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Last month, the World Peace Foundation launched a new blog series, How Mass Atrocities End, which seeks to address the question of how to recognize when genocide or mass atrocities end. The rationale is that

This question, let alone the equally, if not more complicated, question of how such violence ends has been caught up in normative assumption about how they ought to end: international armed interventions that rescue the innocent from certain annihilation.

The historical record reveals a potentially surprising and insightful array of forces that impact when and how mass atrocities end. The significance of these insights becomes clearer when one recognizes that:

1)   Armed interventions are not always possible;
2)   Nor are they always desirable;
3)   Nor can they deliver on all the promises ascribed to them.
4)   Further, we must note two significant trends in the broadly-defined field concerned with studying and engaging with large-scale violence against civilians. The first is a shift from response to prevention that results in engagement with unfolding situations at lower levels of violence, while retaining the language of exceptional crisis. Second, a shift from a vocabulary of “genocide” to that of “mass atrocities,” thereby also increasing the number of cases that might be considered within the response rubric. Defining and developing strong policies for successful prevention or response will rely on greater clarity in understanding what constitutes an ending to mass atrocities and how this has and might come about.

To address such questions, the authors have chosen to use the framing contexts of Sudan, Guatemala, and DRC. Sudan has experienced episodic mass atrocities since 1955, four instances of which are “arguably genocidal.” According to Alex de Waal, mass atrocity has not ended in Sudan; rather, the conclusion of each occurrence is just respite. And the reason for these temporary pauses is a combination of the following factors:

  • The exhaustion of the military or militia.
  • The perpetrators achieving specific goals.
  • Resistance of the targeted group.
  • Internal divisions among the perpetrators.
  • Public opinion.
Writes de Waal:

Violent conflict and atrocity in Sudan occurs in the context of a turbulent political system, characterized by a combination of extreme disparity between center and periphery, and instability at the center. [. . .] In summary, most of the time, everything in Sudanese political life, including the lives of ordinary people, is subordinate to tactical political calculus. When that political calculus changes, which may happen for diverse reasons, the rationale for inflicting atrocity also changes. It may lessen or disappear, and may then reappear, probably in a different form.

Given the current political climate in Sudan, especially due to tensions with South Sudan, de Waal concludes that further violence is likely in the region.

In Guatemala, genocide took place during the early 1980s, under both the military government of General Lucas García (1978-82) and the subsequent dictatorship of General Ríos Montt (1982-83). Roddy Brett, of the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, writes:

State institutions and institutional arrangements during this five year period were controlled and held ransom by the military; after 1980 no space existed for civil society mobilization or for organised opposition to the successive regimes and the justice system was effectively shut down, the legal system such as it was neutered, and subordinated to the violent and arbitrary procedures of military justice. Consequently, organised civil society did not present a collective front against counterinsurgent operations of the mass atrocities that accompanied them. [. . .] the Guatemalan State facilitated the stigmatization of the indigenous Maya and the subsequent perpetration of systematic massacres against them through the intentional generation and operationalization of the belief in their natural and immutable inferiority and the creation of an ethnic hierarchy based upon invented criteria of biological, cultural and moral differences.

Ultimately, though defeated militarily, with the support of the international community and the emergent victims’ movement, still active guerrilla cells took advantage of the Central American peace process and pushed for a negotiated settlement overseen, influenced, and financed by the international community, including the United Nations. Though 17 accords were signed during the peace process, Brett asserts that neither the process nor the accords responded “directly or adequately to the underlying structural causes of armed conflict, including of historically embedded horizontal inequalities.”

As such, 30 years later, “a genocide ending remains at best intangible, at worst incomplete. [. . .] indigenous peoples continue to suffer the systematic violation of their right to autonomy in a nominally functioning political democracy, dying of preventable and curable diseases and being displaced from their lands to permit internationally supported extraction projects. [. . .] The question remains then as to what analytical and normative instruments are adequate in this context and what the role of the international community should be.”

Tatiana Carayannis describes the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo as three interlocking wars, which first began in 1996:

While mass atrocities in the first war ended through a decisive military victory and the second war ended through stalemate and international pressure, why does the third Congo war persist? Over near one-and-a half decade into this war, one can point to many reasons. Here are a few:
  • Genuine grassroots mobilization against “foreigners”
  • The harsher the repression, the greater the violence
  • No denouncement of Lusaka cease-fire violations
  • Emphasis on implementing the agreement that ended the Second Congo War at the expense of efforts to end the (ongoing) Third Congo War
  • Efforts to end third war began in earnest only after a decade of anarchic violence, making a complicated job that much more complex
  • A continued legitimacy gap for Congolese leadership

Despite the expense and effort that went into organizing the first post-transition elections in the DRC in 2006, Kinshasa increasingly relies on strong-handedness because its authority rests on weak national and local institutions—a crisis of governance and legitimacy that neither the 2006 elections, nor the flawed and contested 2011 elections have solved.

Image: artknowledgenews.com

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In his 9 March New York Times op-ed, “How to End Mass Atrocities,” Alex de Waal argues that the current (predominantly Westernized) anti-genocide movement, spearheaded by Gareth Evans and Samantha Power, has become overly idealistic. Touching upon points discussed in his co-authored paper, “How Mass Atrocities End: An Evidence-Based Counter-Narrative,” de Waal writes that interventionists have become singularly focused in both their means and their ends. He points out that while they tend to view perpetrators of mass atrocities as “insatiable,” the reality is, “In many cases, the perpetrators simply stop killing when they have reached their goals, become exhausted, fallen out among themselves or been defeated.” He cites several cases in which this has held true, and more in which this has enabled the brokering of deals which have ultimately ended instances of mass atrocities.

But De Waal then makes some sweeping generalizations, asserting that the aforementioned interventionists “insist on pursuing a more ambitious agenda: nothing short of democracy and justice, imposed by military intervention.” Coupled with getting mired in rhetorical semantics, this leads to indecision and resultant inaction when the killings ebb or stop. Before mentioning the current cases of Sudan and Syria, de Waal surmises his thesis:

Western policy makers interested in stopping mass crimes should not overlook tools that can work. Where violence is used as an instrument for political gain, it is negotiable. Some perpetrators can be moderated through diplomacy. Others will stop killing if they defeat a rebellion or realize they cannot. The main aim should be to stop genocidal killing. Holding elections and prosecuting the perpetrators of crimes, however laudable those goals, aren’t the priority.

Two days later, Gareth Evans responded in kind with a letter to the editor entitled, “In Defense of ‘R2P’,” in which he argues that

The whole point of the R2P doctrine is simply to generate a reflex international response that occurring or imminent mass atrocities are everybody’s business, not nobody’s. What the appropriate response can and should be — including diplomatic persuasion, non-military pressure like sanctions or International Criminal Court action, or (in extreme and exceptional cases) military intervention — depends entirely on the circumstances of each individual case.

Other scholars in the field have also weighed in on the debate.

Image: nytimes.com

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.

Photo: lseinternationalrelations.wordpress.com

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