Getting Away with Mass Atrocities


Despite the recent focus on the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities and the strengthening of international responses to these crimes, it is still the case that perpetrators are as likely to get away with mass killing and achieve at least some of their goals as they are to fail and end up being punished. As a result, political groups sometimes choose mass atrocities as a strategy for the simple reason that it does help them to achieve what they want at an acceptable price. When they do, perpetrators are often very well aware that that their behaviour violates cherished international norms and runs the risk of attracting international criticism, sanctions and – though only very rarely – military intervention.

As a result, they develop strategies for mitigating the risk of decisive international responses by trying to conceal the reality of what they are doing, creating uncertainty about responsibility for atrocities, establishing their own credentials as legitimate partners, generating legitimacy for the use of force against a foe, and preventing the emergence of an international consensus on action. Any strategy aimed at preventing or stemming the tide of mass atrocities has to recognize these strategies and develop countervailing ones.  As a start, I recently published a piece in the Journal of Genocide Research that identified some of the most common tactics employed by perpetrators and the factors that tend to influence how effective they are.

In the article, I argued that there are three main clusters of tactics that perpetrators of mass atrocities use to literally get away with it.

  1. Shaping perceptions to deny atrocities;
  2. Securing sufficient international sympathy;
  3. Diffusing responsibility.

Let’s look in a little more detail at these tactics

1.    Shaping perceptions to deny atrocities


How states respond to mass atrocities is shaped to a great extent by how they perceive a situation. All other things being equal, the international community is much more likely to respond decisively to clearly evident atrocities committed by clearly apparent perpetrators than it is when the situation is clouded by uncertainty.  Perpetrators can play an important part in shaping third party perceptions to their advantage and have typically done so in one or more of three ways:

  • ·          Argue that massacre reports are simply false – it is quite common for perpetrators to outright deny massacre reports and try to discredit those that issue them.  During the Second World War, Stalin simply denied Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre whilst fifty years later the post-genocide government of Rwanda denied responsibility for massacres in Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • ·      Argue that the victims were not civilians – many campaigns of mass atrocities occur in the context of civil wars and counter-insurgency operations, allowing perpetrators to argue that the victims were not civilians but were actually irregular combatants. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the government argued that the killing was simply a result of civil war rather than a campaign of genocide.
  • ·      Argue that civilian deaths were unintentional – a strategy most commonly used when atrocities are committed in the course of aerial or artillery bombardment is to argue that the targets were combatants and any civilian deaths were unintended.  Russia and the Bosnian Serbs justified their bombardments of Grozny and Sarajevo respectively in these terms. More recently, this was the argument the Sri Lankan government used to justify shelling Tamil civilians in the closing stages of the civil war there.

As a general rule of thumb, the more complex and chaotic a situation is, the more likely these tactics are to succeed. It is much easier to plausibly deny responsibility for mass killing when it occurs in a context of generalized chaos or war.  Beyond that, the extent and quality of independent reporting can significantly influence a perpetrator’s capacity to deny atrocities. This, in turn, can be influenced by things like geographical location, degree of media interest and factors over which the perpetrators have direct control – access to the conflict zone, their security once their, and their freedom to report.

2.    Securing sufficient international sympathy

In most cases, international actors have already formed judgments about and have relations with perpetrators, victims and other actors involved in a case. These factors matter because who is presenting an argument or interpretation of events often matters as much as what is being said.  We generally tend to believe our friends and doubt the claims of those we like less.  In relation to mass atrocities, the relative legitimacy of perpetrators and their victims is critical.  The perpetrators need not be loved to avoid international punishment. They need only be less disliked than their victims.  Moreover, perpetrators do not need to befriend everyone, just a select number of states capable of protecting them from international punishment. With this in mind, successful perpetrators of mass killing tend to cultivate international relationships – four particular types stand out:

  • General alliances – a common strategy is to befriend, maintain friendly relations with, or establish common purpose with a powerful state capable of preventing the imposition of meaningful costs by the international community. Syria is only the latest of a long line of perpetrators that have befriended great power protectors
  • Political preferences – perpetrators might simply establish themselves as the most credible local actor or the best of an apparently bad set of choices for the international community. For example, international criticism of Russian atrocities in Chechnya was muted by fears that it would further undermine the Yeltsin regime and prompt its replacement by communists or nationalists.
  • Cash in ‘genocide credits’ – the international community’s failure to prevent or respond effectively to past genocides creates a sense of shame that inhibits later criticism of atrocities perpetrated by past victims. Sometimes, then, the victims of past atrocities can literally ‘cash in’ their credits to avoid international criticism.  Examples include the invocation of the Holocaust by Zionists in the late 1940s to divert criticism of their attacks on Arab civilians and, more recently, the international community’s reluctance to criticize the Tutsi government in Rwanda for its record of post-genocide mass killing
  • Victims as aggressors – a fourth common strategy is to try to portray the victims as the instigators of violence. Thus, it was all too predictable that Gadhafi and Assad would try to claim that violence in their respective countries was caused by al-Qaeda terrorists and that the use of force by the government was essentially defensive.

Of these four strategies, allying with a great power or cashing in ‘genocide credits’ have proven to be the most effective – though there are too few cases of the latter from which to draw general conclusions. The other strategies have a patchier record.  Even allying with great powers can prove troublesome, however, as the communist regimes of Eastern Europe and Afghanistan found as the Soviet Union started to decline and collapse.

3.    Diffusing responsibilities

A third avenue, available to most governments, leaves open the possibility of admitting that atrocities have occurred whilst denying specific responsibility. This is to argue that atrocities were perpetrated not by government agents but by non-state militia or disorganized mobs.  As situations escalate towards violence, it is not uncommon for governments to establish, fund, arm and sometimes direct militia groups that perpetrate atrocities on the government’s behalf but stand outside its formal control. Such militia can act as a veil for government-sanctioned violence, giving the impression that violence is chaotic and localized. The use of militia can also provide military advantages to overstretched militaries that cannot defeat rebels through conventional means.  The Indonesian army’s support for pro-Indonesian militia in East Timor and Sudan’s relationship with the Janjaweed of Darfur are two such cases.

            The capacity of this strategy to succeed is linked to the level of uncertainty about the facts of the case and the degree to which the perpetrators enjoy international sympathy.

One or more of these tactics are employed by perpetrators of mass atrocities to avoid decisive international responses.  Those engaged in the prevention and mitigation of mass atrocities need to be attuned to these tactics and to develop strategies for countering their effects.

Alex Bellamy – Human Protection Hub

Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

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