Today on the AIPR Blog, Daniel Solomon, an independent researcher on mass atrocity issues who blogs at Securing Rights, discusses The Early Warning Project, a new mass atrocity forecasting program that combines statistical forecasting with crowd-sourced intelligence from a pool of invited experts, of which Solomon is among.


In December 2008, the final report of the Genocide Prevention Task Force (GPTF), a high-profile convening of U.S. officials and policy experts, described “early warning” as a prerequisite of effective mass atrocity response. Early warning, which the group defined too-narrowly as “getting critical information [about mass atrocities] to policymakers,” has since emerged as a keystone of local, national, and international mass atrocity prevention agendas. The first adage of mass atrocity prevention, that it is possible, is closely followed by a second: mass atrocities can be known, far in advance of their onset.

ew1Early warning, defined more broadly, far predates the GPTF report; since 2008, however, policy-oriented warning programs have proliferated widely. Recent innovations in statistical forecasting have borne fruit in parallel models of mass atrocity risk. Among several programs, one stands out: the Early Warning Project, a partnership between the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide and Dartmouth’s Dickey Center for International Understanding. Unlike similar programs, which rest on the predictive grist of specific models, the Early Warning Project creates an interaction between statistical forecasting and the “wisdom of the [expert] crowd.” In the project’s expert opinion pool, of which I am a member, area scholars and mass atrocity specialists fill the blind spots of quantitative indicators. At the same time, the project’s quantitative side informs the specialists. If we can anticipate mass atrocities before they occur, it is only through the pluralism of knowledge, which the Early Warning Project advances.

Like much of the mass atrocity prevention agenda, early warning does not exist in a vacuum; each program warns about a specific event, for a specific audience. Some programs, formal and informal, identify local threats to vulnerable civilians: in northern Nigeria, an interfaith consortium gathers town-level data about trends in mass violence, for town-level use. The scope of the Early Warning Project is general by design. The project’s statistical model—and, to a partial extent, its expert opinion pool—measure risk in “country-years,” namely, annual, country-level indicators of mass violence. In tandem, the model and the expert pool can describe the risk of mass violence in Sudan, in 2015; only the pool, with its malleable question set, can describe the same risk in Darfur during November of the same year. The predictive model is only as nuanced as its data allows. Without more granular indicators, more specific prediction exceeds the project’s scope. It leaves to others—field researchers, journalists, human rights monitors—the question of how perpetrators may kill, or where, or when.

If the project’s audience is diverse, it is also limited. The explicit audience of the project’s warnings is a digital public: an assortment of individuals, organizations, and officials, often linked to institutions of the so-called global North, with continuous access to web-based information. This is a significant improvement from the status quo. Existing attempts at systematic warning models, such as those spearheaded by the CIA-funded Political Instability Task Force, are proprietary to the U.S. government; separate public efforts to assess and rank the global risk of mass violence, such as the International Crisis Group’s CrisisWatch bulletin, often lack comprehensiveness, whatever their qualitative value. Despite these improvements, the shortcomings of the program’s audience are also clear. These warnings are not intended for communities in conflict-affected areas. In fact, civilians and civil society for whom violence is imminent will likely find little use for the program’s country-year assessments. These groups may receive separate, more specific warnings that describe the time and location of a society’s mass violence.

In some circumstances, a common practice of mass atrocity prevention is unachievable and unproductive. As AIPR Board Member Sheri Rosenberg often observes, the relative entropy of the field of mass atrocity prevention may prove more fruitful than its false organization. A practitioner may approach the prevention of mass violence from various angles and levels of political organization, each equally as worthy as its counterpart.

ew2Several approaches to prevention, however, may benefit from the agenda the Early Warning Project’s risk assessments provide. Where it works best, the Early Warning Project is an agenda-setting tool: it tells practitioners, if imperfectly, which crises loom on the near horizon. For the informed practitioner, the program’s findings will contain few surprises (any way you slice it, the likelihood of mass violence in countries like Myanmar is an apparent fact). Its strength is not in the creation of new knowledge, but in the transparent collection of existing knowledge about global trends in mass violence. The statistical model’s criteria is publicly accessible: through its blog, the project is also finding ways to make the conclusions of its expert pool equally transparent. The advocacy efforts of coalition groups like the Prevention and Protection Working Group, which informed the creation of the U.S. government’s Atrocities Prevention Board, or the R2P Focal Points initiative of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, which organizes global collective support for the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, are often ad-hoc. These groups may use the Early Warning Project’s findings, as well as associated media coverage, as a wedge for collective global and regional action.

Of course, the political tenuousness of prevention will remain. One imagines the government of South Sudan, for example, is none too pleased by its unfortunate rank on the Early Warning Project’s list. But the possibility of limited consensus, often elusive in the practice of mass atrocity prevention, will likely advance our current status quo.

In today’s guest post, Dickinson College student and AIPR Communications Intern Sam Gillespie applies an early warning systems (EWS) lens to Cameroon, where he is currently studying.


“It could never happen to me.” Whether our nature or just a common sense of denial, most would agree that humans rarely think they will become the victim of an unfortunate event. This spans from third graders thinking they won’t be picked last for the team, to a homeowner opting out of flood insurance, to states refusing to admit they are at risk of a humanitarian crisis. In sub-Saharan Africa, this impulse to deny an imminent crisis is particularly pronounced—especially among unstable states at risk of mass atrocities.

Enter early warning systems (EWS). Early warning forecasting seeks to monitor certain factors that determine a states’ likeliness to commit atrocities. Early warning is cost effective since the costs to monitor certain factors are less expensive than intervening after crises take place. Some of these risk factors include official discrimination against a group within the state, political instability, increased military activity, and conflicts with neighboring states. Unfortunately, analysis of these factors is difficult to accomplish without resources, technology and funding.

Furthermore, these early warning factors are usually not evident to the naked eye, whether viewed by local citizens, surrounding countries, or the international community. Economic growth, political proceedings and even tourist activity may carry on as usual, without giving any indication of imminent violence. As a result, atrocities that may be predictable to a team of analysts may appear to be spontaneous to the untrained eye.

yaoundeFor the last five months, I have been studying abroad in Yaoundé, Cameroon, with a program that has successfully sent students here since 1993. For nearly 20 years, the program has never feared for the safety of its students. Since being here, I have never feared for my safety more than I would in the United States. But despite my confidence in Cameroonian infrastructure, studying early warning systems have forced me to question the stability of what I thought was a stable country.

In a country such as Cameroon, any local or visitor could say the prospect of genocide is ridiculously far-fetched, as I would have said before analyzing the early warning factors. But by analyzing these certain risk factors in Cameroon, I’ve discovered that the likelihood of genocide and mass atrocities in this country is not as far off as I had first thought. Thanks to a study done by the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales where Cameroon was ranked 13 on a list of countries most at risk of a mass atrocity, I have begun to more carefully examine early warning factors and how they indicate a potential threat.

Official Discrimination Against a Group within the State

One of the first important things to remember when discussing genocide and analyzing its risk factors is that the term itself means the targeting of a specific group and “results in the deaths of a substantial portion of a communal group or politicized non-communal group.” Therefore in forecasting genocide, an important factor is the official discrimination against a group within the state, both historically and in the modern context.

Historically, Cameroon is home to arguably one of the most severe genocides in Africa. Between 1959-1964, the national Cameroonian military targeted the indigenous Bamileke peoples, killing between 100,000 and 400,000. French involvement in the massacre is still in question, however, it is clear that the Cameroonian military were the primary perpetrator of the genocide. Many believe that there was French support of the Cameroonian military and their aim was to exterminate the ethnic group most likely to offer a presidential candidate in post-colonial Cameroon.

I discussed this genocide with my host mother, Jacqueline Mafowe, who is Bamileke and was born in the early 1950s. Though her memory of the events is foggy, she does remember her family having to move to avoid the conflict. Even once families moved, she was told that they would often spend nights camped out in their fields to avoid raids lead by rival tribes or the Cameroonian military. During these raids, perpetrators would burn houses, steal livestock and loot the village of anything of value. Despite not having a great memory of the era, my host mother told me that the stories of her parents still haunt her and her siblings.

In the modern context, Cameroon is considered one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Boasting over 250 ethnic groups, the country presents the potential for more ethnic tensions than most diverse African countries. Although today there is no active genocidal campaign against a particular group such as the Bamilekes during the early 1960s, there is clear discrimination against Cameroon’s Baka people (pygmies). Despite having the same legal rights (on paper) as all Cameroonian citizens, in order to access the most services one must obtain a national identification card. In order to obtain the card, one must produce a birth certificate, which is not possible for most Baka people since many are not born in hospitals. It is important to note that discrimination against Baka people is widespread across sub-Saharan Africa and does not apply only to Cameroon.

cam2_optAnother instance of discrimination concerns the Francophone versus Anglophone populations. In 1962, British colonized territories in Nigeria were reunited with their tribal ancestors who had been colonized in French Cameroon. By the time the reunification happened, the colonized peoples had been taught English or French. Therefore British Nigerians spoke English and French Cameroonians spoke French—both groups let their native vernacular become a secondary language. Since the reunification, the majority Francophone population has proliferated in the education system and government, forcing the Anglophones to learn French if they want to receive a higher education or obtain a position in government.

Director of the Dickinson program in Cameroon, Teku T. Teku, is a native of Buea, a city located in the heart of the Anglophone region. Speaking with him, I learned that during the 1980’s he and many other Anglophones were forced to learn French in order to attend University of Yaoundé I, which was the country’s sole public university at the time. “If you wanted higher education, you had no choice,” Teku told me. Teku’s time at University Yaoundé I allowed him to obtain a scholarship to study abroad at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and subsequently lead to his ascension to director of the program in Yaoundé. Had he not learnt French, none of these opportunities would have been available to him.

