Separate Tracks, Common Goals: Preventing Genocide and Conflict

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Lisa Schirch is founding director of the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s program on human security where she connects policymakers with global civil society networks, facilitates civil-military dialogue and focuses a peacebuilding lens on current policy issues. Schirch is also a research professor at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. 2

Whether through quiet resolve or vocal outrage, the chorus of people saying “never again” to genocide and mass atrocities is growing. Many in the field of conflict prevention and peacebuilding remember when they took this oath to prevent or reduce violence and its devastating effects.

Two fields of professional practice are addressing the complex problem of mass violence. Genocide prevention, or mass atrocities prevention, focuses on stopping outbreaks of deadly violence and punishing perpetrators. Conflict prevention, or peacebuilding, focuses on resolving the underlying drivers of conflict that lead to genocide. Both fields are rooted in a firm commitment to human rights and a desire to reduce violence. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, despite this common set of values and commitments, there are few points of contact between the field of conflict prevention and the rapidly growing field of genocide prevention. The fields have separate academic centers, separate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and separate government and UN initiatives.  Impressive strides are being made every day in each field, especially in conflict assessment and mitigating the drivers of deadly violence. Why do these fields continue to work on parallel tracks rather than merging their efforts? Why is there so little exchange between experts and practitioners?

The questions become more important as the US government seeks to develop a unified approach to preventing mass atrocities around the world, with the Atrocities Prevention Board and an emphasis on conflict prevention in both the military and the State Department. Such a unified response requires understanding why the two fields, which share such common goals, have developed so differently. Ultimately, preventing mass violence requires building a cohesive prevention strategy that draws on the impressive strength of both fields.

A Brief History of Two Fields

The field of conflict prevention and peacebuilding is at least three decades old, with large, well-established NGOs and hundreds of university programs dedicated to it. Following the early lead of NGOs and academics, about fifteen years ago, the United Nations began referring to its own work as conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Today the United Nations has a robust peacebuilding architecture, including work in preventive diplomacy, economic development, governance, peace education, and related efforts that together illustrate the growing UN commitment to conflict prevention. Likewise, countries such as the United Kingdom, Kenya, and Ghana are developing their own conflict prevention initiatives. In 2010 Secretary Hillary Clinton announced that conflict prevention was the “core mandate” of the US State Department.  The 2012 Human Security Report identifies these new conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts as a key factor in the decrease of violent deaths in the last twenty years. Still, far less is spent on preventing than on reacting to violent conflict.

In comparison, fewer NGOs and academic programs have focused on genocide and mass atrocities prevention. Holocaust survivors and their allies have kept the dream of “never again” alive since World War II. After the Rwandan genocide and mass atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, academics such as Harvard’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Samantha Power, whom President Barack Obama recently nominated as US ambassador to the United Nations, drew attention to genocide—in her words, “a problem from hell.”  In the last decade, new NGOs such as Save Darfur have used savvy media strategies to build political will to intervene in these worst-case scenarios.

These new policy initiatives indicate a growing international consensus to prevent mass atrocities and genocide. At the United Nations, the principle of the responsibility to protect (R2P) articulates the limited conditions under which the international community should intervene when a government is unable or unwilling to protect its own citizens from mass atrocities. In 2011 President Obama issued Presidential Study Directive 10 for US policy, which stated:

Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States. Our security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods. America’s reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide. Unfortunately, history has taught us that our pursuit of a world where states do not systematically slaughter civilians will not come to fruition without concerted and coordinated effort.

Despite the growing political rhetoric supporting atrocities prevention, little progress has been made in translating these new stated policies into practical measures with adequate resources. And the new commitments to preventing mass atrocities and genocide come with significant challenges.

In Syria and Mali, policymakers have faced immense challenges in translating their commitments into action partly due to the unintended repercussions of intervening in Libya. International efforts to implement R2P were criticized for moving beyond a mission to protect civilians in Libya toward a mission to change the regime. Observers accused the international intervention of failing to adequately report on civilian casualties caused by intervening forces and to monitor Libya’s hefty weapons stock, which now is destabilizing neighboring Mali.

