How to prevent mass atrocities?

23 April 2012

New research has highlighted techniques that can work successfully in the prevention of mass atrocity crimes.

Recent conflicts in Syria, Libya and other states have focused fresh attention on the need to protect civilian populations from the most serious crimes imaginable - mass atrocities such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

Researchers at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC), who have been studying the challenges of the prevention of mass atrocity crimes, have produced a report which analyses the success of targeted preventive tools such as mediation, referrals to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and no-fly zones.

Operationalizing the Responsibility to Prevent’ outlines several key findings:

  • The need to clearly distinguish atrocity prevention and conflict prevention - it cannot be assumed that efforts to prevent or resolve conflict will simultaneously reduce the likelihood of mass atrocity crimes.
  • Many of the most promising preventive tools – such as monitoring missions, targeted sanctions, mediation, or no-fly zones – require existing structures, skills, and technology if they are to be applied in a timely and effective fashion.
  • Creating a credible and authoritative mechanism for assessing the likelihood of these crimes, without the perception of bias, is a significant challenge.

The principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) has developed in recent years to help the international community respond to atrocity crimes and build the political will to act.

Report author, Professor Jennifer Welsh comments “There is no question that these terrible crimes need to be prevented, but mobilising political will to act during a crisis is fraught with difficulty. We believe that building capacity beforehand within international, regional and national bodies is essential to ensuring that when political will is present, action can be timely and effective.”

Co-author, Dr Serena Sharma adds “The concept of R2P has been with us now for a decade, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has declared 2012 ‘the year of prevention’. It’s time to use practical tools to turn this rhetoric into reality for vulnerable civilians.”