Political Instability and Increased Military Activity

The next factor necessary in early forecasting work is examining political instability and increased military activity. In both these areas, Cameroon is very complicated because despite apparent peace during its independence, the country has had few elections and presidents, and is ranked extremely low on freedom indexes. In 54 years, Cameroon has had 10 elections that have produced only 2 presidents, both of whom undoubtedly fixed conditions to maintain their power. These conditions include appointing ministers, paying high salaries to military officials and intimidating other political parties and candidates. While well known, this is hard to definitively prove since the government makes it difficult to obtain financial records and monitors the press to make sure it publishes stories that favor the government. On the Freedom House Index, political rights in Cameroon were ranked 6/7 and civil rights 6/7—seven being the lowest possible score.

Monitoring military as a function of the government’s power, it is important to understand that increased military activity is an important factor in forecasting. As noted in the report, “Understanding and Forecasting Political Instability and Genocide for Early Warning,” it is important to monitor specific military activity. This study examines how the “demobilization of parts of the regular army, for example, might push a government to rely upon paramilitaries for regime security, and, by creating an armed force unfettered by the institutional constraints of the regular military and answerable directly to the executive, might actually increase the chances of genocide.”

In Cameroon, military records are not made public, and therefore, analysis of its activity is extremely hard to monitor. In light of the Boko Haram movements in northeastern Nigeria, the Cameroonian government has made their military movements more public. In recent months, military forces in Yaoundé have practiced blocking off roads, setting up check points and enforcing its will over the city at a moment’s notice in an attempt to increase security measures. As a temporary citizen of Yaoundé, the efficacy with which the military imposes its will over the city is simply terrifying. The blocking of a single road sends the entire city into frenzy and creates traffic jams that stretch for kilometers. Furthermore, their strategically placed checkpoints at intersections and major junctions have forced me to produce my passport several times in the past month. Both of these military demonstrations have proved to me how the Cameroon government could shut down and exploit its capitol city in under an hour.

Conflicts with Neighboring States

This last factor that plays an important role in determining a country’s susceptibility to genocide involves a state’s volatility with other states. This can be an indicator of how volatile a state might be within its own borders. In this regard, Cameroon has been very well behaved and even exemplary. As civil wars, insurgencies, and other violent conflicts have ravaged the Central African Republic, Nigeria and DRC, Cameroon has opened its doors to thousands of refugees. The state has allowed humanitarian organizations to set up refugee camps and provided educational, medical, and nutritional support for those in need.

cam3_optWith regard to Cameroon’s relationship with neighboring states, professor of political science and international relations at University of Yaoundé I Elizabeth Nkongho told me that, “although Cameroon has not done a lot right in the way of politics, the government has respected AU and UN conventions regarding refugees and displaced persons.” Furthermore, Cameroon has not been involved in border disputes or territorial wars with its neighbors, barring the reunification issue that was discussed in previous sections.

Early warning forecasting—at its core—is simply the realization of modern technology and analysis that can help monitor and track factors that lead to genocide or mass atrocity. Through this sort of analysis, the international community and other actors can monitor “at risk” countries and better prevent genocide and mass atrocity events around the world. Furthermore, early warning forecasting models can serve as monitoring systems to collect data to prosecute those who commit genocide and mass atrocities. What’s more, forecasting highlights problems and factors that are not evident to the untrained eye and proves that genocide is never a spontaneous event, but a process. Even a trained professional living in an “at risk” country would have trouble foreseeing a mass atrocity without taking a bird’s eye view at the situation. But when you weigh all these factors together, a seemingly stable state can prove to be a risky environment, prone to mass atrocity.

During my time in Cameroon, I never would have believed that the country would have been so susceptible to an event as severe as genocide. But after examining these factors, it has become dreadfully clear how such a horrible event could come to fruition.

The author would like to extend a special thanks to Dr. Ben Goldsmith at the University of Sydney for his expertise and guidance regarding early warning forecasting systems.

After more than one year of worsening religious and ethnic-strife in the Central African Republic, recent months have seen wider international attention to the conflict and authorization of a United Nations peacekeeping operation. In this month’s guest post, Dominique Fraser analyzes the latest developments in CAR, including application of the R2P norm to this troubled landlocked state. Ms. Fraser received her Bachelor of Arts with a major in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Queensland in 2013. She was president of the R2P Student Coalition at her university in 2012 and upon graduating undertook an internship at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, where she worked in the areas of research, advocacy and country monitoring.


car2The crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) has now entered its second year and while it is becoming more sectarian in nature, the international community is finally starting to take not only notice, but action as well. A coup in March 2013 saw a group of mainly Muslim ‘Séléka’ rebels take control of the country and commit atrocities against communities; in turn some Christian communities formed so-called self-defence groups, the “anti-balaka” (anti-machete). Since September 2013, the anti-balaka have been engaged in a program of ethnic cleansing, which many fear may develop into a full-fledged genocide. African Union troops, as well as France and now the EU, have been in the country for months trying to establish stable conditions, but due to a lack of troops and resources, many have called for the establishment of a UN peacekeeping operation (PKO) which was only recently approved.

Over its more than two-year course, the conflict in CAR has displaced over one million people (almost a quarter of its population) and has killed over 2,000. In February this year, reputable human rights organizations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have stated that the atrocities committed against the Muslim population in the west of the country amount to ethnic cleansing. Several UN officials have adopted this language, with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon calling the conflict “ethno-religious cleansing” and has warned against the dangers of a de-facto partition of the country, which is increasingly being discussed by CAR residents. Virtually all Muslims have been driven from the capital Bangui, as well as the western city of Bossangoa, and others from all over the country are seeking shelter in the northern parts of CAR or trying to cross the border into Chad and Cameroon. Along the way, refugees have been attacked with machetes and firearms. Additionally, over half the country’s 4.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, but the international community is slow in providing much-needed financial aid.

car3The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has been developed to respond to exactly the kind of crisis now occurring in CAR. In 2005, world leaders agreed that states must protect its people from war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing. If a state fails or is unwilling to do so, then that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the international community. At the end of 2013, Philippe Bolopion from HRW said that “the handling of the CAR crisis will certainly become a test case for R2P.” And he was right. That the violence in CAR has not led to heated discussions around RtoP—as it has with Syria—demonstrates the norm’s power in relation to the current situation: RtoP has been mainstreamed into the international response, without needing to be discussed and defended by its advocates.

UNSC resolution 2127 from 5 December 2013 authorized the deployment of MISCA (the African Union’s International Support Mission in the Central African Republic) and French peacekeepers, giving them the mandate to use “all necessary measures” to protect the population. The resolution also spoke of “the primary responsibility of the Transitional Authorities to protect the population.” This so-called “first pillar responsibility” was also reiterated by UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng on 22 January 2014. However, interim President Catherine Samba-Panza has little hope of establishing peaceful conditions in her country, with both rebel groups receiving financing for weapons through the illicit trade in diamonds and ivory. Adama Dieng, therefore, highlighted second and third pillar responsibilities in saying that “the transitional authorities have neither the capacity to protect the civilian population nor to exercise control over the armed elements …, [so] the international community must take concrete measures to assist the State to stop the abuses and protect the civilian population.”

car1What the international community has done so far simply has not been enough. In mid-2013, the African Union set up MISCA, asking the UNSC for one year to prove its ability to undertake an extensive peacekeeping mission with Chad promoting “an African solution to an African problem.” However, despite the assistance of almost 2,000 French peacekeepers under Operation Sangaris and now with EU peacekeepers who have taken over security of the airport in Bangui, MISCA has been unable to keep the peace due to limited resources and so the situation continues to spiral out of control.

On 10th April, the UNSC finally authorized a UN PKO—the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA)—with a troop size of up to 12,000 under Resolution 2149, which again reiterated the primary responsibility of the CAR authorities to protect the people. The resolution authorized the mission to protect civilians, support a democratic transition and deliver humanitarian aid. The international mass atrocity prevention community sighed in relief, hoping the UN PKO would be able to avert an even bigger humanitarian disaster. However, the mission won’t be deployed until 15th September this year and if it encounters similar funding issues as the humanitarian aid effort, it might turn into a dog that cannot bark. In the meantime, violence is spiraling out of control. The UN now needs to find a way to bridge the time until UN peacekeepers can be deployed in September.


Photo credits: Humanitarian and Development Partnership Team in the Central African Republic

In the second of two AIPR blog posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Michelle Eberhard shares insights drawn from a recent University of Minnesota conference on this tragedy’s lessons. Ms. Eberhard is a former AIPR intern who completed in December 2013 a M.A. in Human Rights Studies, with a concentration in genocide, from Columbia University. You can read her previous AIPR blog posts by clicking here.


rwanda-conference1Commemorations, Voices of Rwanda founder Taylor Krauss explained, represent a “deliberate confrontation with history.” They are an opportunity to experience an event through the eyes of the victim, to enable the voiceless to speak, and to stop the completion of the cycle of genocide by refusing to allow the present to “erase the trace of the past.”

Speaking at a University of Minnesota Institute for Global Studies conference, “Genocide and its Aftermaths: Lessons from Rwanda,” Krauss accompanied his opening address with excerpts from filmed interviews with three Rwandan rescapés who survived the genocide in 1994. Each of these individuals shared stories of fear, the loss of loved ones, and a personal journey of how they, as Krauss put it, “prevent forgetting.”

The importance of remembering was a reoccurring theme at the conference, which was held on April 16, 2014, and included panels on representation and long-term implications of the genocide in Rwanda that left upwards of 800,000 individuals dead in the span of roughly 100 days. The conference also provided an opportunity to consider not only the ramifications of this crisis in the context of contemporary conflicts like Syria and the Central African Republic, but also what the true legacy of Rwanda’s story might be.

