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Enhancing International Cooperation for Preventing Genocide and Mass Atrocities: The Case for Transatlantic Cooperation

Authors: Lawrence Woocher, Senior Program Officer, Center for Conflict Management, United States Institute of Peace, and Paul B. Stares, General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action
November 16, 2010
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum


Making the Case

That international cooperation to prevent mass atrocities and genocide is highly desirable, if not strictly necessary, is hardly a matter for debate. Concerted action by multiple states holds the best chance of changing the incentives of key players and reversing the slide toward mass violence in areas most at risk. Moreover, cooperation among multiple governments can enhance the legitimacy of preventive action, especially when it may be perceived to infringe on a state's sovereign prerogatives. And in the current climate of fiscal and foreign policy retrenchment, collective action promises the sharing of costs and other operational burdens associated with efforts to prevent mass atrocities—not an insignificant factor in gaining and sustaining public support.

Yet, for all the apparent advantages of international cooperation for preventing mass violence, it remains elusive. Broad normative proscriptions and condemnations of these crimes against humanity have not been translated into reliable and effective international mechanisms to prevent them from being committed. This is most evident at the United Nations. While the inclusiveness of the UN's membership provides it unrivalled legitimacy to propagate global norms against genocide and mass violence, it paradoxically hobbles it when urgent action is needed—especially against the interests of member governments, which more often than not are the perpetrators of such crimes. Within the all-important UN Security Council, there are clear differences among the veto-wielding P-5 members about the principle of “non-interference” into a governments' domestic affairs and in their national interests that make decisive action a major challenge in situations at risk of mass atrocities. The same is true in other UN forums, where groups of states have often coalesced to stymie the intentions of more activist members—whether to defend sovereign rights or simply to counter what they see as hegemonic behavior by stronger states. The UN Secretariat, for its part, has relatively meager capacity dedicated to atrocity prevention while its dominant culture is not surprisingly risk-averse and deferential to member states.

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