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Hitherto known only to a small group of academics, the United Nations headquarters houses an archive documenting 10,000 cases against accused World War II criminals, all of which belonged to the United Nations War Crimes Commission. The Commission was established in October 1943 by “17 allied nations to issue lists of alleged war criminals – ultimately involving approximately 37,000 individuals – examine the charges against them and try to assure their arrest and trial.” In 1949, the Commission was dissolved and the UN made the files only available to governments on a confidential basis. In 1987, the rules were changed to allow access to researchers and historians who possess authorization from both their government and the UN Secretary-General. Researchers in Britain and America are now campaigning to make the files public.

In addition to contributing to history’s understanding of the Holocaust, says Dr. Dan Plesch, director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, “The importance of this archive could lie in prosecuting today for crimes of aggression, rape, cultural crimes, environmental crimes, because there’s a wealth of precedent far beyond Nuremberg. In fact, these trials are 100 times greater in extent than the Nuremberg trials.” According to Plesch,

Records indicate that alongside the Nuremberg trials, where prominent Nazis faced justice, the UN commission endorsed war crimes trials for some 10,000 individuals. It is known that 2,000 trials took place in 15 countries including the United States. The case law of all of these has been forgotten. The Nuremberg trials only constituted one percent of the post-World War II prosecutions. A first look at the UN War Crimes Commission archive of the other 99 percent shows a gold mine of precedent and practice that can help hold modern-day war criminals to account.

Plesch and two other researchers have written a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, urging him to ensure full public access to all the records by pointing out how doing so would be beneficial not just to the public, but to the work of the UN. Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, said the Museum is also seeking to open the War Crimes Commission files, as one of its mandates is to collect archival material.


Edward Luck, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, is warning that the deadly violence in Syria threatens to permanently divide the country along sectarian and ethnic lines. He points to the mixed composition of Syria’s population as increasing the potential risk of divisions and is therefore urging community and religious leaders and civil society groups to do all they can to help reduce communal tensions. Says Luck, “If you look at the demographic breakdown of the population in Syria, it’s a demographic minefield. And we’ve seen in this region of the world some terrible examples of what can happen when a country is divided along sectarian lines.”

As discussed on this blog in December, within the complexity of the Syrian uprising lies a risk of atrocities against a minority religious group, the Alawites (to which the family of President Bashar al-Assad belongs, as well as the security forces suppressing the dissent). The context/precedent for such a reprisal is discussed in the article “How Mass Atrocities End: An Evidence-Based Counter-Narrative”:

It is disturbing to note that in the Great Lakes, Balkans, and Trans-Caucasus, members of many ethnic groups articulate a version of history which emphasizes how they were historic victims of genocide, and how the inevitable response to this victimhood is to organize to inflict similar violence on the former perpetrators. These histories become self-justifying and self-fulfilling charters for genocidal violence. Interventions at any level in such cases need to be attentive to the layers of historical arguments and how they are deployed for political purposes. [emphasis added]

Mr. Luck is asking the international community, including the UN and regional organizations such as the League of Arab States, to be consistent and unified on the issue of reducing sectarian tensions. The Arab League has called for a joint UN-Arab peacekeeping mission to resolve the crisis in Syria, though Russia said on Monday that a ceasefire would need to be established in Syria before such a mission could be deployed. If this plan does end up being implemented, Luck said it is “critical to ensure that any mandate explicitly refers to reducing sectarian and ethnic tensions and improving community relations.”


As part of the Stanley Foundation’s conference, R2P: The Next Decade, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) High Commissioner on National Minorities, Knut Vollebaek (pictured here), gave an address entitled, R2P in Practice in the Case of Kyrgyzstan. Folowing brief introductory remarks and posing questions oft-raised when discussing R2P/prevention, Vollebaek stated, “In the recent history of the OSCE, the most challenging case in this context has been that of Kyrgyzstan.” He then went on to set the scene; in April 2010, President Bakyev was ousted from office, after which inter-communal violence broke out in the northern part of Kyrgyzstan and soon spread throughout the country. This resulted in deaths, injuries, atrocities, and displacement on a grand scale. The majority of victims were ethnic Uzbeks, “although Kyrgyz and people belonging to other ethnic groups also suffered.”