Memory as a Political Tool

Several speakers, including Eric Schwartz and David Lippmann, Deans of the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the University of Minnesota Law School, respectively, focused on the political context of the genocide in Rwanda.

While Schwartz reasoned that “examining what we didn’t do in the past can only enhance what we do in the future,” Wippman argued that “those who remember history are condemned to mess it up.” Wippman supplemented his quip with examples of how the legacies of Vietnam and Somalia, as well as the progression from the Weinberger and Powell Doctrines to Presidential Decision Directive 25, made American action in Rwanda in 1994 conceptually unrealistic.

Wippman also shared his personal experience in the National Security Council, when he was tasked with completing research for then-President Bill Clinton, who had read a piece by Philip Gourevitch on Rwanda and jotted “is this true?” in its margins.

Though somewhat absurd now given the enormous amount of documentation that exists on the Rwandan genocide, how often do questions of this skeptical nature nonetheless continue to hamper efforts to prioritize and appropriately respond to similar crises twenty years later?

Weighing the Impact of Humanitarian and Human Rights Organizations

Another perspective that added an important dimension to the conference’s scope came from Executive Director of The Center for Victims of Torture, Curt Goering, who spoke of his experience as a staff member at Amnesty International during the Rwandan genocide. Goering expertly synthesized the transformation his organization was faced with at the time, as patterns of human rights violations shifted towards an increase in extrajudicial and mass killings, and away from large numbers of prisoners of conscience. He also noted new challenges such as the difficulty of operating in insecure environments and addressing violations committed by individuals who actually carry out peacekeeping missions.

From an operational view, Goering emphasized that Amnesty was completely underprepared to handle a crisis like the genocide. With deteriorating situations, policy restraints, and a dearth of crisis researchers due to “insufficient flexibility to shift around resources,” organizations like Amnesty were often reduced to monitoring a crisis and providing recommendations. As such, Goering concluded, the impact of humanitarian organizations was simply “not much.” But, he also cautioned against believing that the existence of appropriate mandates and policies would have “made the difference” in Rwanda.

What Justice, Whose Memory, and How?

rwanda3Of course, the task of remembering what transpired in Rwanda must certainly extend beyond a discussion of consequences for political and humanitarian actors and institutions. Indeed, issues of post-genocide justice and memory are also imperative in the aftermath of atrocity.

Speaking in his capacity as both the current Director of the University of North Dakota Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies, and as a former Legal Officer at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Gregory Gordon explained the impact that the ICTR has had on rebuilding Rwandan society. Noting at the outset that “it’s not a zero-sum game” and that all components matter, Gordon countered several common arguments against the work of the ICTR by highlighting what it has contributed to Rwanda’s healing process and international justice more broadly, including the precedents the Tribunal has set on genocide, hate speech, and rape and sexual violence as a component of genocide.

Yet, as those familiar with the Rwandan genocide know, a majority of justice initiatives have occurred at the local level through the implementation of gacaca courts. Drawing heavily on their recently completed fieldwork in Rwanda, Distinguished McKnight Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota Chris Uggen, and University of Minnesota Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology Hollie Nyseth Brehm, explained the parallels between gacaca and restorative justice.

In particular, Uggen and Nyseth Brehm identified a handful of “dualisms” in gacaca: its formal yet informal nature; the involvement of the Rwandan government, despite the courts’ operation within the local community; the mixture of traditional procedures with contemporary cases it is meant to adjudicate; as well as its combination of punitive and restorative punishments. The pair also emphasized that much more time must pass before definitive conclusions on the impact of gacaca and other justice measures in Rwanda can be fully drawn.

The most pressing matter, of course, is whether the justice prescribed has been an appropriate antidote to the poison of the genocide’s aftermath. For Dan Wildeson, Professor of Communication Studies at St. Cloud State University and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education, evaluating this question necessitates a consideration of the twin issues of birth and perspective.

Simply put, while children inherit their DNA from their family, Wildeson explained, they do not also inherit their culture, stories, or family legacy from some biological origin. Perhaps, then, we need a “tectonic shift,” he reasoned – a shift in the narrative of the world we pass on to our children. This shift is naturally tied to the second issue, as contesting any narrative demands that one consider the world from another’s point of view.

Similarly, the various manners in which Rwandans choose to remember what happened during the genocide were discussed. Nicole Fox, a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at Brandeis University, noted that while memorials were initially viewed as an opportunity to bury the dead that lay scattered throughout the streets of the country, these spaces eventually transformed into places for survivors to grieve, thus providing a dual purpose at both the macro and micro levels.

However, the challenges for memorials are real, as it is their creators who decide what stories each space will tell – sometimes at the detriment of marginalizing particular victim groups, like those in Rwanda who experienced gender-based violence. The implication of this selectivity is that such spaces inevitably become “organizers of memory and organizers of trauma,” which in turn, have the dichotomous opportunity to either empower or stratify communities.

What Legacy?

rwanda4Repeated throughout the conference were references to Rwanda’s “unbelievable” transformation in the past twenty years, particularly in terms of economic growth. But should we truly be so astonished by Rwanda’s progress? Is Rwanda not proof of what can be done when the world responds to a problem by identifying and implementing a focused solution? If we were to be astonished by anything in the past twenty years, then, it would seem more appropriate that we become struck by the moments of opportunity we have neglected to undertake elsewhere, knowing the impact that such commitment is capable of producing.

The legacy of Rwanda, then, must not simply be the chance it provides to reexamine our strategies for handling conflict. Though the world’s response (or lack thereof) in 1994 will forever remain one of the darkest moments of modern history, Rwanda today is an example of the alternative to cynicism, to apathy, to a foregone conclusion that there is no way to influence the outcome of a problem not uniquely our own.

As Fox stated in reference to the power of memorials, “the evidence shapes the stories.” Perhaps now the evidence of Rwanda can be the hope its transformation provides for current and future decisions regarding imminent atrocity situations. Perhaps now we can “prevent forgetting” our own power to create a world different from the one in which we live today.

If we could remember that capability, just imagine the legacy for which we might someday be remembered.

“Genocide and its Aftermath: Lessons from Rwanda” was co-sponsored by several departments, boards, and associations at the University of Minnesota, including the Center for Victims of Torture, the Advocates for Human Rights, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, St. Cloud State’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education, World Without Genocide, Global Solutions Minnesota, and the Minnesota International Center. A list of all conference speakers is available here. Rwanda photo credits: Adam Jones, Ph.D.

This month, we’re featuring a post by university student Sam Gillespie, a junior at Dickinson College majoring in International Studies and French. Currently studying abroad in Cameroon, Mr. Gillespie was introduced to concepts related to genocide and mass atrocity prevention last summer while working at the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Institute with Colonel Dwight Raymond, an alumnus of our Raphael Lemkin Seminar. Gillespie told AIPR that taking classes on humanitarian issues and learning on the ground in Cameroon has heightened his passion for human rights and mass atrocity prevention, and that after college he plans to return to Africa to work in the development sector.


cc2“Would you mind hurrying up? We have somewhere to be,” my professor said to the Cameroonian National Gendarmerie officer circling our bus. He was exasperated. The official was closely examining all of our passports, the bus’ registration papers, and my professor’s itinerary for our trip.

“I’m doing my job! Would you mind letting me do it? If you didn’t interrupt me, I’d probably be done by now!” barked the officer, his words slurred by anger, and likely alcohol. From our seats in the bus, we could see his bloodshot eyes and uneven footing, plus empty beer cans on the ground.

After his inspection of the bus, the unsteady gendarmerie claimed “discrepancies” existed with our registration papers and unspecified “problems” with our first aid kit. He also demanded a fee. Asked if we’d get a receipt for our payment, the man said he was out of paper. At this, my professor laughed and handed him a notarized letter from his friend who holds a high position in government. Upon reading it, the officer returned all our paperwork and let our bus drive away without paying our fine. This was my first day in Cameroon and my introduction to endemic corruption.

Standing at the wrong place to hail a taxi, touching a mural that shouldn’t be touched, or taking pictures in a public place are all examples of “violations” I’ve since committed in Cameroon. Through these experiences, I’ve learned how corruption is not just merely inconvenient and sometimes costly, but how it can handicap a nation’s ability to develop economically, politically and socially.

Across Africa, the roots of corruption have survived countless regime changes and international aid missions. Year after year, corruption is passed on to the next generation. In essence, this culture of corruption has kept many post-colonial states trapped in a vortex of hardship and struggle. The impact of corruption can even be deadly. For the last several decades, there are numerous examples where political and economic corruption has lead to mass atrocities. Perhaps the most stunning example came in the early 1990s in Rwanda where a combination of corruption, political tensions and economic failure, among other factors, precipitated the most horrific genocide of the modern era.

Although the Rwandan genocide of 1994 is usually attributed to ethnic tensions, political and economic mismanagement contributed to the supremacy of the Hutu elite. It was the Hutu elite who ultimately began and encouraged a killing campaign against 800,000 Tutsis. Roots of the violence can be traced to the 1980s when the price of Rwanda’s main export (coffee), fell 50% as a result of an international coffee crisis. The plummeting coffee prices impacted Rwandan GDP and devalued the country’s currency 40 percent. The IMF provided an aid package, but instead of it going towards a recovery plan, the funds were largely disbursed throughout the President Habyarimana’s corrupt administration, leaving the rest of the country to fend for itself.

