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Homepage > Browse by Publication Type > Speeches > Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities

Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities

Jonathan Prentice  |  12 May 2011

Speech by Jonathan Prentice, Senior Policy Adviser at the International Crisis Group. Identifying and Overcoming Obstacles to Preventive Action: From Early Warning to Policy Options to Response, Seminar hosted by the Hungarian Presidency of the European Union. Thursday, 12 May 2011, Brussels.


At International Crisis Group, our mandate is to deal with deadly conflict – understanding it; anticipating it, if possible; and developing policy prescriptions by which to end or prevent it. We focus on particular countries, grounding our analysis very much in the specifics of those places we look at. We’re not a human rights organisation and our focus is not squarely on mass atrocities.

Equally, the centrality of human rights in conflict prevention, or the co-existence of mass atrocities with conflict situations is fact. Human rights violations are to varying degrees invariably precursors to most internal conflict and are, furthermore, by-products – or instruments – of conflict. Many of the reference points used by human rights organisations are also used by us in assessing the risk of conflict breaking out or in developing our recommendations as to how conflicts might be ended.

Human rights, mass atrocities and conflict also rub up against each other in another way – that is not only in the causal relationship I just outlined but also in the understanding that it might in some instances take conflict to prevent or halt widespread human rights abuse from occurring. This is, put mildly, a topical subject.

It has now often been noted that Libya’s human rights performance was judged by the United Nations Human Rights Council in November 2010. The official summary of the Council’s review – and I note that it is only a summary – makes for interesting reading. The overwhelming sense one gets is of a country making strides to address its human rights deficiencies; that progress is being made; and that the commitment to further progress is assumed.

A large number of recommendations were discussed: from moves to strengthen mechanisms to protect against torture; to promoting human rights education; to improving the rights of women and persons with disabilities; to strengthening legal oversight of the security forces. These are unquestionably important issues. I think it’s fair to say, though, that the review did not paint a picture of gross and systematic human rights violations; and of an administration so moulded to the overriding imperative of perpetuating Qadaffi’s rule that it was utterly devoid of any basis in the rule of law by which its citizens could be sure of even a modicum of protection.

Of course, the next stage in the story are the two Security Council resolutions on Libya – 1970 and 1973 – the second of which, passed in mid-March (only three months after the human rights review), concluded that to protect Libyans from their leader required resort to “all necessary measures”: meaning, of course, military attack.

There has been much discussion since the outside intervention began as to whether these actions constitute a legitimate instance of the responsibility to protect and, if they did, whether they still do so. (Interestingly, though, there has been less discussion about whether or not the military intervention has been proportionate to the threat it seeks to avert, proportionality being a key criterion by which to gauge the propriety of a forceful intervention.)

I’m not going to discuss these issues here today, pressing though they are, save to make two quick points.

To criticise the implementation of a policy in one instance by highlighting those cases in which that policy was not implemented but should have been does not really address the merit of the intervention. But what it does is raise questions about its perceived fairness (or, conversely, the fairness of the earlier non-intervention).

Moreover, it is also the case that inconsistent application does not help a doctrine bed down: look for example at the international reaction during the end of the military conflict in Sri Lanka or to the conflict in Gaza and southern Israel (both of which took place at roughly the same time). And nor does its implementation in situations where motivations at least appear somewhat confused.

My main point, rather, is to take a look at what this sequence of mild human rights review followed soon after by military intervention says about the preventive capacities of the doctrine of R2P.

When that doctrine was being repackaged, its revolutionary aspect was this notion of responsibility rather than intervention. And, further, that the responsibility to protect lay, in the first and most important instance, with a government towards its own people. Every effort was expended to focus on prevention, with reaction – ultimately through military intervention – perhaps downplayed.

And no wonder. The intervention part of the doctrine was always going to be the most controversial: both in the eyes of those states who viewed R2P as a Trojan horse for western interventionism and, also, on the part of those states who would likely be called upon to do the intervening – not for them assuming this responsibility writ large. (In this regard, it’s interesting to note that in the context of the Security Council resolutions on Libya the words ‘responsibility to protect’ are only ever used in connection with Libya’s own responsibility towards its people.)

This places a lot of pressure on the prevention pillar of the R2P doctrine. How well has it stood up in reality, and what challenges does it face?

The so-called toolbox is by now pretty well known. And pretty full, constituting, at its core, early warning, whether by NGOs, the media, UN offices, civil society and grass-roots peace work; institution-building; reducing economic inequities; security sector reform; strengthening legal protections; developing inclusive means of governance; and so on.

It may be that there is little more that can be added to it (though the existing tools could perhaps be further refined), just as perhaps our normative human rights framework – the articulation of our rights and the corresponding obligations of states – is by now pretty well fleshed out. What’s needed is their effective implementation.

Yet the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka in the early months of 2009; the ethnic pogroms in Kyrgyzstan in June 2010; and the violence in the aftermath of last November’s elections in Côte d’Ivoire – not to mention developments in Libya – all point to a worrying inability on the part of the international community to work effectively in the business of prevention.

Why is that? I’ll suggest here three reasons.

First, a large part of the problem, I suspect, lies in the nature of bureaucracies – facing many competing priorities and often focused on addressing immediate political pressures – designing and implementing policies aimed at heading off future events which may or may not happen. In some ways, that might be a convoluted way of describing the absence of political will.

