Member Sign In
International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect
PDF Print E-mail
Preventing mass atrocities: Deadlocked despite more awareness
Council on Foreign Relations
5 May 2014
Excerpt from Global Governance monitor
International efforts to stop mass atrocities—genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes—have gained momentum in the last two decades, but remain inadequate. Although international treaties, legal innovations, and advances in transitional justice have provided the norms and tools to tackle mass atrocities, political principles of national sovereignty and noninterference often thwart action in this area. Despite George W. Bush and Barack Obama's pledges to “never again” stand by as atrocities are committed, they in fact continue in Syria and elsewhere. The International Criminal Court's [PDF] (ICC) lengthy indictment of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide serves as a stark reminder both of the stakes involved in the pursuit of international justice and the diplomatic and political obstacles to holding perpetrators accountable.


The UN also strengthened its capabilities to fight mass atrocities through more diplomatic channels. In 2004, it created the Office of the Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG) to collect information, and provide recommendations to the UN Security Council. To date, the effectiveness of the OSAPG has been mixed. While the OSAPG has called for countries to fulfill their responsibility to protect in Syria, on the grounds that the situation and the purported use of chemical weapons constitute a case of crimes against humanity, it has failed to influence states to act. The OSAPG receives strong support from many UN member states for acting proactively to detect instances of genocide and to release statements of concern in situations characterized by massive human rights violations, although it is limited by a lack of resources.

The evolving norm of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) could provide a normative framework for redoubling international efforts to prevent genocide and other mass atrocities. The concept of R2P is based on three pillars: (1) states bear the primary responsibility of protecting its citizens; (2) the international community is encouraged to support states in this endeavor; and (3) in instances when states fail to meet their obligations, the international community should use diplomatic, humanitarian, and coercive pressures to intervene. In 2011, the multilateral response to the unfolding Libyan crisis proved to be an important step in implementing R2P, but it also instigated strong skepticism from non-Western countries that viewed the principle as a façade for facilitating regime change. It has also failed to set precedent for other similar interventions, including Syria.. In the context of the civil war in Syria, R2P has not yet compelled a concerted international effort to prevent ongoing atrocities, casting doubt over the future of R2P as a mainstream operational tool and prescription for coercive action.

Several regional organizations have also made the prevention of mass atrocities a rhetorical priority. The AU Constitutive Act of 2000 includes “the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” Still, the AU is hampered by the participation of members who have been the very perpetrators of mass atrocities. The EU, despite a strong commitment to human rights and support of R2P, falls short of explicitly stating a commitment or dedicating resources specifically to preventing mass atrocities.

Civil activism in developed countries has also helped raise awareness and galvanize support among key policymakers. For instance, efforts by faith-based organizations (FBOs), humanitarian agencies, and groups such as theSave Darfur Coalition (which consists of nearly two hundred organizations) have been highly effective in mobilizing support and urging governments to stop the “ongoing genocide” in Sudan. The Enough Project—a coalition of nongovernmental organizations, FBOs, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—has similarly focused attention on genocide and crimes against humanity in Africa. However, support of the civil-society groups has also been selective and numerous high-intensity conflicts—such as in the DRC and Sri Lanka—have suffered from disengagement.


Read the full report here.

Browse Documents by Region:

International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect
c/o World Federalist Movement - Institute for Global Policy
708 Third Avenue, Suite 1715, New York, NY 10017