Beyond the high walls of Habyarimana’s presidential palace, the country declined rapidly. With 85% of the population falling below the poverty line and farmland devaluing greatly, the country fell further and further into debt. Amid the economic deterioration and rising political corruption Tutsi rebel groups formed in Uganda (mainly the Rwandan Patriotic Front) and ignited a violent civil war. After a pair of missiles shot down Habyarimana’s plane after a peace accord had been signed with the RPF in April 1994, the Hutu government began the massacres. Over the next four months, Hutu extremist militias exterminated 11 percent of the country’s population and left the rest of the world in shock.

c4The events of the Rwandan genocide were undoubtedly a culmination of many factors, amongst them ethnic tensions unique to the Rwandan example. But at its core, corrupt and irresponsible political behavior precipitated the economic failure that led, ultimately, to genocide. Thus one of the many lessons we can draw from the genocide in Rwanda is this: countries with endemic corruption are at a greater risk of mass atrocity compared to societies with stable and highly accountable state institutions.

While Cameroon has its own legacy of mass atrocities and remains at risk for more, I have hope for the country I currently call home. Despite having the same president for 30 years, I believe the political process is becoming more transparent in step with economic growth and social progress. My time in Cameroon will end in June 2014, but I’m hopeful that when I next visit, the gendarmerie officer who examines my passport will not be looking for a simple kickback, but performing his duties in the service of the Cameroonian people and stability of the state.



Moise Jean, “The Rwandan Genocide: The True Motivations for Mass Killings,” Emory Endeavors in World History, Volume I: March 2007.

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Books, London 2005.

Photo credit:

Christopher Brokus

Today’s guest blog post on the intersection of genocide prevention and memorialization was written by Michael A. Morris, a graduate student at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. Mr Morris completed an internship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum last summer and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He has previously written about The Jewish Museum in Berlin, a site he called “a perfect marriage between theory, content, and context.”

“…Without commemorative vigilance, history would soon sweep them away.”

memoryThese are the words of Pierre Nora in his Introduction, titled “Between Memory and History,” in Volume I of Realms of Memory (Nora 7).  Nora is referring to the fact that in modern society we need mechanisms such as anniversaries, celebrations, eulogies, etc. to recall the past – remembrance is not a spontaneous action.  Another way of explaining historical memory is articulated by Lewis A. Coser in the Introduction of On Collective Memory by Maurice Halbwachs. Coser writes that a “…person does not remember events directly; it can only be stimulated in indirect ways through reading or listening or in commemoration and festive occasions when people gather together to remember in common the deeds and accomplishments of long-departed members of the group.  In this case, the past is stored and interpreted by social institutions” (Halbwachs 24).

This paints with a broader brush a concept that Maurice Halbwachs wrote about decades earlier – that is, collective memory.  Of course, we as individuals have our own personal memories; however, we have a collective memory as well.  It is affected by how we identify with a group or groups – whether with a national group, a political group, a religious group, etc.  Halbwachs theorized that “…the individual remembers by placing himself in the perspective of the group, but one may also affirm that the memory of the group realizes and manifests itself in individual memories” (Halbwachs 40).  In this regard, being a citizen of a country means that not only will the historical events be laid out on a mental timeline, but the narrative of those events also becomes part of the individual mindset.  Thus, it is very important to consider how our society frames memory in museums, monuments, etc.

One very interesting case study is post-World War II history in Austria. In October, 1943, the Allies stated at the Moscow Conference that Austria, despite having a population who largely welcomed the Nazis in 1938 and heavily complied/collaborated with them, was the “first victim of Hitlerite aggression.” During the war, this narrative was framed in hopes that the Austrian population would break from the Nazis, thus bringing about a quicker end to the war.  After the war, in Austria, the narrative of being Hitler’s first victims became a convenient phrase on which to base Austria’s pre and post-annexation history.  In his seminal work on Holocaust memorials, The Texture of Memory, James E. Young stated that Austria had “…concentrated so single-mindedly on rebuilding, on effacing all links with the past, that there seemed to be little time or inclination for commemorating the Nazi past…” (Young 92).

Young is alluding to the fact that many high-ranking Nazis such as Franz Stangl, Ernst Kaltenbrunner and Adolf Hitler were Austrian.  Furthermore, Austrians comprised approximately 8% of the Reich’s population, yet comprised almost 13% of the SS (Pauley 491).  Austria also housed the infamous Mauthausen concentration camp.  For the sake of geopolitical strategy during the Cold War, the superpowers that emerged from World War II (the United States and the Soviet Union) never re-visited this statement.  Many years later, the Austrian architect, Alfred Hrdlicka, built a monument at Albertinaplatz, in Vienna, that not only challenged this history but also showed the importance of publicly re-visiting a popular narrative that was not representative of Austria between 1938 and 1945.

Jews and Austria

vienna2The governing body of Austria had a history of antisemitism.  It is believed that Jews first arrived in Austria in the 10th century; however, in 1421, and again in 1670, they were given an ultimatum – leave the country or convert to Christianity.  It was not until December, 1867, that Emperor Franz Joseph (who reigned from 1848-1916) removed all remaining laws discriminating against Jews in the new constitution.  Rapid changes, however, were soon to take place (Pauley 473-474).

After World War I, the mighty House of Habsburg collapsed.  The territory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had encompassed areas reaching as far as Bohemia, Moravia, Galicia, Transylvania, Bosnia and Tyrol.  With the loss of these territories came the realization that not only was Austria’s size drastically decreased, but the country was also now landlocked.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire had been dissected for Europe’s new landscape of nation states.  The post-World War I era ushered in a time for Austria that was marked by economic stagnation and political turmoil.

By 1938, the Jewish population of Austria was 192,000, almost 4% of the country’s total population.  Most Jews lived in Vienna, Austria’s capital.  Jews were noteworthy in Austrian culture, and many made a significant contribution to modern-day society; for example, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and Karl Kraus, among others.  By 1940, 117,000 Jews left Austria, and by November, 1942, only 7,000 Jews remained.  Many Austrian Jews were deported to the ghettos of Lodz, Minsk and Riga, as well as to Theresienstadt (USHMM – Austria).

On March 11, 1938, the German Army entered Austria, and on March 13, 1938, Austria was officially annexed into Hitler’s Reich. Not only was there a populist celebration over what had occurred, but it is estimated that roughly 1/3 of Vienna’s population (1/4 of a million people) came to greet Hitler as he incorporated his birth country into the Reich.  This annexation also led to vitriolic violence against Jews.  To quote Maureen Braun, a Jew living in Vienna at the time: “Things rapidly got very bad for the Jews.  The Nazis made raids and pulled out men, made them wash floors, all sorts of things.  Of course they started closing businesses, or taking over businesses, and putting in their own people, Nazis from Germany.”  She elaborated: “For the first time I couldn’t do things I had done before.  There were certain places that you couldn’t go any more; public places where it was not so safe.”  Shortly thereafter, all Jewish property was registered with the German administration.  Austria also participated in Kristallnacht in November, 1938 (Dwork 95-99).

Throughout the Cold War, Austria remained a stable democracy, but the election of 1986 brought unwanted attention.  What initially appeared to be a normal campaign for Austria’s Presidency became a focal point of international attention in 1986 when it became public knowledge that the Austrian People’s Party candidate for President, Kurt Waldheim, was one of 1.3 million Austrians who were in the German Army during World War II.  Waldheim had concrete connections to National Socialism, beginning in 1938 when he received a scholarship from the Chamber of Commerce under the Third Reich.  However, the most incriminating information was that he was present in Thessaloniki, Greece, between February and August, 1943, when Jews were first sequestered from the general population, put in ghettos, and forced to wear Jewish Stars of David.  Eventually, 46,000 Jews (one-fifth of the town’s population) were deported to Auschwitz.  The New York Times, with investigative help from the World Jewish Congress, was the first to report the story (Mitten 66, 77, 147, 252).

The Monument Against War and Fascism

vienna6The veneer of the Moscow Declaration was beginning to tarnish.  By 1987, Waldheim was barred from entering the United States, and other Western democracies ostracized him as well. Domestic opposition was beginning to mount.  On November 24, 1988, after Hrdlicka’s Monument Against War and Fascism cleared bureaucratic hurdles, it was unveiled at Albertinaplatz, in Vienna.  The monument is divided into five distinct parts.  The first two parts are columns made of granite from Mauthausen concentration camp (Young 108-110).  I find the third piece, a statue of a Jew on his hands and knees scrubbing the street, as well as the fifth and final piece, a thirty-foot high piece of stone depicting Austria’s Declaration of Independence on March, 27, 1945, to be the most poignant.  I find it interesting that the Jew depicted in the monument has the appearance of a traditional religious Jew.  Often times, Jews who lived in German-speaking countries in the 1930s and 1940s are depicted as modern and assimilated.  One of Hrdlicka’s statements about the street washing Jew is: “The Viennese always behaved as if they were ignorant of what was happening to the Jews, but it was the Viennese after all who forced the Jews to wash the street with toothbrushes…” (Young 108-110).

The monument is located in a very public space, as it should be.  Of course, infamous Nazis such as Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Eichmann, etc. were indispensable for the Holocaust to happen, but it was also everyday people who made the decision to participate, observe or turn the other way.  Certainly, erecting a monument is not a cure-all.  It will not prevent genocide. The fact that there has been a Monument Against War and Fascism in Austria since the late 1980s did not prevent the former Yugoslavia, Austria’s neighbor to the south, from descending into war, chaos and genocide in the 1990s.  There is no fail-safe formula for preventing genocide through memorialization; however, the true value of a monument like the monument in Albertinaplatz will hopefully compel individuals to think about their role in society and also remind them about the Holocaust and the danger of other genocides.  If the monument serves as a constant reminder of genocide, then it certainly is one positive contribution in an unclear path to preventing genocide.

