from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Guest Post: Ending Genocide in the Twenty-First Century

July 25, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Genocide and Mass Atrocities

The Internationalist will be taking some time off, but please enjoy the series of upcoming guest blogs. Below, my colleague Farah Thaler, associate director of CFR’s International Institutions and Global Governance program offers insight on the future of genocide prevention.


Preventing genocide and other atrocities is arguably one of the most urgent challenges of our times. The difficulty, as underscored, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—the keynote speaker at a symposium hosted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in partnership with CFR and CNN— is that “there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every situation requires a tailored and careful response.”

The brutality in Syria, and the inability to find a solution to the escalating civilian casualties, show that work on this front is both complex and political. And sadly, mass atrocities do not only occur in the most visible cases through state-sponsored campaigns, as in Syria. But also—as the secretary of state highlighted—in myriad incidents that target the vulnerable and voiceless (i.e. mass rape or infanticide). In these instances, awareness, let alone, solutions are absent.

The event reminded us that genocide is preventable. In every case, there are foolproof warning signs—such as hate crimes, viral and print propaganda, and organized campaigns to marginalize populations. And yet, the signs often go undetected, overlooked, and are even ignored despite the known lessons of the Holocaust, and the horrors of the Armenian, Cambodian, Rwandan, Bosnian, and Darfur atrocities.

Still, we have come a long way since 1944. Today, countries recognize—and agree—that genocide undermines our common humanity. And the institutional arsenal has vastly improved. An international convention on genocide legally defines and criminalizes genocide under international law, and major institutions such as the UN Security Council, NATO, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) have successfully shamed, sanctioned, attacked, or trialed and sentenced perpetrators of mass atrocities. These achievements have been crystallized in the recent ICC sentencing of Thomas Lubango for recruiting child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the conviction of Charles Taylor at the international tribunal for the civil war in Sierra Leone.

Despite these successes, efforts still fall short of what is needed.

For one, major powers continue to prioritize diplomatic wrangling over genocide prevention at the UN Security Council (UNSC).  After three rounds of draft resolutions aimed at ending the Assad regime’s campaign of violence, and subsequent vetos by China and Russia, the UNSC is paralyzed.  Repeated calls for “never again” are smeared by the reality of politics.

At the same time, diplomatic missions—led by regional heavyweights and international leaders—have achieved mixed results. Kofi Annan’s efforts in averting electoral violence in Kenya were remarkably effective, but the diplomatic overtures toward the Syrian regime have failed to produce results.

In the backdrop is the growing rift over the Responsibility to Protect (R2P)—the idea that a state should protect its citizens against genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing;  and if a state fails, the responsibility falls on the international community, which will not preclude military intervention as a last resort. The concept, which UN member states unanimously endorsed in 2005, is losing its foothold as states protest infringement on sovereignty and internal affairs. It comes as no surprise that some of the most vocal hostilities stem from ardent defenders of sovereignty: China and Russia.

So what is the United States doing to address genocide? The Secretary of State highlighted some strategies:

  • The Obama administration has emphasized that responding to genocide and other mass atrocities is in the “core national security interest” and a “core moral obligation” of the United States.  To enforce this message, the president created an Atrocities Prevention Board, an interagency body that generates strategy and coordinates various agencies’ atrocity prevention work. To be sure, the crisis in Syria is testing the power of the United States to prevent mass atrocities.  But as this blog has noted, Syria presents a unique challenge. We should not view failure in Syria as evidence that atrocity prevention is forever doomed in all other countries where atrocities might occur.
  • Officers in “at-risk countries” undergo training that prepares them to be more vigilant of warning-signs and provide real time analysis. At the same time, there is an expansion of the civilian surge capacity with a new focus on atrocity prevention.  These efforts will enable the United States to effectively utilize officers on the ground and work with the local population to mitigate deteriorating conditions.
  • The United States is leveraging innovative technologies to identify and respond to mass atrocities. For instance, “the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor is working on a project to detect when governments use malicious software to target protestors and then warn those being targeted.”
  • To complement the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, the U.S. government will redouble efforts to collaborate with women to attain information about sexual and gender-based violence, particularly in “at-risk” regions.
  • Perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities will be pressured through coercive measures to stop violence, and clearly warned that they “will be held accountable.” Despite concerns that such accountability discourages dictators from surrendering in return for amnesty, ultimately the threat of outside judgment discourages domestic officials from complicity in crimes against humanity—a crucial step to mitigating atrocities.
  • The United States will expand partnerships with governments, organizations, and the private sector to bolster tools to prevent and counter mass atrocities. For instance,  the administration will work to expand “connections with the private sector because companies that respect human rights foster an environment in which atrocities are less likely to occur.”

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Genocide and Mass Atrocities