The field of conflict prevention is largely absent from the planning for new policy initiatives to prevent mass atrocities and genocide. The divisions between conflict prevention and genocide prevention go beyond the historical paths described here; important conceptual divisions also seem to have kept academics and practitioners apart. Some of the tensions between the fields are due to misunderstanding. Others reflect real differences in experience and values.

Criminal Justice versus Conflict Resolution

Conflict prevention and genocide prevention efforts share similar goals of reducing violence, but their very different conceptual frameworks create many gaps between the fields. Genocide prevention, rooted in the values of human rights, emphasizes using traditional criminal justice processes to hold perpetrators accountable and training international attention on the specific deplorable acts of leaders who are inciting genocide. Under this framework, the idea of compromise or negotiation with perpetrators of violence can be suspect.

By contrast, the conflict prevention field arises from a conflict resolution framework, which emphasizes identifying the underlying drivers of conflict in a society and working with all stakeholders to determine legitimate grievances and inclusive governance models. Under this framework, focusing only on the actions of perpetrators, without addressing the dynamics that led to violence in the first place, seems incomplete. Most conflict prevention experts view coercive criminal justice or the use of force as necessary in some cases. But far too often for those in the conflict prevention field, real, principled diplomacy and robust, skilled negotiation and mediation and restorative justice approaches are never given a chance.

The fields’ different frameworks have created serious misunderstandings between them, which in turn have prevented collaboration.

The fields’ different frameworks have created serious misunderstandings between them, which in turn have prevented collaboration. A prominent genocide scholar described conflict prevention as a culture that treats all parties in a conflict as morally equivalent, where practitioners pursue peace at any price, even when there are credible threats of violence, tending to believe that prevention ends when violence begins. This is a caricature of the conflict prevention field: No conflict prevention expert would suggest that all groups in conflict are morally equivalent or that peace should be pursued at any price. The concern regarding moral equivalence could derive from a belief that talking to perpetrators confers legitimacy onto them. This is also a concern of the conflict prevention community. Conflict prevention experts have noted that perpetrators may use diplomatic efforts as a distraction.

Conflict prevention methods, including negotiation and mediation, require talking directly to perpetrators in order to better understand their motivations and to explore options for ending the violence. Mediators who talk to perpetrators of atrocities are not condoning the perpetrators’ actions. Diplomacy and dialogue do not imply justification for a perpetrator’s acts.  But conflict prevention experts advise that maintaining communication or diplomatic channels with all stakeholders, even those perpetrating atrocities, is essential. In weighing the costs and benefits of communicating with perpetrators, most conflict prevention experts believe the benefits tend to outweigh the costs.

Balancing Coercion and Persuasion

In practice, policymakers’ responses to genocide and mass atrocity prevention have tended to focus more on coercive legal mechanisms—such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), which names, blames, and shames individual perpetrators of mass atrocities—or on military intervention. The international human rights community and activists aiming to stop mass atrocities in Uganda worked to obtain an ICC warrant to arrest Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony. Local Ugandan religious leaders and NGOs expressed dismay at this effort, as the ICC ruling came just as years of careful work at a peace process including Kony were coming to fruition. The ICC had not consulted with Ugandans trying to stop the violence, and the top-down ruling seemed to both ignore and undermine bottom-up peacebuilding efforts to stop mass atrocities.

Conflict prevention scholars and practitioners tend to be skeptical of coercive mechanisms as short-lived, unsustainable, and leading to unintended consequences, though they do not rule out that there is a time and place for coercive legal or security-sector involvement as part of a larger conflict prevention strategy. A coordinated approach grounded in both genocide and conflict prevention holds promise for joint research as well as a better balance of persuasive and coercive measures to ward off violence

A coordinated approach grounded in both genocide and conflict prevention holds promise for joint research as well as a better balance of persuasive and coercive measures to ward off violence.