Countless governments throughout Europe were eliminated once they were invaded by Nazi Germany.  Certainly, collaborating with the Germans during World War II was not an exclusively Austrian phenomenon.  Much has happened in Europe and the rest of the world since the annexation.  This does not mean that collective memory has to be collective guilt, because each generation – and every individual within that generation – has an opportunity to set a new path.  What value does this monument have?  It not only memorializes the victims, but it also compels us to revisit a narrative and collective memory, a commitment not exclusive to Austria.

– Michael A. Morris


Bischof, Gunter.  “Victims? Perpetrators?  “Punching Bags” of European Historical Memory? The Austrians and Their World War II Legacies.”  German Studies Review 27.1 (2004): 17-32.

Bunzl, Matti.  “On the Politics and Semantics of Austrian Memory: Vienna’s Monument Against War and Fascism.”  History and Memory 7.2 (1995): 7-40.

Dwork, Deborah, Robert Van Pelt.  Holocaust A History.  New York: W. W. Norton &

Company, 2002.

Halbwachs, Maurice.  On Collective Memory.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Kann, Robert A.  A History of the Habsburg Empire 1526-1918.  Berkeley, California, 1974.

Mitten, Richard.  The Politics of Anti-Semitic Prejudice.  San Francisco, California: Westview Press, 1992.

Mitten, Richard.  “Reflections on the Waldheim Affair.”  Austrians and Jews in the Twentieth Century.  Ed. Wistrich, Robert.  New York: The MacMillon Press, 1992.  252-273.

Nora, Pierre.  The Construction of the French Past.  Realms of Memory Volume I: Conflicts and Divisions.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Pauley, Bruce.  “Austria.”  The World Reacts to the Holocaust.  Ed. David S. Wyman  Baltimore MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

“The Moscow Conference; October 1943.”  The Avalon Project.  Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy.  <>

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  “Austria.”  Holocaust Encyclopedia. <>

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  “Austria – Historical Film Footage.”  “Annexation of Austria.”  Holocaust Encyclopedia. <>

Young, James.  The Texture of Memory.  New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1993.

Image Credits (from top to bottom):

Image 1: russavia

Image 2: Buchhändler

Image 3: Abariltur

Deepening Divides and Unmitigated Suffering in the World’s Newest CountrySONY DSC


On July 30th, 2013, the AIPR Blog described a deepening ethnic conflict in South Sudan’s Jonglei state fueled by cattle-raids and retaliatory attacks. South Sudan’s micro-level conflicts were worrisome for a new country seeking to reconcile and move forward from decades of war, but far more worrisome– and–dangerous was the larger militia-based violence between the SPLA and Yau Yau rebels that was driving the country into ruin from the top down. Since July South Sudan has experienced a sharp escalation in the severity and scale of its internal conflicts, but in a different way. An attempted coup d’état last month has ignited an internal power struggle, which has galvanized the formation of military/political factions along religious lines.

What initially began as a struggle for power between President Salva Kiir and his former Vice-President Riek Machar has now resulted in a situation where civilians, including women and children, are attacked simply because they belong to the other ethnic group. The intimacy between political and ethnic identities in South Sudan has allowed the situation to escalate beyond a political rivalry in Juba into towns and villages across the country, forcing seemingly amicable Nuer and Dinka neighbors to fear for their lives. For the mass atrocity/ genocide prevention community, South Sudan represents a nightmarish confluence of ethnic, political and identity-based factors so reminiscent of past conflicts in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, and Burma.

Only two years removed from its hard-fought independence from Sudan, stability has proved illusive. While inter-communal conflict and sporadic violence have plagued the country during this time, the recent outbreak of widespread violence is unprecedented and surprising to many in the international community given its scale and severity. The crisis was not wholly unpredictable either.

Rising tensions within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) have been public since mid-2012 when President Kiir, in a move characterized by many as dictatorial and unconstitutional, dismissed the entire cabinet as well as several democratically elected governors from neighboring states. These tensions reached a breaking point on December 14th when the top leaders of the SPLM criticized ex-Vice President Machar (who was dismissed in July) at an SPLM National Liberation Council meeting, prompting Machar and his allies to angrily walkout. What followed the next day­––and whether or not it was a coup––has been debated extensively. Nonetheless, political divisions within the leadership in Juba have split the country along political/ethnic lines and led to widespread atrocities and attacks on civilian populations. Although the immediate cause of the South Sudan crisis stems from political instability in Juba, there are many deep-seeded, long-standing grievances that need to be unearthed in order to understand how to bring the country back from the brink.

Growing Grievances Aimed at JubaSchool_children_in_South_Sudan

Serving as a foundation for the political crisis in Juba (and the eventual outbreak of violence) were a myriad of deeply entrenched political and economic grievances. According to Mehari Taddele Maru, a research fellow at the NATO Defense College, these included: the persistent, undemocratic nature of the government in Juba, increasing competition over the country’s resources, particularly oil, and low levels of delivery of basic services to the public. “It was a matter of time before the SPLM leadership had to face the mounting grievances of the population” according to Maru. Christopher Zambakari and Tarnjeet K. Kang at African Arguments also posit that the “SPLM dysfunction reflects itself the dysfunctionality of the South Sudan state.” Dr. Peter A. Nyaba, a South Sudanese leader and former Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research believes that the country’s problems (originating in the SPLM) stem from “failure of the leaders in Juba to organize functional government institutions sensitive to the concerns of the citizens, to develop distinct political ideologies [not based on ethnic affiliations] and the failure to institutionalize power relations within the SPLM.” According to Nyaba, these failures have amounted to an autocratic-like governance style that is supported by ethnic lobbies and backdoor business deals, thus turning state institutions into a “limited liability enterprise.”

This is partially due to the over-centralization of power in Juba since the formation of the South Sudanese state in 2011. With ethnically diverse communities outside the capital now being controlled from Juba and having their requests for constitutional accommodation denied by the SPLM, it is no wonder why tensions have finally boiled over. In fact, a 2011 Crisis Group report identified precisely the same problems and forecasted the danger of not reconciling grievances by failing to reshape political and institutional arrangements. The report warned of the dangers of the SPLM’s “politics of exclusion”, an overly centralized, authoritarian government in Juba, and stressed the importance of political accommodation over a “winner takes all mindset.” Furthermore, Crisis Group specifically pointed to the fact that decentralization had been championed in rhetoric but was being neglected in practice, and that the growing center-periphery dynamic in Juba would be replicating the model in Khartoum that the South had just escaped from. The premonitions many experts had in 2011 have been realized. The current leadership in Juba, by shifting their focus to winning political battles, ignored the growing discontent of its citizens and within the SPLM. They have not taken seriously the process of building an effective, transparent and responsive government in order to move the country forward.

Furthermore, according to Khalid Mustafa Medani at The Guardian, the SPLM has “stifled all criticism, delayed the implementation of badly needed constitutional and security reforms, and pushed through laws restricting the operation of non-governmental organizations.” The grievances directed at the SPLM also stem from the conduct of the state’s security forces that have unlawfully imprisoned journalists and activists and murdered numerous SPLM political opponents and rivals.

Another major factor behind the conflict in South Sudan is the battle for control of the nation’s oil producing regions, which has pitted factions divided along ethnic/political lines against one another, both in government and across the country. The fact that South Sudan’s oil industry accounts for 98% of the government’s revenues annually, making it the most dependent on oil revenues in the world, creates a highly politicized issue with a lot at stake within the SPLM. According to Medani, the government in Juba allocates 38% of oil revenue to military and security, and only 17% to education and infrastructure. Meanwhile, agricultural production has declined sharply over the last decade­––80% of South Sudan’s population relies on livestock and agriculture for their basic needs. Oil revenues have been used by Dinka and Nuer leaders (within the SPLM) to forge ties and cut deals with local leaders in the oil-rich Unity and Blue Nile states along political/ ethnic lines. It is no coincidence that control of Bentiu and Malakal, the capitals of two oil rich regions, has been fiercely fought over by rebel and government forces in the last month. Luke Patey, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, believes that “the opposition hopes that by capturing the oil fields, they’ll gain the upper hand in cease-fire negotiations by halting the government’s main source of income.” While oil is not the cause of the conflict in South Sudan, one of the world’s least developed countries, Patey importantly points out that “oil is the prize at the conflict’s end.”

 SONY DSCRising Atrocities on the Ground

Since fighting began last month the toll on the people of South Sudan has been staggering. Witnesses and U.N. officials have reported severe human rights violations by both sides, including ethnic massacres, summary executions and widespread looting. The Satellite Sentinel Project, a human rights group, recently released images showing the destruction of civilian homes and markets in two South Sudanese towns, Mayom and Bor, by government and rebel forces. Furthermore, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic, claimed that mass killings, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and sexual have all been documented. “Quite a number of child soldiers have been recruited in the so-called White Army,” he said, referring to the Nuer tribe’s militia fighting in Jonglei state.

The UN has repeatedly warned that it is documenting and collective evidence of atrocities committed in South Sudan and would hold to account leaders on “all sides” if they failed to stop them. Despite reaching a preliminary ceasefire agreement this week in Adis Ababa, recent reports indicate that sporadic fighting and atrocities are continuing in disputed areas. South Sudan is unlikely to see lasting peace come quickly and easily given the scale of atrocities and destruction that has taken place in the last five weeks. The United Nations believes that over 10,000 have been killed and more than half a million have been driven from their homes. In Addis Ababa, Getachew Reda, spokesperson for Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desaleg, conceded that “there has been so much bad blood involved now, and there is so much misunderstanding and hard feelings already for the last month, so it would be foolhardy to expect the two parties to come together just at the snap of a finger.”

