New Tools to Prevent Mass Atrocities

Technology can be used to gather, analyze, and communicate information for the sake of predicting, preventing, and mitigating atrocities in an unprecedented way, argues Christopher Tuckwood.
By: /
May 5, 2014
Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention

Much has changed in the twenty years since the Rwandan genocide. The world today is a very different place than in 1994 with a whole range of tools available to those aiming to prevent mass atrocities. Among these, we now have the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, the International Criminal Court, and steadily changing attitudes amongst both policymakers and members of the general public with regard to where sovereignty ends and where R2P begins. These are all huge steps forward. Now in 2014 it may seem strange to think that it was once almost absurd to expect that governments would at least consider concrete action to prevent, mitigate, or punish mass atrocities on humanitarian grounds.

However, the new tools available to the preventers of mass atrocities go beyond the normative, judicial, and diplomatic realms mentioned above. In fact, these tools also go beyond what governments can achieve with regard to preventing crimes against humanity. The rapid advancement of technology over the past two decades now means that the ability to gather, analyze, and communicate information for the sake of predicting, preventing, and mitigating atrocities exists in an unprecedented way. These tools are especially important for civil society organizations to communicate developments in various countries to the world.

During and after the Rwandan genocide, some governments that could have intervened to prevent or end the killing used the excuse that they did not know the nature or extent of the mass murder happening before them. That is patently untrue, particularly in the case of countries like Canada, the United States, and France, all of which had some stake in the events occurring in Kigali and around the country. It may, however, have rung truer for the average citizen of these and other countries at the time.

After all, in 1994 the most advanced piece of technology that most people could access was a television or a fax machine. The Internet was still in its infancy and both home computers and mobile phones were seen by most people as expensive toys rather than as part of everyday life. For learning about world events, most people relied on mass media and were at the mercy of producers and editors who decided what they should watch, listen to, or read. Twenty years later, by contrast, we live in a world with 4,500,000,000 unique mobile phone users—rapidly approaching the entire adult population of the world—and 2,700,000,000 people with Internet access.

Now, we have the ability to reach out and communicate with virtually anyone else in the world—even in some of the poorest, most remote, and most violent parts of the planet. This newfound ubiquity of mobile technology is changing economies, governance, development, and numerous types of service delivery and social interactions worldwide. The fields of human rights and human security enjoy many of these benefits since NGOs, governments, and activists now have the ability to gather and analyze data about ongoing conflicts and atrocities in new and compelling ways. This is no academic exercise either since many organizations, such as the Sentinel Project, are focused on using technology to actively assist people in harm’s way.

Mobile technology and the Internet now enable us to gather data and maintain real-time situational awareness. Going beyond the Internet and mobile phones, satellite imagery and unmanned aerial vehicles are now realistic and increasingly accessible tools for human rights defenders. The natural progression from this point is to not just visualize what a crisis looks like but to predict what will happen next and attempt to influence the outcome for the better. With that said, we operate under the assumption that even with all of the great advances in the world of R2P, in the majority of mass atrocity scenarios, the proverbial cavalry is still not coming over the hill to prevent or stop atrocities. Fortunately, the new tools at our disposal give non-governmental actors the capability to shoulder at least some small part of the burden of R2P.

At the same time, those tools are also available to the people living in harm’s way and this is where the potential of mobile technology is especially exciting since two-way communication can produce increasingly precise and accurate warnings for potential victims of mass atrocities to adequately prepare or move to safety. Similar work has already been done in various natural disaster-prone areas and there is no reason that they cannot be used in places prone to the human-created disasters like genocide. At the Sentinel Project, we envision a future in which we forecast not only which countries will experience mass atrocities in three to five years but rather those cities, neighborhoods, and villages that are in danger in the next month, week, or day. With analysis and understanding of the local context like that, preventive action to save the maximum number of lives and is absolutely possible for civil actors.

Throughout the months of April and May 2014, the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and OpenCanada.org will be publishing reflections on the lessons learned since the Rwandan Genocide from prominent Canadians who have shown leadership in promoting global humanitarianism as part of the series Canadian Voices on R2P.

Also in the series


Peacekeeping Does Not Have to Wait

Roméo Dallaire on how the international community can guarantee swift international action where civilians are under imminent threat.

Protecting the Responsiblity to Protect

The “responsibility to protect” be made real through “the capacity to deploy,” says Hugh Segal. Without that, the doctrine will lose salience.

How Much "Law" Is There in "International Law"?

Bob Rae on our collective failure to properly enforce the rule of law.

The Role of the Churches in the Rwandan Genocide

Churches are uniquely positioned to address conflict before it gets out of hand, says Lois M Wilson. Yet they failed to act 20 years ago in Rwanda.

Renewing R2P

There is still much work to be done on how to define and apply R2P, but there is hope for the concept, says Lloyd Axworthy.

Today's Digital Witnesses Can Prevent Tomorrow's War Crimes

A growing cadre of scholars, practitioners, and hobbyists are leveraging new tools to help prevent gross violations of human rights and holding perpetrators to account after heinous crimes are committed, says Robert Muggah.

Returning to the Responsiblity to Protect

If we want to make R2P's hope of "never again" a reality, we need to turn away from the critique of sovereignty and the example of Libya, argues John Duncan.

Protecting R2P From Misuse

Acting on R2P inappropriately or invoking it as a pretext for other objectives like regime change can be as damaging as inaction to R2P’s long-run effectiveness, argues Maria L. Banda.

Time For Canada to Recommit to R2P

In the 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, Canada has gone from being the most vocal supporter of the norm to one of its meekest.

Learning Something, Not Everything

Two decades ago, the global media virtually ignored the killing in Rwanda. Has it learned from its mistake since, asks Michael Valpy.

The Eight Lessons of Rwanda

Irwin Cotler on what we have learned in the 20 years since the Rwandan genocide.