tools and refine approaches before we can boast that the international community has a track record not only in mitigating atrocities, but preventing them. Nevertheless, progress is in our grasp and the Stimson Center is committed to continuing its role as a leader in the field.

Photo credit: Trocaire via flickr – Row after row of photographs of those lost to violence, on display at the At the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda.

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