How Humanitarians Protect Populations Against Mass Atrocities (With Limits)

Originally published with IPI Global Observatory.

Humanitarian organizations can sometimes play a critical role in keeping people alive when populations are subjected to genocide and mass atrocities. For example, in Darfur, Sudan, international humanitarians and their local partners protected around two million civilians displaced by mass atrocities committed by Sudanese government forces and their allies, the now notorious Janjaweed militia, in 2003-4. So effective was the humanitarian response to the crisis in Darfur that by 2005, the region’s overall mortality rate had fallen to pre-war levels.1

When the storm of mass atrocities breaks, humanitarian agencies are often the only international presence on the ground. This was certainly true of Darfur, of Sri Lanka five years later, and of Syria as I write. But the relationship between humanitarian action, atrocity prevention, and the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) has been fraught with difficulty. This piece briefly explores why and what can be done about it.

Key Conclusions

  • Whether it is acknowledged or not, humanitarian action can often make a positive contribution to the protection of populations from genocide and mass atrocities.
  • Humanitarians have been reluctant to embrace RtoP for a number of reasons, not least differences of principle, concerns about access and local cooperation, and fears that controversial political concepts might make humanitarian work more difficult—and dangerous.
  • Putting atrocity prevention and protection work and humanitarian action into different policy silos has not always delivered good policy.
  • Progress should be based on respect for humanitarian principles, recognition of the preventive and protective effects of work already undertaken, and acknowledgment of the fact that it is for individual organizations themselves to judge how they relate to the goals of RtoP and atrocity prevention.


Humanitarians help reduce the vulnerability of populations to mass atrocity crimes in many different ways. Most obviously, by targeting aid at especially vulnerable groups or—more controversially—at groups that might cause harm to others as part of their strategy for coping with the terrible situations they find themselves in. Other strategies focus on reducing exposure to threat, providing paid work to reduce the need to adopt risky coping strategies (as well as reducing competition for resources), reducing incentives for joining armed groups, and designing camps to maximize safety and minimize risk.

Fleeing Terror, Channel 4

Physical displacement is in itself a significant protection risk because it increases all manner of threats to individuals. To prevent displacement, some agencies have provided secure access to land. These strategies also help communities to sustain themselves and reduce dependency on displacement camps.

There are some circumstances, though, where flight offers the only hope of survival. Because it is so difficult and dangerous, making the right decisions about when to flee (and when not to), where to go, and by what route can be the difference between life and death. Recognizing all this, some humanitarian organizations developed programs to help local communities make better-informed decisions about their own protection by providing accurate information about the presence of threats and the location of assistance and safe routes.

Yet despite the obvious contributions that humanitarian assistance can make to the achievement of RtoP’s goal of protecting populations from mass atrocity crimes, most humanitarian organizations have been reluctant to endorse the principle. Even those that have, such as Oxfam, have thus far proven reticent to incorporate RtoP directly into their operational work. Why?

First, there is concern about the differences between humanitarian principles and RtoP. Humanitarian agencies are guided in their work by core humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence, and humanity. RtoP requires that actors sometimes abandon impartiality and take sides in political struggles (that of the victims of mass atrocities).

Second, associating RtoP with humanitarian action could make it more difficult and dangerous for humanitarians to do their work. Humanitarian agencies rely on the consent and cooperation of governments, communities, and armed groups for access and more besides, often in environments where goodwill is in short supply. Any sort of linkage between humanitarian work and controversial political action could make life more difficult for the humanitarians.

Third, emphasizing the protective work done by humanitarians can create false assumptions about their capacity to protect civilians from genocide and mass atrocities. This could encourage political leaders to employ humanitarian action as a substitute for effective political action in response to protection crises.

Fourth, in the UN context, there are concerns that associating RtoP with humanitarian action and combining the two in so-called ‘integrated missions’ could result in the prioritization of politics over humanitarianism and diminish the independent humanitarian voice.

What is to be done? These concerns cannot be simply wished away but neither can the role played by humanitarian action in fulfilling the protection goals of RtoP. The division of RtoP and humanitarian action has not always delivered good policy, as the Sri Lanka case (2008-9) shows.