The Way Forward

The path to peace, from Juba all the way to Unity, Blue Nile and Jonglei states, will be long and require both sides to address the long-standing issues that have existed even prior the country’s independence.  Christopher Zambakari & Tarnjeet K. Kang at African Arguments recently stated, “Without resolving the societal issues facing South Sudan, democratizing the political party, opening up the political space, and addressing the root causes of the conflict, the country will only defer its problems to a later date.” Additionally, the authors at African Arguments  believed the biggest obstacles to preventing future violence is reform of political and security sectors. “This includes the transformation of the SPLM from liberation movement into a democratic political party in addition to the completion of the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of rebel groups and the professionalization of the national armed forces,” they noted. Princeton N. Lyman, Jon Temin, Susan Stigan at Foreign Policy warned about the dangers of reaching a weak and narrow agreement in Addis Ababa. “Such a deal would ignore the broader population and its needs, perpetuate the trend of exclusionary and corrupt politics, and do nothing to address root causes of instability.”

The future of South Sudan must be guided by an inclusive and wide-ranging agreement involving different segments of society that addresses the fundamental, long-lasting problems in South Sudan’s political system. The only effective and sustainable approach to ensure stability for the people of South Sudan is one that tackles political devolution/ decentralization, the oil issue, the reconciliation of long-lasting political-ethnic rivalries, and justice for those responsible for mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. The costs of failing to do so would be too steep.


Are We Finally Getting it Right in the Central African Republic?


On August 25th, 2013, I wrote about the slowly disintegrating situation in the Central African Republic in an attempt to join a growing chorus of voices seeking to sound the alarms that apparently weren’t being heard by the international community. Since then, as the crisis has grown more desperate, the world has started to take notice.

In November, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that “this cycle, if not addressed now, threatens to degenerate into a country-wide religious and ethnic divide, with the potential to spiral into an uncontrollable situation, including atrocity crimes, with serious national and regional implications.” Adama Dieng, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, added:

“We are seeing armed groups killing people under the guise of their religion. My feeling is that this will end with Christian communities, Muslim communities killing each other which means that if we don’t act now and decisively I will not exclude the possibility of a genocide occurring.”

The concern so many had about the simmering risk of large-scale mass atrocities has unfortunately been realized in the last month. A new and dangerous dynamic of inter-religious hatred and violence has taken off in CAR that has catalyzed a brutal cycle of atrocities and targeting of civilian populations. Around half of the country’s population is Christian while about 15% is Muslim. The Christian majority and the Muslim minority have historically co-existed peacefully. In recent months, Muslim Seleka rebels, who ousted former CAR President Francois Bozize in March 2013, have reportedly attacked Christian communities all over the country. “The danger is that this polarization has taken place along religious lines, which has never really happened in the past and that people are self-arming themselves and carrying out back and forth attacks against each other,” said Kyle Matthews, the Senior Deputy Director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies.

In response, Christian militias have formed in an effort to fight back against Seleka militias. Due to newly formed fissures in CAR’s society, anti-Seleka Christians are targeting local Muslims whom they suspect are naturally aiding Seleka rebels. Furthermore, the conflict has attracted foreign jihadists from Chad and Sudan, set off targeted retribution by Christian militias on Muslim villages, caused the collapse of civilian authority and resulted in massive dislocation and food shortages.

Human Rights Watch reports that both sides are responsible for wonton acts of murder, rape, and looting. United Nations officials and the international community are deeply troubled by the sectarian tenor of the conflict, which is reminiscent of the early stages of past genocides in the region. In a briefing to the Security Council, the deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, called it “a vicious cycle that could very easily turn into mass atrocities.”

Reports out of CAR in the last several weeks have been so worrisome that international action became unavoidable. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 2127 last week, authorizing a joint French/AU operation in the Central African Republic. This will help strengthen an intervention force of up to 6,000 African troops, to be aided by 1,600 recently deployed French soldiers with support from the African Union. In the medium term, a UN Security Council-approved peacekeeping mission with up to 9,000 troops operating under “robust rules of engagement” could be necessary, according to Ban Ki Moon. “Member States of the United Nations now have the opportunity, and I firmly believe the responsibility, to prevent what has the high potential to result in widespread atrocities,” said Ban.


This sudden disbursement of support to CAR comes amidst an apex of violence in Bangui since the crisis unfolded earlier this year. Fighting in Bangui since last Thursday claimed at least 400 lives, according to Amnesty International. But the accuracy of these estimates is unverifiable; as many as 1,000 people may have been killed with many bodies being buried and taken away before they could be counted. Furthermore, on December 10th, two French soldiers were killed after a gun-battle ensued following attempts to disarm several Seleka rebels. Most of the foreign press and journalists are reporting from the capital region, Bangui, where over 30,000 civilians are holed up in the city’s airport, too afraid to leave its grounds. Tens of thousands may have already died in the more remote parts of the CAR, a country the size of France, according to independent journalist Gwynne Dyer.

Western countries have begun to step up their efforts. The US recently pledged $40 million for Central African peacekeepers and its armed forces will deploy military planes to help transport international peacekeepers from Burundi to Bangui in order “to prevent the further spread of sectarian violence,” said a Pentagon spokesman. The UK also pledged support by lending supply planes to the French and earmarking $25 million to CAR for humanitarian aid. The European Union has also contributed $50 million.

Despite these crucial immediate measures, it’s doubtful that 1,600 French soldiers will be able to restore long-term stability in the Central African Republic. These measures are at best a stopgap measure that represents a minimum commitment to restoring security in the short-term. The French mission, will at the very least, help reinforce the poorly equipped AU’s International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA) as it struggles to bring order back to the streets of Bangui. The latest reports claim that the French forces had indeed restored some stability in the capital in recent days. The French, who have already intervened in a similar fashion in Mali this year, also hope that the UN will send additional peacekeepers as quickly as possible. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recommended 6,000 to 9,000 men to be added as soon as possible.

Many groups and organizations, such as the International Crisis Group and Amnesty International, have laid out potential next steps in CAR that will help ensure short-term and long-term stability (as well as critiques of recent UN efforts). The general consensus is that more needs to be done both in the short-term and long-term to secure CAR’s future. According to Human Rights Watch’s United Nations Director Phillippe Bolopion, “If the post Rwanda and Bosnia ‘never again’ means anything, the U.N. Security Council needs to go all in to halt the spiraling killing in the Central African Republic.” Hinting at the need for further UN forces in CAR, Netsanet Belay, Africa Director at Amnesty International, said that “Before it’s too late to make a difference, the UN Secretary General must speed up his assessment of the peacekeepers’ impact on the ground — within weeks, not months — he must immediately start preparations for the deployment of a robust UN peacekeeping force to step in if and when needed.”

Others in the international community are also pessimistic about both the ability of the AU-French mission to alleviate the risk of mass atrocities and the willingness of the world’s powers to commit the necessary resources. Ty McCormick at Foreign Policy believes that “Even if a more robust international presence can bring the fighting under control—a prospect that is far from certain in a country roughly the size of Texas, much of which is densely forested — rebuilding a semblance of state authority will likely take years, if not decades.” The challenge ahead for the international community in CAR is undoubtedly daunting. Former US Ambassador to CAR, Lawrence D. Wohlers, believes that the “difficulty will be what happens next; the CAR government structures have been largely destroyed, so a robust peacekeeping force will probably be necessary for years. This will be costly.”

With the United Nations already carrying out 15 peacekeeping missions worldwide and Western militaries more focused on counterterrorism missions in the region, it’s hard to imagine that the necessary financial and political commitments will be made quickly enough to get CAR the support it needs. And as we learn at the Auschwitz Institute’s Lemkin Seminar, time is of the essence in situations where there are ongoing mass atrocities. “In societies with histories of ethnic violence, the cycle of killing will eventually spiral downward into the vortex of genocide,” warns Gregory Stanton in his article, “The Eight Stages of Genocide.” UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow said six years ago that she felt CAR’s citizens were “the most abandoned people on earth.” If the proper short-term and long-term measures to bring CAR back from the brink aren’t made quickly and robustly, the observations Farrow made then will continue to ring true.

Satellites, Mass Media and Genocide Prevention: Are Tech Advances Leading to Preventative Results on the Ground?


AIThe proliferation of satellite imaging technology within the field of genocide and mass atrocity prevention in recent years has been a game changer by expanding the toolkit used for raising awareness and bolstering advocacy efforts. Never before have NGOs, governments and advocates been able to access previously inaccessible areas (Darfur, Syria) in order to establish visual certainty of crimes against humanity and mass atrocities. More specifically, these gains in technological capacity to monitor hot spots have resulted in the reduced ability of governments to operate in shadows and darkness that so often enable mass atrocity crimes. Many see the growth of this technology as a means of leveling the playing field between the victims and perpetrators of atrocity crimes. Given the fact that the use of geo-spatial technology to monitor atrocities is rather inchoate, how much leveling occurs is yet to be seen. Nonetheless, the growth of such technology represents a hopeful addition to the variety of options that the international community can explore to prevent or at least mitigate conflicts, mass atrocities and genocide.

One of the first initiatives of this kind was spearheaded by the United States Holocaust Museum and Google, who partnered together using Google Earth, to create the USHM’s Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative. Through utilizing the revolutionary visual capabilities of Google Earth, the USHM saw an unprecedented opportunity to help the international community better view the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Along with on the ground data and photographs from local advocates, the UN and the U.S. Department of State, Google and the USHM were able to offer a harrowing picture of the extent of destruction and loss that had occurred in Darfur. The impact of this initiative was profound, and at the time, helped ordinary citizens envision what a genocide looks like. Many also hoped it would create an accessible record of abuses that may support accountability and dissuade potential crimes (not only in Darfur but other situations). But USHM’s datasets and maps are currently outdated and do not reflect present-day Sudanese military movements that may indicate a potential for mass atrocities. While USHM’s mapping initiative is useful in demonstrating what genocide looks like, its current operational utility and power to influence is hampered from the lack of a sustained mapping program (as its data is current to only 2009).

sat2Also leading the way was Amnesty International’s Eyes On Darfur project, which used the power of high-resolution satellite imagery to deliver irrefutable proof of the atrocities committed in Darfur. Amnesty’s Eyes On Darfur broke new ground by creating the technological capacity to allow people around the world to literally “watch over” specific villages in Darfur using commercially available satellite imagery. In particular, a recent report on the ongoing village razing by Sudanese troops in Blue Nile state utilized DigitalGlobe satellites to provide irrefutable proof of blatant attacks against civilian populations. Although the Eyes on Darfur Project was discontinued, Amnesty’s use of satellite imagery has continued with its Science for Human Rights Initiative. This ongoing project leverages geospatial technologies like satellite imagery for human rights monitoring and conflict prevention. Amnesty believes that “these new tools allow us to gain access to previously inaccessible conflict zones, provide compelling visual evidence and present information in a new and engaging way, all of which assists our activists in their campaigning efforts.”