And how far ahead is useful when it comes to early warning? Numerous Crisis Group reports point to trouble on the horizon but let me highlight one in particular – a report we brought out earlier this year on the collapse of physical and human infrastructure (transport, power, health and education) of the countries in Central Asia and the slow-burning impact this is having on state stability throughout the region. The threat is real but the speed of descent is difficult to gauge, the tipping point hard to discern, and the precise nature of the impact impossible to predict with certainty. Also, while a slide towards instability might be anticipated, that does not inevitably mean there will be a descent into mass atrocities. I suspect we’ll be hard pressed, in this context, to galvanise a concerted preventive response in those circumstances.

This is actually very common. Many states display one or more characteristics of vulnerability, whether inequality, authoritarianism, marginalisation, high unemployment, and so on. But it’s difficult to know when any one of these might provide the spark that ignites something overwhelming. We’re all now pointing to the unsustainability of the regimes in the Middle East and North Africa: well, those regimes managed to sustain themselves for quite a few decades.

Except in immediate post-conflict situations, elections in some sense provide an easier framework for early warning and thus preventive action. The timing of elections is well known in advance and there is a sequence of actions – voter registration, campaigning, polling and so on – serving as convenient moments in time by which to judge developments on the ground. But too often what should be a useful framework for action becomes, in a sense, a straitjacket for inaction, with an undue focus on technical support at the cost of recognising that the underlying problems are essentially political in nature.

Côte d'Ivoire, Afghanistan, Haiti, DRC all highlight the challenges of holding elections in divided societies, or in the absence of strong, impartial institutions and the rule of law: violence, corruption, entrenching elites, marginalisation, deepened divides, illegitimate governments, increasing authoritarianism, etc. Not holding elections, though, also has risks. Too often, it seems, the international community, providing support to the process, finds itself incapable of pulling the plug – holding on until the next phase and then the next until the electoral cycle has been completed often at the cost of its integrity and the stability of the country. Engagement, then, intended in part as a preventive act, becomes an inhibitor to what might in fact be alternative, more effective preventive measures (for example clear conditionality or sanctions, or the construction of a peace process which does not resort to an election to paper over fundamental societal cleavages).

So that’s one problem in the prevention arena: the nature of bureaucracies and how they engage.

The second problem I’d highlight are the limitations of those international institutions tasked with prevention: in this case, principally the United Nations Security and Human Rights Councils.

To suggest that they’re political is not particularly insightful: that’s what they’re designed to be. But nor should that statement of fact be a defence. On their own pragmatic terms the failure of these bodies is severely detrimental to peace, security and the protection of fundamental rights. In praising the government of Sri Lanka’s crushing of the LTTE – by means of a military strategy that left an estimated 30,000 unarmed civilians dead – the Human Rights Council does not simply make a mockery of its mandate to protect the human rights of all people; it virtually ensures that this cycle of violence will be repeated. Accountability is as much a forward-looking preventive device as it is an exercise in addressing history.

Failing to address Sri Lanka at all the Security Council, likewise, does little to put in place the building blocks for the future stability of that country.

Likewise, let’s take resolution 1973 on Libya. There is much debate now – argument even – about what constitutes “all necessary means” and whether this can include regime change. It’s probably not too outrageous to suggest that the ambiguity in this resolution on this point was perceived by all prior to its passage, including that this ambiguity was necessary to enable the resolution to come into force. That may well have been justified. But by not answering upfront whether or not civilian protection necessitates regime change, those who appear to be arguing in that direction risk putting in jeopardy the future implementation of R2P: there are already grumblings that this is too much intervention. Recourse to fundamental norms and clarity of exposition – particularly when it comes to the use of force – are vital to the integrity of these institutions.

Finally, I’ll simply note the need – frequently striking by its absence – to invest in long-term institution building. Despite rhetorical acknowledgment of the vital need to strengthen the rule of law as part of any strategy to stabilise Afghanistan, between 2002 and 2006 only about 2-4% of the total in aid allocated to security sector reform went to rebuilding the judiciary. Some commitment: the result today is a dysfunctional system of justice in which the people of Afghanistan have stark choices to make between the rough justice of the Taliban and the corrupt, capricious and incompetent state system. This is not a recipe for stability.

Last month the World Bank issued its 2011 World Development Report which looked at the linkages between conflict, security and development. One of its conclusions is that institutions that provide security, justice and jobs act as an “immune system” against a descent into violence. It noted that institutional transformations require time to create the types of rule-bound, transparent, professional institutions that can serve in such a role. It is a process rather than an event. Following on from this, one of the report’s conclusions is that international support needs to re-orient itself away from what it terms “an excessive emphasis” on short-term, post-conflict reconstruction towards continuous risk reduction.

All good stuff, as is the fact that a financial institution, and one focused on development makes clear the links between development and conflict: conflict and its attendant mess can no longer be viewed solely as a political and security concern. The challenge, of course, will be to get this implemented and to move the international community away from its chronic short-termism – precipitously withdrawing from Timor Leste or Haiti, for example, or prematurely declaring a success the forthcoming secession of South Sudan.

In other words: addressing political problems at source, and staying the course in developing institutions are both required. Both are difficult. The latter requires staying power beyond short-term interests; effective coordination among actors; and deep understanding of the context in question, otherwise mistakes tend to be repeated.

If that can happen, then whether or not it is called effective preventive action under R2P, the beneficial impact will be very much the same.

Thank you.

 
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