The UN Secretary-General offered a useful way of thinking about the issue in his 2012 report on RtoP:

‘Humanitarian agencies can help to protect populations and shield them from some of the worst effects of displacement. As such, humanitarian action is a critically important part of any ‘timely and decisive’ response. However, humanitarian action must never be used as a substitute for political action. It must also be understood that humanitarian action depends upon humanitarian space. To defend humanitarian space, the United Nations and the international community must respect the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence, humanity and impartiality.’

In this spirit, further dialogue on the relationship between humanitarian action and RtoP’s goals might consider three basic principles.

First, that whatever is done in the field should be done in a manner consistent with existing principles and operating procedures. Humanitarian action is sometimes able assist in protecting people from genocide and mass atrocities because of the principles that underpin it. It would be counterproductive to propose that RtoP should seek to amend or supplant these principles.

Second, recognition that humanitarian agencies already contribute to the achievement of RtoP’s goals. The key is not to establish new programs or layers of bureaucracy but to better understand and augment work that is already being done.

Third, in the UN context, the Secretary-General has always been clear in arguing that it is for individual organizations to decide how best to incorporate RtoP goals into their work. This is a maxim with wider appeal. What is needed is not a one-size-fits all solution but a two-way dialogue to better understand how protection is achieved and to better ensure that it can be.

1Julie Flint and Alex de Waal, Darfur: A New History of a Long War (London: Zed, 2008), pp. 172-3.

Alex J. Bellamy is Professor of International Security at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, Australia; Honorary Professor of International Relations at The University of Queensland, Australia; and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. He is a non-resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute. 

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

Impractical Pragmatism: A Reply to Pape


Source: The Telegraph

In a recent article, Robert A. Pape has proposed a new ‘pragmatic standard’ for humanitarian intervention. Following the UN-authorized intervention in Libya and the ongoing crisis in Syria, Pape’s piece is part of a growing academic literature which focuses on how best the international community can respond to mass atrocities. However, in seeking to revitalize the notion of humanitarian intervention, Pape, like other recent works such as Pattison (2010), is quick to dismiss the role of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P).

The R2P doctrine, certainly, does not represent a perfect standard. But there are two key issues with his approach. First, he presents a substantial misreading of it, one in which the R2P doctrine’s widespread international support (marked by its inclusion in the World Summit Outcome document in 2005 and in the UN General Assembly debates held on it in 2009 and this year) is ignored. Second, there is little evidence that his standard would work more effectively than the R2P doctrine; rather, his criteria deliberately would limit intervention only to the ‘easiest’ cases of mass atrocities.

Pape sees the R2P doctrine as having three main weaknesses. These are, however, questionable weaknesses in themselves and represent only a narrow reading of the 2001 ICISS report, rather than of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, which represents the international consensus on what the R2P doctrine is, nor does he refer to any developments since such as the Secretary-General’s 2009 Report on Implementing the Responsibility to Protect which proposed the three pillar strategy. The first weakness, he argues, is that because the Responsibility to Protect lacks a clear standard, it obligates the international community “to intervene in almost any instance of human suffering, including natural disasters, disease, failed states, and collateral violence to civilians during civil wars” (52). In both documents there is clear limiting language he does not quote- the ICISS Report argues it applies in situations of large scale loss of life through either deliberate state action or neglect or a failed state situation, or large scale ethnic cleansing (32), while the Outcome Document notes that “each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” This explicitly does not include most of the situations he notes above. Further, we have the example of how state practice has evolved since 2005. When French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner argued that the R2P doctrine should be invoked following the government of Myanmar’s failure to allow in assistance following Cyclone Nagris, his claims were rapidly dismissed.

Second, he argues the R2P doctrine “fails to identify the levels of casualties that interveners should accept among their forces…” (51-2). Because it offers no clear guidance, he suggests this would “effectively obligate them to commit vast resources…” (52). Given that this argument focuses purely on the causalities among the intervener’s forces, and gives no weight either to the tactics used or civilian lives affected, I find this troubling but can at least understand the communitarian logic. But this presumes an individual state is required to respond. The R2P doctrine creates no such obligation to respond with military force to all situations which would fall within the doctrine- once again citing the Outcome Document, it establishes that the Security Council may take collective action “on a case-by-case basis … should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations.”

