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How to prevent a mass atrocity

Images of slaughter in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo continue to haunt the Western world, as evidenced by two major reports published recently in the United States and Canada. The Genocide Prevention Task Force (2008) and the Will to Intervene Project (2009) both call urgently for an institutional process which will allow us to respond more effectively the next time simmering social tensions threaten to erupt into violence.

In the words of Senator Roméo Dallaire: “We need to study how the genocide happened not from the perspective of assigning blame…but from the perspective of how we are going to take concrete steps to prevent such a thing from happening again.”

Yet, despite this consensus for such a process, our current security structures, still mired in a Cold War paradigm, are not prepared for this distinctly different challenge. International organizations which were born during the Cold War (the UN, NATO, EU), as well as foreign policy offices of the major world powers, were constrained by that paradigm to focus their strategy and tactics on maintenance of the status quo. This led inevitably to a reactive “wait and see” stance which continues to hold us in thrall today, seemingly providing only two alternatives when faced with a crisis: either ignore it, hoping it will go away, as in the Cuban missile crisis (see Rwanda) or intervene militarily and consequently “own” the problem, as in Korea and Vietnam (see Bosnia and Kosovo).

It is time to restructure our strategic thought and institutional processes to incorporate a proactive stance that entertains many options, beyond military intervention, for interrupting the progression of a society toward mass atrocity.

A prerequisite for this proactive stance is an understanding of the deliberately planned nature of these events. The suddenness of the carnage in Rwanda is belied by the months of systematic preparations that preceded it, as well as the historical evidence of ethnic violence in that region. Academics and humanitarian workers have told us repeatedly that such mass atrocities do not exist in a vacuum and that the signposts “were clearly visible years in advance, but…largely dismissed, even denied by the international community until the killing was well underway.”

Early warning networks in countries at risk are essential, whether they involve tapping into worldwide diasporas for the wealth of knowledge and contacts they provide, or making use of cell phone technology for immediate access to unfolding events. The Eight Stages of Genocide theory developed by Dr. Greg Stanton at George Mason University provides a framework for analyzing this information and identifying trends which can alert the international community to an approaching crisis. These stages (classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination and denial) do not describe a strictly linear progression so much as establish landmarks which may indicate the degree of risk pertaining to the situation.

Similarly, the phenomenon described by Dr. Sarah Meharg of the Royal Military College of Canada, dubbed “identicide,” is another indication of a society spiraling toward mass atrocity.

Francis Deng, Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide to the Secretary-General of the UN, wrote: “[Genocides] rarely emanate from the real or perceived differences among…groups, but from the political and economic inequities associated with those differences.” If mass atrocities are not in fact spontaneous and unpredictable anomalies, but rather elements of a larger, rational strategy aimed at economic or political power, the logical next step is to identify that strategy and analyze the tactics that support it for vulnerabilities. Indictments from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda provide both evidence of systematic planning in that genocide and examples of tactical vulnerabilities that might have been successfully exploited had the international community been alert and prepared to act.

For example, the formal indictment of Rwandan businessman Félicien Kabuga describes his financial contribution to the massacre through purchasing the extraordinary number of machetes and hoes used in the killing, providing vehicles to Interahamwe death squads, and funding the radio station that was responsible for fomenting ethnic hatred and broadcasting instructions to the killers. It is reasonable to speculate what the effect might have been on subsequent events had specific actions been taken to subvert those funding streams and the communications, transportation and weapons they supported.

Military planning theory teaches that any operation that is planned can also be planned against. Planning theory channels a methodical flow of logic to systematically examine facts and assumptions, understand the context, analyze relationships and identify vulnerabilities and ways to exploit them. The logic flow continues through course of action development, comparison and selection. These proven analytical processes can be adapted for use in non-military settings and focused on the goal of mass atrocity prevention.

Two cognitive shifts are fundamental to this application. First, it is essential to turn the focus of planning upstream in the progression of mass atrocities. By proactively making use of information coming from early warning networks, it may be possible to divert or interrupt that stream while it remains a trickle, rather than attempting to stem what has become a flood. Second, we must call on the full spectrum of governmental, NGO and private sector functions in developing effective counter-measures, including diplomatic, information, economic, financial, infrastructure and legal expertise.

The need for a formal, established process and common lexicon is obvious when considering the vast divergence of experience and perspectives these actors represent, which is both the advantage and the particular challenge of multi-disciplinary planning. The concept of whole-of-government coordination is thus ideally suited to the mission of mass atrocity prevention.

Benefits of this paradigm shift are significant. Although mass atrocity prevention is only a small sliver in the spectrum of conflict resolution, it is nevertheless a sliver with great political resonance. It is also small enough, and specific enough, to be feasible now using capabilities that already exist. Interdicting the course of a likely mass atrocity does nothing to address the underlying social ills that led to it, but it does buy time and lives, and deprives potential perpetrators of a gruesomely effective tool for accomplishing their agenda – all while obviating the risk, expense and controversy inherent to a military intervention, as well as the subsequent problem of post-intervention stability.

What is currently lacking to make this concept a reality is an established process and a venue in which to apply it. The process, as described above, can be derived from existing military planning expertise. In Canada, the venue for this planning could take the form of the Cabinet-level position of Minister of International Security recommended in the W2I Report, which would “forge a coherent policy between the different levels of government and across departments.” This communication and coordination of effort are crucial in assimilating data, integrating and prioritizing input from specialists throughout government, NGOs and the private sector, and organizing a coordinated international response.

A country such as Canada or Australia, with political will and a strong international reputation, could be the ideal spearhead for these efforts. Regional peacekeeping centers can also be instrumental in coordinating early warning networks and performing the initial situational analysis leading to specific policy recommendations.

Examples of similarly proactive, non-military intervention already exist in ad hoc cases, such as following the violently contested Kenyan Presidential elections of December 2007, when international leaders including Kofi Annan and several African heads of state, augmented by U.S. and EU foreign policy leaders, intervened over a period of months to avert the strong possibility of country-wide mass atrocities.

These efforts, though promising, will at best be haphazard until the process is formalized and the venue(s) established that will make such vigilance the automatic response of the international community to the threat of mass atrocities. Commitment to planning and preparation is essential to ensure the ability to respond in a timely fashion with feasible, effective policy options beyond military intervention. This is not an impossible dream; it can be readily accomplished by citizens and policymakers determined to prevent another Rwanda.

Michael Pryce is founder and president of COA NonProfit (www.coa-nonprofit.org). In Canada he partners with Peace and Conflict Planners, Canada (www.pcpcanada.com). He was formerly professor of conflict resolution at the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute of the U.S. Army War College and project director for Harvard University’s Mass Atrocity Response Operations Project.

Author: Michael Pryce from the March/April 2010 issue published

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