The Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict recently published a policy brief titled “Operationalizing the Responsibility to Prevent.” What sets this paper apart from others of its ilk is the fact that it directly addresses the prevention aspects of R2P. Most importantly, the authors use what they refer to as a “crimes” approach to prevention. Within this framework exist three distinct dimensions involved in the commission of an atrocity crime: a perpetrator, a victim, and a permissive environment or situation. However, it is cautioned that one not be too rigid when labeling perpetrators and victims, as these identities can become fluid within a conflict situation.

The authors of the brief assert that, “Of the four R2P crimes . . . the legal category of crimes against humanity represents the best characterization of what the principle of R2P was designed to halt or address. [. . .] Research shows that crimes against humanity do not occur randomly, but often reflect a complex interaction of different actors over a long period of time.” The three stages during which conditions escalate to the level of mass atrocity crimes are 1) risk factors, 2) crisis & mobilization, and 3) imminent emergency. Systemic strategies, which are applied to the first stage, “seek to mitigate risk factors and build resilience in a broader group of states, which exhibit some of the so-called root causes of mass atrocity crimes.” In contrast, targeted strategies, which are necessitated by the second and third stages, “are designed to change either the incentives or situation of those contemplating or planning mass atrocity crimes, as well as the vulnerability of potential victims; they seek to shift the consequences of a potential course of action in a particular context.” (See page 9 for a table of targeted prevention tools.)

Lastly, when discussing mass atrocity prevention and the prevention of armed conflict, the paper makes two points: First, R2P crimes often occur in the context of violent conflict and second, “root causes” of genocide are similar to root causes of conflict. Yet it cannot be assumed that endeavoring to prevent, or even bring about an end to, conflict will necessarily reduce the potentiality of mass atrocity crimes. This is because

  1. While a large majority of mass killings since 1945 occurred within the context of armed conflict, at least a third of the cases did not.
  2. Some instances of mass atrocities occur under the “cover” of armed conflict, but are not directly linked to either the causes of that conflict or the conduct of the war itself.
  3. While strategies to prevent or resolve conflict tend to be aimed at eliminating or avoiding violence and the use of force, the prevention of mass atrocities—particularly at a late or imminent stage—may require military means.
  4. Armed conflict is regulated but not forbidden by international law, whereas mass atrocities are outlawed as crimes.

As such, it remains necessary to justify the need to act preventively and build generic capacity for prevention.