Differing Approaches to Conflict Assessment

Genocide and mass atrocities happen often, but not always, during an armed conflict. Mass atrocities occur within a context of structural violence—the systematic use of policies, institutions, and cultural practices that result in disabilities and deaths of certain groups. Specific structural conditions and early warning indicators of potential atrocities could be better identified through close collaboration between conflict prevention and genocide prevention experts.

Genocide prevention experts rightly criticize the conflict prevention community for lacking an atrocities prevention lens while assessing a conflict. Assessments developed by the conflict prevention and peacebuilding field have not focused explicitly on preventing mass atrocities, in part because the field has tended to see these expressions of mass violence as developing within the context of structural or direct violence. Conflict assessments currently examine the dynamics of structural violence and institutional abilities, local peacebuilding capacity, and the broader international context, as well as specifically looking at the individuals and groups driving the conflict and their motives and means to carry out mass violence. Conflict prevention broadly analyzes the political economy of conflict and contestations of power and governance that often fuel intrastate genocide and mass atrocities. Its scholars bring complex understandings of identity and the psychology of conflict. Its practitioners attend to the psychosocial challenges of trauma healing and the effect of trauma on the brain and cognitive functioning, which are central to their approach to conflict assessment.

Genocide scholars articulate analytical frameworks similar to those found in the conflict prevention literature. But in policy circles, the genocide prevention community has tended to focus on specific perpetrators rather than underlying structural causes or the psychological and identity dimensions driving conflict. Other genocide and mass atrocities researchers point to the uniquely horrific level of violence, the distinct patterns of structural and direct violence that lead up to mass killing, and the specific motivations for committing genocide.

The differences in the fields’ assessments need not contradict. Assessment methods are more likely useful for preventing both conflict and mass atrocities if the fields engage in greater dialogue with each other about their complimentary foci. Robust, multistakeholder, ongoing conflict assessment is essential to both conflict and genocide prevention, and currently, there is not enough quality data collection and comparative triangulation of information to improve planning for either.

Identifying Potential Negative Consequences

In the rush to act, policymakers may be tempted to intervene without adequately assessing the potential for negative consequences. Experience suggests that interventions to stop mass atrocities may

  • cause significant civilian casualties,
  • undermine longer-term efforts to foster democratic governance,
  • infuse a surplus of weapons into a region that then falls into the hands of insurgents in neighboring countries, causing regional instability, and
  • fuel a narrative that colonial powers want to extract resources and impose political dominance on smaller countries.

In Mali, opponents of the international intervention cited each of these concerns. In Cambodia, documents suggest that US attempts to stop or slow the Khmer Rouge through a military bombing campaign only built momentum for the regime’s subsequent genocide.

Conflict prevention and development researchers consistently find that good intentions often can have destructive and counterproductive effects. In response to decades of lessons learned, the field of conflict prevention has developed extensive assessment tools to identify and avoid unintended effects. Widespread training in conflict sensitivity and do-no-harm methodologies have affected how conflict prevention and peacebuilding organizations plan to reduce potential consequences. Working together, the two fields could better anticipate and prepare to mitigate potential second- and third-order effects, particularly in military interventions.

Including the Whole of Society in Prevention

Recent genocide prevention policy initiatives seem to favor a top-down approach, emphasizing the need for ICC prosecution or military intervention. The field of conflict prevention has learned that prevention works best when leaders at all levels of society communicate and coordinate with each other to prevent and respond to crises. Such whole-of-society conflict prevention has developed into well-tuned infrastructures linking civil society, government, and military in Ghana and Kenya, which prevented electoral violence in 2008 and 2013, respectively. Genocide prevention and conflict prevention  should work together to design whole-of-society approaches that engage not only state structures but also community and mid-level society leadership to prevent and respond to genocide.

Next Steps

As political leaders figure out how to turn the concepts of genocide and mass atrocities prevention into policy and action, the lessons learned from conflict prevention could save both time and effort. New genocide and mass atrocities initiatives are reaching out to the conflict prevention community for greater dialogue and discussion. At the same time, conflict prevention practitioners and scholars should pay closer attention to the momentum in genocide and mass atrocities prevention and learn from and work with people with a specific focus on atrocities prevention.

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