After extensive travel to the area, in as early as November 2009, Vollebaek presented a report to the then chair of the OSCE, warning that “interethnic tension was rising in Kyrgyzstan at an alarming pace.” Ultimately, Vollebaek issued a formal “early warning” in June 2010; this is used to indicate that a situation can no longer be contained with the measures at the High Commissioner on National Minorities’ disposal. Kyrgyzstan is only one of two instances in which this has happened in the history of the OSCE. Though the responsibility for addressing this problem should then have been shared by the OSCE participating States and Chairperson, “the international response to the events in Kyrgyzstan was muted to say the least. It never even made it to the agenda of the United Nations Security Council.”

Vollebaek then went on to discuss what this tells us about the implementation of R2P:

-R2P assumes that when a State fails to protect its own civilians, the responsibility then shifts to the international community. However, it is unclear “who exactly should bear this international responsibility, nor what should happen if the international community also fails to take up this responsibility.” This inherent ambiguity can lead to overreaction or inaction, both of which are dangerous in such circumstances.

-There is a need for greater cooperation between the UN and regional organizations when it comes to potential R2P situations, including sharing information and analysis, and coordinating responses. (You can read more about this topic in our previous blog post.) “It also requires a greater diffusion of the notion and the language of the R2P if we are really speaking about an emerging norm with universal meaning and appeal. The acceptance and the use of the R2P discourse varies greatly among various regional and sub-regional organizations.”

-In the context of R2P, prevention is of the utmost importance. The OSCE and the UN Secretary General both emphasize State capacity-building as a fundamental aspect of prevention and a necessary tool for States to fulfill their most basic responsibilities.

On February 8, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) held an event in London to launch “Network Paper 72, Local to Global Protection in Myanmar, Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe.” Per the ODI:

The Local to Global Protection Project (L2GP) is an initiative to document and promote local perspectives on protection in major humanitarian crises. Based on research in Myanmar, Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe, L2GP explores how people living in areas affected by natural disaster and armed conflict understand ‘protection’ – what they value, and how they go about protecting themselves, their families and their communities. The research also examines how people view the roles of others, including the state, non-state actors, community-based organisations and national and international aid agencies.

Speaking at the event were Justin Corbett, author of the South Kordofan/Nuba, Sudan Study; Simon Harragin, author of the Jonglei, South Sudan Study; Ashley South, author of the two Myanmar (Burma) studies; and Nils Carstensen (ACT Alliance), L2GP manager and co-author of Network Paper 72. Also in attendance were Dr. Sara Pantuliano, head of the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI, and Wendy Fenton, coordinator of the Humanitarian Practice Network.

The impetus behind the project was namely the disconnect between protection activities at the local and global levels. The findings were consistent with the rationale, as the majority of local communities considered their own actions to protect themselves as more important than anything done by outsiders. The most common first line of defense was for people to get out of the way, whether that meant fleeing into the jungle, mountains, refugee camps or crossing the border into another country. Another popular survival strategy component was allying oneself with political or religious leaders who have connections and negotiating power. However, the study found that self-protection strategies often had negative consequences for local populations.

The Zimbabwe case study stressed the importance of “capturing local cultural and religious phenomena in assessing protection threats…includ[ing] witchcraft, religious sects and cult beliefs.” Outside actors largely ignore such issues, but they represent real protection threats for local respondents. In the cases of Myanmar, respondents hardly distinguished between immediate protection concerns pertaining to physical safety and security, and longer-term livelihood security issues. National actors tended to rank assistance priorities differently than communities and aid, and how it was targeted, was sometimes in conflict with local values and realities. This “illustrated the challenge of identifying the local voice.” As such, it is important to be mindful of “the inevitable presence of prejudices in the analysis and presentation of local perceptions,” necessitating greater interaction between international humanitarian actors and local actors.