Another important aspect of this emerging tool is that it helps minimize impunity for crimes against humanity by providing permanent and broadly accessible data for use by the international justice system. In 2006, Amnesty International USA partnered with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to record hard evidence of housing demolitions in Zimbabwe. The data collected through this project was featured in a 2006 report that was used during litigation in the African Court on Human and People’s Rights.  Amnesty’s initiatives have also branched into the Syrian civil war with the Eyes on Syria project. Furthermore, AI has used satellites to document ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan, war crimes in Sri Lanka and illegal torture camps in North Korea. While it’s likely true that this burgeoning technological capacity won’t be able prevent civilian deaths on a massive scale in its current form, its ability to document and corroborate crimes and enhance the capabilities of international justice systems is very real.

sent_satPerhaps most emblematic of the growing capacity to influence the international community through satellite imaging is the Satellite Sentinel Project. This initiative is the first sustained public effort to systematically monitor and report on potential hot spots and threats to human security in near real-time. With satellite imagery capabilities supplied from tech-firm DigitalGlobe, the Sentinel Project is able to provide the international community with a constant stream of images from conflict zones in Sudan. By using networks of informants and local-activists on the ground, the Project is able to locate hot spots and areas where potential crimes have been committed. According to the Enough Project’s Akshaya Kumar and John Prendergast, images from the Sentinel Project “have allowed us to secure proof of mass graves, the deliberate burning of at least 292 square miles of farms and grasslands and the destruction of 26 civilian villages in Sudan’s South Kordofan state and 16 villages in Blue Nile state.”

The Sentinel Project has achieved more than just proving atrocities occurred—it predicted how a Sudanese invasion of Abyei in 2011 would occur, all the way down to the specific road Sudanese troops used. It has also been cited as evidence in the International Criminal Court investigation of recent alleged crimes in Sudan. The predictive and early warning capacities of the Satellite Sentinel Project has moved the ball down the court in terms of the impact satellite technologies can have in preventing how atrocities may unfold. Their close relationship with the Enough Project allows them to funnel information to an established advocacy group that can use it to pressure policymakers to act. According to Jonathan Hutson of Enough, “what’s transformative is that we can share high-resolution commercial satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe, so that you can see the same information that lands on the president’s desk during his daily Sudan briefings.” Having firmly establish roots in the DC policy circles, the Enough Project can use this satellite data to not only provide the public with similar data that arrives on the President’s desk, but to deliver it to decision-makers and administration officials who posses the political/ military power to halt atrocities. Such is a model of mass atrocity advocacy that is worth replicating and building upon.

While the advances in technological capacity to monitor genocide and mass atrocities are indeed groundbreaking, there remains much more to be seen in translating this newfound power to demonstrable results. AIPR Academic Programs Director and Cohen Professor for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College, Dr. James Waller, claimed that with these technologies the world can no longer use a lack of information as an excuse for inaction. “So now the issue is going to be can we take that information and translate it into action,” said Waller.

sat1Experience shows how these new tools are not fail-safe. Late last year, Amnesty heavily relied upon boots-on-the-ground information gathering in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the M23, an armed rebel group, was attacking villages. Why? The area was prone to thunderstorms and about 90 percent of the images they received from satellites were obscured by clouds. Gaining access to high-quality satellite imaging is also incredibly expensive, especially for an NGO community constantly struggling for funding. It also takes time to accurately analyze satellite images—a fact that limits the ability to access real-time data and respond to atrocities occurring in quickly developing situations.

While satellite technology certainly helps advocate for action in the face of mass atrocities, they are no guarantee in halting such crimes. The Eyes on Darfur Project and the USHM’s Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative ran for several years, yet crimes against civilian populations occured unabated in Blue Nile state and Darfur. Even with the recent warning of a new Sudanese offensive in South Kordofan by the Satellite Sentinel Project, the ability of these advocacy efforts to prevent civilian deaths on the ground (on a large-scale) hasn’t been realized. One potent criticism is that there are many separate satellite initiatives being launched simultaneously without any broader coordination or harmonization of efforts. On the advocacy side of the equation, there could also be a greater effort to coordinate the pressuring of relevant power brokers with the latest evidence of potential atrocities.

The transformative capabilities of using satellites in the genocide prevention community should be seen as an essential new medium for watching governments and monitoring potential atrocity crimes. Despite the limitations of such technologies, we should be enthusiastic about the possibilities they present for the future of the mass atrocity prevention and advocacy community. With high-quality satellite imagery, the prevention community can better push governments and the UN to act in anticipation of atrocity situations. But the technology alone is not a deterrent. As Patrick Phillipe Meier noted on his forward-thinking iRevolution blog, “the use of surveillance was always coupled to the threat of punishment for deviant acts.” So is high-quality satellite imagery enough of a deterrent to dissuade atrocity crimes based on the real threat of punishment from the international community? Official state actors haven’t made it publicly clear that punishments will be carried out based on satellite imagery proving past or present atrocity crimes. Yet this is essential for creating an effective deterrent.

darfur1Although evidence provided from satellite imagery is increasingly used in courts as evidence, all one needs to do is look at Darfur to realize how effective this threat of punishment has been. For the USIP’s Matthew Levinger, early warning systems employing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology “may have the greatest value not for public advocacy movements but rather for policy practitioners charged with designing and implementing responses to emerging threats.” In its present form, such technology is better positioned to help populations in conflict zones coordinate defensive or evasive strategies against threats of atrocities. A good example of the possibilities for future platforms is Invisible Children’s LRA Crisis Tracker, which, although relying more on social media and cloud computing software, is helpful in issuing warnings to communities in danger.

Although the benefits of such technology in recent years are as undeniable as the evidence they seek to publicize, there remains a ways to go in reaching a point where satellite imaging can consistently and effectively halt genocide and mass atrocities before they start. Ultimately technology can’t create political will, only people can.

Bengal_famine_1943Logical Broadening or Impractical Overreach: Should R2P Include Deliberate Inaction by Governments in the Face of Natural Disasters? 

Should restricting access to aid be considered a crime against humanity under the R2P framework? Should R2P be expanded to include deliberate restriction of aid or willful abandonment of populations in the face of natural disasters? Part One of this two-part series outlined the debate that occurred in 2008 surrounding Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. It also highlighted the popular arguments for including instances of willful omission into the R2P framework. Part Two will explore the arguments against the expansion of R2P to include crimes of omission, in particular, willful inaction in the face of natural disasters. Furthermore, this part will attempt to find the best way forward that prioritizes the concern for civilians on the ground in natural disaster situations where potential crimes against humanity are occurring

Why Expanding R2P Will Hurt the Doctrine Through Ideological Overreach

Should the scope of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) include willful inaction in the face of natural disasters? The arguments against expanding the scope of R2P to include willful inaction in the face of natural disasters are often centered in the concern of ideological overstretch and safeguarding R2P from further backlash. Whether or not such instances should be considered R2P cases has surprisingly generated somewhat of a one-sided consensus within the international community concerning the Cyclone Nargis crisis in 2008.

Many prominent NGOs, the UN Secretary-General and his special adviser on R2P, pro-R2P governments and the usual skeptics have spoken out against extending R2P to cover the international response to natural disasters on the grounds that it would stretch the concept beyond recognition or operational utility. Their core argument is that R2P is already highly controversial –– broadening its scope would make its application much more difficult. Expanding the doctrine could have the perverse effect of weakening support for tackling the Rwanda-like crisis of tomorrow.

Even the most senior scholars on R2P, like the former Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, Edward Luck, have expressed hesitancy over incorporating willful omission in the face of natural disasters into R2P. Luck suggested at the time of Cyclone Nargis that: “it would be a misapplication of responsibility to protect principles to apply them at this point to the unfolding tragedy in Myanmar.” Luck also mentioned that since the Outcome Document of the 2005 [World] Summit limited R2P to just four crimes, “we must focus our efforts on implementing these principles in these four cases.” UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, believed that the case of Myanmar was a humanitarian crisis and it should be dealt with it that way. According to Gareth Evans, if R2P “is to be about protecting, the Inuit people of the Arctic Circle from the ravages of climate change  — if it is be about protecting everybody from everything — it will end up protecting nobody from anything.

Theoretically, the misapplication of the responsibility to protect to natural disasters might damage the R2P principle itself, making it more difficult to enact in genuine cases of genocide and mass atrocities. Paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome represent an agreed upon international consensus on the scope and breadth of the doctrine. These sections were carefully engineered by negotiators to ensure that R2P only apply to four crimes: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Expanding R2P to include natural disasters and grave humanitarian situations would be inconsistent with the R2P’s founding language. It would also validate the fears of many states that R2P would be used to further infringe on the sovereign rights of states.

