How to Prevent Genocide


LEXINGTON, Kentucky — United voices spoke and said “never again” after the killing of six million Jews and millions of other groups during the Holocaust. Subsequently, acts of genocide occurred in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, claiming the lives of approximately 170 million people in total. Today, acts of genocide continue in Sudan, Burma, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while religious violence rages in Israel, Palestine, Côte d’Ivoire and Burundi. The question of how to prevent genocide lingers on as the killing continues.

Genocide Defined
Genocide, as defined in Article Two of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, is any act committed with the intent to destroy a national, religious, racial or ethnic group. This includes acts of murder, serious bodily harm, mental harm, sexual violence, forcibly preventing births or forcibly transferring children to another group.

What is Needed to Prevent Genocide?
Some arguments suggest that the U.S. and others in the international community lack the political will to stop or prevent genocide, while the global community lacks the formal institutions necessary to prevent and punish acts of genocide.

Coordination and political will seem to have taken a turn for the better in the last decade. Recognition of triggering factors, early warning systems, political will and international coordination are positive steps in the active prevention of genocide.

Recognition of Triggering Factors
Recognizing triggering factors for genocide is crucial. Several events can indicate an increased risk for genocidal acts:

  • Upcoming elections, early elections, postponed or canceled elections
  • Change of government outside a country’s sanctioned process
  • Military use against civilians
  • War or another armed conflict
  • Natural disasters
  • Increase in activities by opposition parties viewed as a threat by the sitting government

Early Warning and Political Will
Risk factors must be tied to an early warning system with long-term strategic planning so that action can be taken before mass atrocities begin. However, it must be noted that early warning was available, but ineffective, during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda because the involved players lacked the political will to intervene.

The U.N. Assistance Mission to Rwanda’s (UNAMIR) commander was aware of a shipment of 500,000 machetes three months prior to the beginning of killing, but the U.N. Department for Peacekeeping Operations denied his request to confiscate the machetes claiming it exceeded UNAMIR’s mandate.

The UNAMIR commander requested troops when the genocide began and was rejected again by the U.N. Security Council, led by the U.S.. Instead, 2,500 troops were withdrawn and 800,000 Tutsi’s were murdered.

Early warning and observance of early indicators are critical, but if these tools are not accompanied by the political will and moral imperative to act, they are ineffective.

Local Institutional Partnerships
Local and regional institutions such as churches, synagogues, mosques and temples can be partners in providing non-violent intervention and shelter in their communities. Religious leaders can play an important role in fostering a united mentality as opposed to “us” versus “them” competition in conflict areas.

Independent Rapid Response Force
The U.N. needs a standing force that is not dependent on troop contributions from member countries. The U.N. Charter allows for a creation of this force. This all-volunteer force would be comprised of experts from all over the world specifically trained in peace-keeping and under control of the U.N.

International Criminal Court (ICC)
The ICC must be backed by the political will of all countries to punish genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Prosecution and the enforcement of the international law will not deter all atrocities, but the threat of punishment serves as a warning that the international community will not turn a blind eye to ethnic cleansing.

What is the United States Doing?
In 2012, President Barack Obama announced the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board which is intended to provide tools to identify and prevent genocide as a part of U.S. foreign policy. The purpose of the board is not to increase the likelihood of military intervention, but rather to identify possible mass atrocities before they happen.

The board is comprised of representatives from the Departments of State, Department of Defense, Department of Treasury, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Mission to the U.N., the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, The Central Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Vice President.

The Atrocities Prevention Board uses a National Intelligence Estimate on the risk of genocide in certain areas, targeted sanctions, visa bans for suspected perpetrators of genocide, increased access to expertise on civilian protection, rapid response and military planning.

Moving Forward
At the 2005 World Summit, the United States and other world leaders confirmed their Responsibility to Protect (R2P) the citizens of the world from mass murder, genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The R2P has three pillars:

  1. A state holds the primary responsibility for protecting its citizens against atrocities and ethnic cleansing.
  2. The international community should assist states with this responsibility.
  3. If a state is unable or refuses to protect its civilian population, then the international community has an obligation to intervene in a timely manner.

As such, the last 11 years have fostered increased discussion and policy action as well as more accountability for perpetrators. However, there is still a long road in learning how to prevent genocide before it happens.

The next U.N. Secretary General inherits an unsettled global landscape where mass killings are increasing in places like Syria and South Sudan. The global community must retain the political will not only to intervene in situations of genocide but to continue to study the root causes of such acts so that the capacity to act swiftly and effectively is improved.

Mandy Otis

Photo: Flickr


About Author

Mandy Otis

Mandy writes for The Borgen Project from Lexington, KY. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Georgetown College (KY) and a Master of Arts in International Relations from The Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Mandy has worked for a congressman as well as in the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security. Mandy is also a parenting blogger and mom of two boys. Her dream is to travel the world.

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