Research for the South Kordofan/Nuba case study was conducted from 2005 (the beginning of a ceasefire ending a 20-year civil war) to 2011 (when violence flared up again). In accordance with the other case studies, “attempting to separate physical safety, rights and livelihoods, as international agencies commonly do, was not relevant to local understandings of protection.” Over the past six months, efforts have been made to lessen these ideological and practical gaps. Initiatives included “setting up local protection teams in Nuba, consisting of young male and female volunteers, whose role is to share local knowledge of wild foods or medicinal plants which may exist in one particular village, with other villages… the teams also disseminate advice on what actions to take during bombing raids to protect physical safety based on lessons generated from the previous period of conflict.”

Ultimately, international actors should heed the “predictive capacity of local actors who know what the protection threats are, and can articulate when they will happen,” since the former lack the capacity to respond to these.


In their article, How Mass Atrocities End: An Evidence-Based Counter-NarrativeAlex de WaalJens Meierhenrich, and Bridget Conley-Zilkic examine the narrative frameworks that inform today’s agenda of “protection of civilians” in conflict:

 1. A teleological assumption that the occurrence of attacks against civilians will, unless halted or deterred from outside, inevitably escalate towards genocide.

2. An epistemological assumption that privileges coercive military operations conducted on humanitarian grounds by international forces.

3. An ethical imperative based on the above teleology and epistemology that forecloses the historical and political discussions of how mass atrocities actually end.

Using comparative evidence from a variety of cases, beginning with the Holocaust and continuing through Libya, they then provide “a counter narrative to the dominant civilian protection agenda by returning to the historical record of how mass atrocities end.”

As to the first point, Jens Meierhenrich (pictured above) has put forth a general framework for studying genocide termination that contests this teleology. He argues for separating genocidal acts, campaigns, and regimes to better distinguish between different endings and, significantly, how each informs different policy options. In addressing the aforementioned epistemological assumption, the authors divide the ending of mass atrocities into five categories: 1) violence halted by the perpetrators once goals are met; 2) elite dissension or exhaustion within the perpetrator regime; 3) victims of violence flee or otherwise resist; 4) interventions waged by interested outside parties; or 5) humanitarian intervention.

Finally, questioning the ethical imperative, the authors relate a question that they deem to have been inadequately engaged by policy experts and researchers alike: How does one recognize when genocide or mass atrocities end? As they explain, “This question, let alone the equally, if not more complicated, question of how such violence ends has been caught up in the normative assumption about how they ought to end.”

While an optimal ending of mass atrocities is outlined as one in which vulnerable civilians are rescued, perpetrators are punished, and the state is justly reconstructed to address the conditions that enabled violence to occur, actual endings can rarely be described as optimal. But it is important to pay attention to what forces have played a tangible role in ending violence in order to garner a better understanding of how to interact with complex situations, what tools might achieve which exact goals, and a realistic expectation in terms of ending mass atrocities when this objective is obscured by competing agendas.

The authors describe some endings as being “the successful completion of a genocidal campaign, called off when the perpetrator regime is consolidated or when the political landscape alters such that the political rationale for mass violence against civilians is reduced. Other endings occur when the genocidal regime is removed from power, through successful resistance or invasion, or is fought to a standstill . . . Some endings are simply respite—a gap between genocidal campaigns conducted by a regime with an intact apparatus of mass violence.”

The article concludes by contending that the current undertaking of preventing genocide seeks to go beyond this singular aim to decisively resolve conflict and achieve transitional justice. Instead of the sole and default response of establishing a new regime “with ethical credentials commensurate with the horror that preceded it,” the authors’ approach “[. . .] eschews arguing from ‘ought’ to ‘is,’ and instead addresses the complexities of real politics and develops a rich comparative evidence base.” It seeks practical responses in the details of particular circumstances as opposed to deriving analysis and policy from universals that stem from moral impulses. Ultimately, such an approach should result in more effective prevention policymaking and reactions.