The current vitality of R2P is intimately tied to the reality that there is a deep misunderstanding about R2P in the international community, as many governments misconstrue the norm as a Western interventionist ploy. With the BRICKS countries and many in the Global South still mistrustful of R2P, advocating the expansion of R2P in this climate could be devastating to the doctrine. Thakur Ramesh stated at the time of Cyclone Nargis that invoking R2P is justified to stop large-scale killings or ethnic cleansing, however it cannot be invoked in cases of natural disasters. Furthermore, the Asia Pacific Centre for R2P did recognize the possibility of a crime against humanity being committed if “the Burmese government is deliberately withholding aid to people who are facing immediate risk of death.” The Centre ultimately advised against labeling the Cyclone Nargis crisis an R2P situation, stating that: “At present there is no evidence of widespread intent by authorities to cause great suffering.” Beyond their doubts about what expanding R2P would mean for the future of the doctrine, it’s clear the Asia Pacific Centre for R2P, among others, determined there was not a sound legal foundation for labeling the crisis in 2008 as “R2P applicable.”

Legally, many argued at the time that blocking aid isn’t a violation of one of the four R2P crimes. For acts to constitute crimes against humanity there must be a clear pattern with obvious intent. Alex Bellamy made this point by reiterating that crimes against humanity involve acts committed as part of a systematic attack against a civilian population. Bellamy claimed that the government of Myanmar was not engaged in such attacks in the Irrawaddy Delta since it was not denying all aid, or preventing aid agencies already deployed in the region from going about their work. Furthermore, he believed there was no evidence of widespread intent by military junta to cause deliberate suffering and that proving so would be nearly impossible. Determining intent, according to many, is the main reason why Myanmar was not an R2P-applicable case (although many like Wong and Ford strongly disagreed). If cases of willful omission by governments legally triggered the R2P doctrine, there would still be compelling reasons R2P-based intervention would be an inappropriate path according to some.

The political opposition to expanding R2P to include natural disaster situations, specifically at the United Nations Security Council, can’t be overstated. Several Security Council members made it clear during that they would block any attempt to use the Council to impose assistance against the wishes of the Myanmar’s government. Additionally, Russia and China’s outright opposition to calls for R2P in such situations is a major obstacle and clear indication that invoking R2P would never get past the Security Council. During the Cyclone Nargis, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations rejected the possibility of forcibly delivering supplies without the junta’s consent and argued that R2P did not apply to natural disasters.

The positions of China and the ASEAN countries only grew stronger after France’s Foreign Minister called for invoking R2P. The reluctance of ASEAN to view Cyclone Nargis as an R2P situation was not only because they did not believe that the principle applied in this case, but also because they were concerned about the potential interference in a nation’s domestic affairs. China, for example, claimed that the situation in Myanmar was not a matter of “international peace and security” and didn’t apply to the Security Council. There were other pathways at the UN, China argued, more appropriate for coordinating the delivery of international assistance (a point also made by many opponents to applying R2P in Myanmar).

Another important counterargument to advocates of expanding R2P is that misapplying the Responsibility to Protect would make humanitarian conditions worse in Myanmar and elsewhere. Some commentators in 2008 were fearful of any forceful action by external actors to force aid into Myanmar for fear that their efforts would backfire and cut off the aid that was already successfully entering the disaster zones. Looking forward, they argued, efforts to apply R2P again, in a case of large-scale killings, could be undercut. In other words, they feared that invoking R2P in Myanmar could have endangered lives elsewhere tomorrow and possible even delayed immediately help for Nargis victims.

imagesOn this point, the impracticality and potential collateral damage associated with potential military action under an R2P mandated mission underscore the broad concerns from many in the international community about how R2P would be actualized. As Alex Bellamy stated in 2010: “those who have attempted to use R2P to justify the delivery of humanitarian aid against the wishes of the host state (Myanmar) have not really considered the practicalities.” From airdrops to full-scale invasions, it’s hard to see any viable and practical approaches to implementing R2P in a natural disaster setting without further harming the livelihood of civilians on the ground, he said. Bellamy aptly summed up the counter-productivity of potential intervention strategies: “The problem with these approaches is they threaten to divert attention away from the delivery of humanitarian relief, making cooperation with local authorities more difficult and regional support less forthcoming, ultimately delaying assistance to those who need it most.”

Andrew O’Neil stated in 2008 that a full-scale invasion with humanitarian goals would have improved the conditions of the victims on the ground. Bellamy and many others in the genocide prevention community had major problems with such proposals, more specifically, the time it would take to mobilize, the effect it would have on aid flows and the likelihood it would be met with military resistance by the junta. Airdropping aid was another possibility proposed by many, but Bellamy and others noted the imprecision of airdrops, the possibility of drops being seized by the government, and the need for medical care and water purification kits to be delivered on the ground.

It’s hard imagine aid being delivered effectively without the cooperation of the Myanmar’s government, on top of the fact that Myanmar government would have likely expelled all of the United Nations staff members who were managing ongoing aid operations. More useful and practical options include utilizing regional organizations in cooperation with the UN Secretary General’s office, along with pressure from the UN Security Council and the General Assembly. Working to secure pathways and facilitate the work of associated relief agencies like UNICEF, the World Food Programme and UNHCR are some of the more tangible steps that can be taken to help civilians on the ground.

Ashley McLachlan-Bent and John Langmore claimed that “although it may be weak when it comes to rebuking the misjudged actions of its member states, ASEAN in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis was, arguably, far more successful than any other attempts to engage the regime, conduct disaster assessments and facilitate the entry of aid into the country.” This reflects the sentiments felt by many, not only that invoking R2P during Nargis would have been counterproductive, both in terms of getting aid to civilians and in ensuring R2P’s utility in the long-term, but that there were more feasible options involving regional actors and the UN that were ultimately more constructive.


Concluding Remarks

This brief has outlined the arguments for and against making R2P applicable in situations of natural disasters, or in cases of willful inaction by governments when their populations are facing humanitarian catastrophes. It is the hope that this piece helps one better understand the debate that occurred during the Cyclone Nargis crisis in 2008, as well as the continuing discussions within the international community on the appropriateness of viewing cases of willful omission through an R2P framework. While there were strong arguments made by many, including several of the founders of R2P, throughout the Cyclone Nargis crisis there remained several points that both sides agreed upon

Firstly, this is a debate that has waned since 2008 largely without a solution from the mass atrocity/ genocide prevention community. Given the mass confusion and disagreement during the last natural disaster turned mass atrocity situation (Cyclone Nargis), not having this discussion in the present could sacrifice timely and coordinated responses in the future. Working through this complex issue and establishing a strong international consensus or framework of action might avoid the delayed action or ineffective cooperation that would occur the next time a Cyclone Nargis comes around. This isn’t an impossible feat ­– the line that divided those for and against applying R2P in Myanmar wasn’t that wide. For example, even those who’ve argued against incorporating such cases into R2P have conceded that a situation like Cyclone Nargis came awfully close to being an R2P situation. It is important to note that the international community has rarely seen such examples of intentional omission to act in the face of natural disasters – the mechanisms for action and opportunities for such debates have been few and far between. Given the acceptance by many that such acts constitute crimes against humanity, along with the rising severity in storms and destructive weather patterns due to the effects of climate change, it might be time to revisit this issue sooner rather than later.

Secondly, the torchbearers of the R2P doctrine would be wise to use this issue as an opportunity to refine and perfect the norm, specifically on how it would apply in specific cases. It’s important to remember that in 2008 the international community unanimously accepted that the R2P exists and does require states to protect populations at risk.  Since then, the norm has only grown in acceptance and importance. The main question is not whether or not states accept R2P, but rather how to apply it. Not only is this of great importance in terms of working out the unique case of R2P and natural disasters, but it’s also reflective of the larger issues that face the R2P norm. Establishing consensus in order to shape a framework for applying R2P in unconventional cases (where crimes against humanity are occurring) remains a major challenge. Doing so while stressing an understanding of an R2P that flexes its preventative aspects (Pillars I and II) rather than interventionist ones will be just as important.

A new view of R2P, coined by Jarrod Wong as “a constructive interpretation,” can address some of the aforementioned challenges. According to Wong, this evolved view of R2P can “apply not just to a government’s failure to protect its people from affirmatively perpetrated mass atrocities but also from harm based on omission where the government’s failure to act also constitutes a crime against humanity under international law.” The constructive interpretation of R2P would remove the focus off of the reference to natural disasters and instead shift it to crimes of omission where the failure to act constitutes a crime against humanity under international law. It’s important to point out that “natural disasters” were originally among the categories qualifying for R2P, but were ultimately removed by the time the U.N. adopted the doctrine in 2005. Wong’s interpretation reflects the points made by many: that the focus on “natural disasters” avoids the important distinction that it’s not that disasters at fault, but rather the human element that can acerbate suffering and constitute a crime against humanity.

According to Lloyd Axworthy, former Canadian foreign minister, “there is no moral difference between an innocent person being killed by machete or AK-47, or starving to death, or dying in a cholera pandemic that could be avoided by proper international responses.”  Viewing R2P in such a way can provide for a more consistent approach to situations in which crimes against humanity are committed by willful omission. Ultimately, this is an issue that comes down to how one determined R2P should be used moving forward. Some claim that the international community should recognize that R2P “is not a delicate vase but a sturdy pot which states must be willing to take down off the shelf and use.” Others, more concerned with preserving R2P’s already fragile political capital, would be reluctant to agree that applying it in situations other than classic conflict-based crimes is constructive for both the norm and its future utility. The lack of consensus on how to apply R2P in cases of willful omission requires greater debate and increased attention. Doing so would prevent delayed responses to a future crisis, as well as the unconstructive and time-consuming political debates that would inevitably accompany it. Having constructive dialogue now on this complex issue might better protect civilian populations at risk in the future, which is what R2P ultimately was created to do.


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