An analysis of UN Secretary-General New Report on Atrocities Prevention

ImageThe Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention, released last month, is Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s fifth report on the responsibility to protect. It explores the idea that lies at the principle’s core – that primary responsibility for the protection of populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing lies with each individual state. While state responsibility for protection – which also entails effective prevention – may appear obvious, the role that local and national actors play is frequently overlooked in the research on conflict prevention in general, and mass atrocities prevention more specifically. Much is known about how and why state responsibility manifestly fails, but little is known about what responsible sovereignty looks like, particularly when the risk of potential atrocities is salient. The Secretary-General acknowledged this blind spot in his 2009 report, Implementing the Responsibility to Protect: ‘More research and analysis is needed on why one society plunges into mass violence while its neighbours remain relatively stable…’

This fifth report marks an important step in understanding the character of effective state responsibility. Such an approach is needed for two key reasons. First, as the report points out, no state is entirely absent of risk, therefore the challenge of prevention remains universal. Second, there are numerous examples of nationally and locally driven initiatives – already in practice – that provide insights into the varied ways that national resilience is strengthened and the risk of potential atrocities is mitigated. Cumulatively, these insights comprise a powerful repository of knowledge that every state can draw on to consider ways to strengthen their sovereignty through improved strategies of prevention. 

The Secretary-General frames this understanding of state responsibility by first identifying key risk factors associated with mass atrocities, then providing illustrations of the ways that states devise strategies which strengthen national resilience and manage such risk over time. The relationship between risk and resilience is complex, deeply contextual and dynamic. In order to convey just how varied and contextually driven the process of risk mitigation is, the report provides a number of specific examples policies and strategies from many different states, all which, in their own ways, strengthen national resilience.

The report stresses that atrocities crimes are processes, ‘not singular events’, for which there is no sole cause or simple set of causes. Instead, there are a range of factors that are associated with the increased risk of atrocity crimes. While the presence of risk does not inevitably lead to the perpetration of atrocities, these crimes are rarely committed in their absence. Six broad factors are identified:

  1. A history of discrimination and human rights violations.
  2. The motivation to target a specific identity group.
  3. The presence of armed groups, or militia, who have the capacity to commit atrocity crimes.
  4. The arising of circumstances that make committing atrocity crimes easier (such as the existence of a policy of targeting civilians, or a strengthening of military capacity).
  5. The inability of a government to prevent such violence, through lack of capacity or the absence of institutions that normally protect a population.
  6. The perpetration of violence that are regarded as ‘elements of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity’ often herald an escalation of violence.

The report then points out that actions by states to confront such risk can be instrumental in both reducing risk and building resilience in a way that enables it to ‘navigate periods of stress’. It identifies six broad sources of resilience:

  1. Constitutional protections;
  2. Democracy;
  3. State obligations under international law to criminalise genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the development of national accountability mechanisms;
  4. Transitional justice processes (where appropriate);
  5. Security sector reform;
  6. Measures that address actual or perceived inequalities.

In the report, each broad measure that strengthens resilience is accompanied by illustrations of specific policies and strategies implemented by different states. For instance, in relation to constitutional protection, the report describes three very different approaches. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensures equality of all Canadians, ‘regardless of race, religion, national or ethnic origin, colour, age or physical or mental disability.’ A different example is Croatia’s Constitutional Act on the Rights of National Minorities, which gives all the country’s minority groups to be represented in political, administrative and legal institutions at every level. In South Africa, a broad system of rights for ‘cultural, linguistic, religious and traditional communities’ is acknowledged through ‘the harmonization of customary law with human rights principles.’ These diverse examples provide a glimpse of just how contextually specific such strategies are.

The report also identifies the development of national infrastructure for the promoting and upholding of human rights, as another means of strengthening state resilience. It points out that human rights institutions can play a crucial role in atrocity prevention through the promotion of international standards of human rights and monitoring the integration of such rights into domestic law.

Beyond these broad approaches, the report also highlights some specific measures that can be adopted to incorporate an ‘atrocity prevention lens’ with national governments. In particular, it encourages the designation of an atrocity prevention or RtoP focal point, or an inter-agency mechanism which helps to orchestrate national efforts to formalize plans for atrocity prevention.

The Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention makes a significant and original contribution to the prevention of mass atrocities in three major ways.

First, it challenges the tendency found in much of the literature on conflict prevention to prioritize the role of external actors in deciding not only what the root causes of potential violence are, but also the best strategies for addressing them. Often a distinction is made between prevention actors on the one hand and prevention recipients on the other. By contrast, this report assumes primary agency to lay with each state, and on that assumption it provides illustrations of how various state-based policies and strategies have strengthened resilience and mitigated risk. Understanding national sources of resilience is important even when international assistance is needed, as it allows for such assistance to facilitate processes already in place.

Second, the report stresses that it is necessary to understand national sources of resilience because the presence of risk does not inevitably lead to genocide or other atrocity crimes. The tenuous causal relationship between the presence of risk and the perpetration of atrocity crimes is well known by scholars of comparative genocide studies. However, there has been very little research within the field of comparative genocide studies on why such violence does not occur, particularly when there is at least a moderate level of risk. By addressing that question, this report explores a neglected yet crucial dimension of atrocities prevention.

Third, through the promotion of atrocities prevention focal points, it makes a strong case for ways that states can engage in prevention without over-burdening already stretched national budgets. Focal points have the potential to cast a preventive lens over existing policies and strategies that already have their own specific objectives, and demonstrate how they also have a protective effect against atrocity crimes. By doing so, it precludes the need for a distinct set of strategies and resources. When states have institutions that are accountable and inclusive, and are able to provide services and promote opportunities in an equitable manner, then they are already mitigating the risk of atrocity crimes. Focal points for atrocity prevention provide clarity and guidance for such processes.

As the Secretary-General stresses, ‘there is no one-size-fits-all approach to atrocities prevention.’ Effective prevention must be tailored to each country’s unique historical, cultural, economic and demographic circumstances. Those that know these circumstances best – local and national actors – have the greatest capacity to generate long term strategies that manage and reduce the risk of atrocities over time.

Stephen McLoughlin, Griffith University

Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

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