The United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace (UNU-ISP) is currently undertaking a project that examines the relationship between the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the Protection of Civilians (PoC) in armed conflict situations. UNU-ISP co-organized and participated in three academic–practitioner workshops in 2011, held in Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. Through dialogue and discussion, critical feedback was gathered to refine the handbook for protection actors. The handbook was presented to the UN Secretariat in New York last month, and further disseminated to policymakers and officials of member states.

Having coined the phrase Protection of Civilians, the Fourth Geneva Convention has become its firm international legal establishment. According to Dr. Vesselin Popovski of the UNU-ISP, after the world failed to protect the civilian Kosovo Albanians “from ethnic cleansing in 1998-99 — followed by controversial unauthorized military intervention by NATO in March 1999, an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was formed.” It was through an ICISS debate on humanitarian intervention that R2P was ultimately formulated and “became a worldwide shared emerging norm in 2005 when almost 150 world leaders — the biggest ever gathering of Heads of State in history — adopted the document “World Summit Outcome.”

PoC and R2P are alike in that they are both concerned with civilian suffering and mass human-induced violence. In order for the R2P threshold to be met, atrocity crimes–genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity–must be planned and systematic. PoC, on the other hand, is only applicable in situations of armed conflict. Dr. Popovski writes,

To summarize: in many situations, the two circles of R2P and POC can overlap — for example, when war crimes against civilians or crimes against humanity (including ethnic cleansing and genocide) are committed during armed conflict. A situation that would fall under POC, but not R2P, is the protection of civilians threatened by escalating armed conflict if mass atrocities are not planned and committed. And a situation that would trigger R2P, but not POC, is a threat from mass atrocities planned outside an armed conflict.

Moreover, situations may start out otherwise but later metastasize into an armed conflict, thus raising demands for PoC. To further differentiate the two concepts, R2P is a matter for States only, but PoC can be obligatory for non-State actors. As mentioned above, R2P and PoC share similar humanitarian concerns, “yet their specificity is important. R2P…does not undermine; rather, it serves as a catalyst for action — it can mobilize political will and complement the PoC agenda.”


Michael Dobbs’s column in Foreign Policy is currently examining the use of intelligence in genocide prevention, including posting reconnaissance imagery. According to STAND National Director Daniel Solomon, “While Dobbs recognizes the obvious benefit of hindsight in his brief analytical overview, he faults the intelligence community for its failure to recognize the integral relationship between military mobilization and mass atrocities in the Serbian military’s Srebrenica offensive.” Though Dobbs’s series is focused on the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the exposition he provides is equally applicable to the case of Sri Lanka.

Reporting for Truthout, Emanuel Stoakes writes that it is believed the State Department holds “a live file containing evidence of multiple offences committed by both sides during the [Sri Lankan civil] war, including testimony from [a former Army general] and other military, diplomatic and civilian figures.” Furthermore,

During the war, the United States used satellites to carefully monitor events in the Vanni region of the island where the war’s last battles occurred. Images sourced from the State Department have been referenced in a number of reports by non-governmental organizations and others, which provoked some speculation as to the evidence the US has which remains undisclosed to the public.

Another example of how intelligence comes into play in the Sri Lanka example is the fact that on May 1, 2009, Foreign Minister Palitha Kohona told Al Jazeera that the Sri Lankan government had shelled a government-declared no-fire zone after he had denied such action in a previous interview. When confronted with satellite imagery that appeared to show shell damage and indicated the use of weaponry with the no-fire zone, Kohona claimed that this occurred before any civilians were in the safety area.

At present, no Sri Lankan civilian or military chain of command member has been prosecuted for alleged offenses committed during the war.


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