His third concern is that the R2P doctrine “would obligate the international community to engage in ambitious nation building in the aftermath of an intervention.” (52) Not only does this represent a narrow reading of the ICISS Report, particularly its ‘Responsibility to Rebuild’ which was not included in the Outcome Document, but such an obligation clearly has not been invoked in any of the cases where the R2P doctrine has been used, including most obviously Libya.

His misreading of the R2P doctrine is problematic, but does his standard have benefits? His alternative threshold for mass homicide is crossed when a government “when it has killed several thousand of its citizens (i.e., 2,000 to 5,000 un-armed protesters, bystanders, or those commonly called “civilians”) in a concentrated period of time (i.e., one to two months), and it is likely to kill many times that number (i.e., 20,000 to 50,000) in the near future, an often credible likelihood when hundreds of thousands or more are fleeing for their lives” (53). This presumes that a number – rather than language such as ‘manifestly failing’ – provides a better indicator for action. But by focusing solely on the government, it ignores other situations which could lead to similar loss of life such as a rebel group in de facto control of state territory which engages in such killing or a failed state situation. Yes, such situations would not necessarily require a violation of state sovereignty, but would fall within the state’s responsibility to protect its population. Further, he argues that such a threshold has not been crossed all that often, but this is simply an artifact of data – as Alex Bellamy’s recent work demonstrates, there have been “103 episodes since 1945 where at least 5,000 civilians in any given year were intentionally killed.”

But the threshold is only part of his argument – he also argues that interventions should only occur if military operations can be “effective” (55), a word he reduces down to “low costs” to the would-be intervener (as a counter-example, Pattison has a far better discussion of what effectiveness actually means to both the interveners and the state acted upon). He uses three interventions in the 1990s and Libya in 2011 to identify key conditions for low-cost intervention: an identifiable and separable target population, local allies, international coalitions, extreme imbalance of power and lucrative targets for over- the- horizon power.

There are a few issues here. He has a curious reading of history with respect to these cases. For example, with respect to Northern Iraq in 1991, he argues the “United Nations authorized armed intervention to protect the Kurds in Northern Iraq…” which is simply wrong as I have noted elsewhere. Further, his criteria can apply in this case only by ignoring the fact that the Gulf War had just been fought and that Saddam Hussein’s government had little capacity to oppose military action. Presumably factoring in the costs of that war would remove this from the ‘low cost’ intervention success category. Similarly, the suggestion that Bosnia was a case in which “the United Nations authorized military action to protect the Bosnian Muslim” in March 1993 neglects the fact that the creation of the Srebrenica safe area did not include any mandate change to the UN Protection Force. And, except for a brief footnote which mentions the massacre (55) there is no discussion of the collapse of that safe area leading to the genocidal deaths of over 7,000 Bosnian males, nor that this ‘successful’ intervention took some three years and large scale deaths to bear any fruit.

More broadly, however, his criteria fail to address what are probably the two biggest weaknesses of the R2P doctrine. The first by prioritizing only low cost interventions, it assumes that the international community should never take action in hard cases. He provides no answer to situations like Syria and Darfur, the crises which truly ‘shock the conscience of mankind.’ Military interventions may not have worked in either of these cases, but the R2P doctrine (as opposed to his pragmatic standard for humanitarian intervention) provides ways for the international community to take action short of intervention.

The second is how does an intervention under the pragmatic standard end? The Libyan intervention has been widely critiqued for the resulting regime change. Yet Pape specifically dismissed the role of regime change- his standard “does not require the use of military force to replace the government” (56). But, linking this to the above criteria means his solution is, in effect, the creation of a safe area. This is not necessarily a problem in itself, but the lessons of the safe areas from the 1990s are that they tend to be expensive and long lasting- the Northern Iraq safe area cost $2.7 billion and lasted only through a continuous no –fly zone which existed for twelve years.

Pape’s laudable goal is to save lives. Unfortunately, his pragmatic standard does little to improve upon the R2P doctrine and instead represents a regression back to the debates of the 1990s. Beyond his assertion that this standard could be codified (80) there is little to suggest it would be widely supported, nor would it offer any solution to the true hard cases of mass atrocities.

Phil Orchard

Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies and International Relations, School of Political Science and International Studies

University of Queensland