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How can we prevent man-made carnage from happening? Governments worldwide have a responsibility to protect their populations from atrocities, so why do some countries fail to do that, and what can the international community do?
How can we prevent man-made carnage from happening? Governments worldwide have a responsibility to protect their populations from atrocities, so why do some countries fail to do that, and what can the international community do?
(UN Photo/Iason Foounten)

Waving the Red Flag: Preventing Atrocities


The Stanley Foundation recently sat down to talk with Alex Bellamy, a professor at Australia’s ­Griffith University, who has written extensively about the need for ­policymakers to apply an “atrocity ­prevention lens” when dealing with crises.

For all the setbacks and frustrations in responding to mass atrocities, the world has come a long way. It’s been almost a decade since the United Nations adopted the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, more commonly known as R2P, which outlines steps for the international community to stop and prevent some of the most devastating man-made carnage.

THE STANLEY FOUNDATION (TSF): What is the atrocity prevention lens?
BELLAMY: The idea of the atrocity prevention lens is to basically develop an analytical tool or a policy process that works with, rather than replicates, existing processes and mechanisms. So basically I’ve defined it in other places as creating an atrocity prevention seat at the policy table.

It’s not about building a new table or having new bureaucracies or a mess of new programs, but rather bringing that perspective to bear in existing work. So in normal times, at times outside of crises, it would involve somebody providing analysis on the atrocity-specific risks in a country, somebody analyzing current programming to see how it impacts on those risks, you know, a do-no-harm sort of analysis, make sure it doesn’t impact negatively, look at where programming can be tweaked to improve its preventive effects, and being open to receiving information that comes from the field that might be atrocity relevant.

The lens or the offices with that sort of responsibility have direct access to the most senior decision makers in the organization, so they can kind of wave the red flag. Of course, the red flag is something that you wouldn’t want to wave very often, and you certainly wouldn’t want to get it wrong, because it’s the last time you’ll get listened to if you wave the red flag and get it wrong, but that option needs to be there. 

TSF: Why have past attempts to stop atrocities been fairly unsuccessful, and how could that change in the future?
BELLAMY: The problem with prevention as a whole and measuring success of prevention is, of course, we’re always talking about a dog that doesn’t bark. It’s difficult to know the dogs that would have barked, had it not been for something that somebody did. That’s a perennial problem with prevention.

And historically it’s been why it’s been so hard to mobilize resources from governments, even for conflict prevention, because it’s so hard to draw a causal link between specific work that somebody has done and the absence of something later. It’s much easier to draw a link between work and then something that does happen. When you look at it, I’m not sure that the field [of atrocity prevention] has been that unsuccessful. I think we’ve had some recent clear successes, and obviously the Kenya election this year was one such success, where a clear threat was identified in advance, multiple resources brought to bear, and the results seem to have been positive.

TSF: What has been the difference between the international responses to Libya and Syria?
BELLAMY: Libya is an interesting [case] in that the crisis was not anticipated in advance. For whatever reason, I think analysts around the world are going back and looking at what the reason was. Libya simply did not appear on anybody’s list of countries likely to experience heightened risk. I think one of the principle reasons may have been the relative wealth of the country and the fact that most of our methodologies look at economic wealth as one of the key indicators. But I am sure there are a range of other factors. But Libya didn’t get on anyone’s list until after the crisis had erupted. What you saw in that case was the [UN] Security Council act very, very quickly. It was the first resolution [from the Security Council] that sort of threw everything in the preventive armory at the Libyan situation, including targeted sanctions, including a political process, including referrals to the ICC [International Criminal Court]. The [UN] secretary-general got personally involved, calling [then Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi and recommending strongly that he comply with the resolution. 

But sometimes, when actors are determined to use violence, or when they think they can achieve what they want through violence, there is little that outsiders can do.

That gets me to another point about prevention that as crises escalate, the space for prevention shrinks. So the more upstream you can act in building the processes and mechanisms and institutions within countries that can deal with the problems, the better. The space for a preventive action is greater the further upstream and the further removed from a crisis you are, and shrinks as the crisis emerges. 

On Syria, it’s worth pointing out that everything that’s unfolded from the first days of the protest was predicted in advance, including by the secretary-general and his special advisor on R2P. The fact that the international community hasn’t been able to reach a consensus on Syria is not through a shortage of information and advice about prevention. But it is partly due to the fact that the parties themselves seem to prefer a violent way of pursuing their differences rather than a negotiated settlement. Both parties violated the cease-fire agreement…within hours of it being agreed, and neither party has shown much in the way of willingness to reach a political settlement. But ultimately everybody knows it’s needed if Syria is to recover from the current crisis.

TSF: What still needs to be done on the R2P front?
BELLAMY:
The debate is no longer about whether we should have a principle of R2P or about what that principle means. Both of those things are now deeply embedded in international consensus. The [UN] General Assembly has discussed it multiple times. It’s been reaffirmed multiple times by the Security Council. So there is no issue on the principle itself. The issue comes around to implementation, and there we’ve got two sets of related issues. One is around building the institutional infrastructure that’s needed to move forward on atrocity prevention and the protection of populations.

The other area comes from the bottom up and is about what sorts of sets of measures can be used in individual countries. Here I think the debate is moving. We used to have a debate about whether R2P should be applied in this or that case, as if there are situations where states don’t have a responsibility to protect their populations. I think now it’s widely understood that R2P is universal and enduring, and it applies everywhere, and it applies all the time. So the question now is when we look at individual countries, what is the range of challenges in individual countries and what are the best mixtures of policy responses to those? And that’s going to be different for every country, and it’s also a challenge that every country needs to take up. There is no country that doesn’t have some history in relation to R2P, that doesn’t have some of the risk factors associated with R2P.

So this is really a challenge that everyone has to face together.

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