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Mass Atrocities and Armed Conflict: Links, Distinctions, and Implications for the Responsibility to Prevent

Alex J. Bellamy
Policy Analysis Brief
February 2011

A distinct and practical agenda for atrocity prevention has proven difficult to articulate. Concrete policy development has been frustrated in part by the complex relationship between mass atrocities and armed conflict. A strong empirical correlation leads some to assume a direct causal link and conclude that reinforcing existing efforts to prevent armed conflict remains the most effective approach to genocide and mass atrocity prevention.

Yet, not all conflicts give rise to mass atrocities, and many atrocities occur in the absence of armed struggle. In cases such as Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan, international efforts to secure peace settlements distracted attention from, and ultimately enabled, ongoing and imminent atrocities.

In a new policy analysis brief from the Stanley Foundation, Alex Bellamy considers the dynamics of the relationship between conflict and atrocity prevention. He stresses that, while conflict prevention is central to preventing mass atrocities, effective atrocity prevention demands something more—tailored engagement targeting both peacetime atrocities and those committed within a context of armed conflict.

What is required, he argues, is an “atrocity prevention lens” to inform and, where appropriate, direct policy development and decision making across the full spectrum of prevention-related activities. With the focus this lens provides, governments and international organizations can implement effective operational approaches to address the complex challenges of atrocity prevention.


Appendix I
This statistical chart catalogues mass atrocity campaigns between 1945 and 2010, indicating whether they occurred in contexts of war or minor armed conflict. All included campaigns resulted in an excess of 5,000 civilian deaths and demonstrated evidence of deliberate civilian-targeting.

Appendix II
This chart cross-compares the policy instruments associated with systemic, structural, and direct prevention with existing prevention agendas articulated for conflict, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), and genocide.

Appendix III
This chart relates elements of the common prevention agenda to the specific indicators of genocide risk identified by the United Nations Office of the Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide.

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