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The End of Atrocity

With no end to the conflict in Syria in sight, do the promises of “never again” after Rwanda ring hollow? Yes and no says Kyle Matthews.

By: /
12 February, 2013
By: Kyle Matthews
Executive director, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies

When NATO enforced UN Security Council Resolution 1973 by establishing a no-fly zone to halt Moammar Gadhafi’s regime from attacking the city of Benghazi, many critics voiced opposition. Their logic seemed to be that since the international community could not intervene everywhere that mass atrocities were looming, it should not bother trying at all.

Responding to this criticism, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Timesargued, “But just because we allowed Rwandans or Darfuris to be massacred, does it really follow that to be consistent we should allow Libyans to be massacred as well? Isn’t it better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none?”

Fast-forward a few years. After 12 months of inaction on the part of the international community in the face of atrocities carried out by religious zealots in the northern part of Mali, France intervened militarily and liberated the cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal. That French President François Hollande answered Bamako’s plea for outside assistance, which was fully supported by all countries in West Africa, as well as the African Union, has been perceived by some as ill-intentioned. In an op-ed published in The Globe and Mail, Gerald Caplan, a Canadian genocide scholar, warned Canadians that we should be wary of supporting France (and Mali, for that matter). Rather than directing hostility at those non-state actors hacking off the limbs of civilians in Timbuktu, Caplan focuses on the fact that both Paris and Washington “have been longtime proponents of R2P – the Right to Plunder.”


R2P, which actually stands for the “responsibility to protect,” is a political commitment made by all 192 governments seated at the UN in 2005 to break the cycle of standing idle when mass atrocities (genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing) are occurring or about to occur. The African architects of R2P, South Sudanese scholar and diplomat Francis Deng and former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, might disagree with Caplan’s reading of the situation in Mali and the assertion that R2P is a cover to advance the interests of mining firms in the West.

While the Libyan and Malian crises triggered intervention, the Syrian conflict has not. Despite increasing digital evidence of war crimes (on Feb. 7, the Washington Post tweeted a link to a video that showed Assad’s troops dancing to Usher while houses burned in the background), no government seems prepared to intervene directly in the conflict. Western countries have pretty much stood on the sidelines of the Syrian crisis. On one side, we have witnessed Russia and China using their veto power a total of three times within the UN Security Council to protect Assad’s regime, while Iran continues to provide direct military aid to Damascus. On the other side, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey have shipped arms and facilitated the movement of jihadists into Syria with the hopes of toppling the government. The situation is grim, and the Free Syrian Army and Damascus seem determined to fight it out to the end. With more than 60,000 civilian deaths and millions displaced so far, it is understandable that so many remain skeptical that anything can actually be done to halt atrocities and protect civilians.

To make matters worse, the proliferation of smartphones and internet connections means that images of atrocities and human depravity are now beamed directly from Syria onto our BlackBerrys and iPhones. In other words, modern technology has made it possible for us to bear witness to these atrocities in real time, giving us the sense that we are powerless.

It would be a mistake to lose sight of the progress that has been made in the 19 years since the Rwandan genocide. Important trends and developments point to the construction of a nascent movement with global ambitions to make “never again” a reality.

Building International Institutions and Political Will

Each failure to halt mass atrocities leads the international community to reflect and innovate. In the 1990s, the absence of political will to interdict the Rwandan genocide and the UN Security Council’s failure to take collective action in Kosovo led to the creation of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. The commission introduced the R2P doctrine, which advanced the idea that national sovereignty entails responsibility, and that if a state is unwilling or unable to protect vulnerable populations from the above-mentioned crimes, the international community has a duty to respond. Led by Canada, R2P was endorsed by all member states seated at the UN in 2005.

In 2007, 59 years after the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide came into being, the UN finally established an office for the prevention of genocide, which now plays an important role in advising the UN secretary-general on how the UN should respond to emerging situations, and provides training for UN teams in regions at risk of atrocities.

Consider, too, the progress achieved in strengthening the international legal system through the establishment of the International Criminal Court. History was made in 2010 when, for the first time, the court issued an arrest warrant for a sitting head of state (Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir) for the crime of genocide. While al-Bashir still holds the reign of power, he is isolated in international circles and is limited in where he can travel. This also serves as a powerful reminder that we are entering a new era in which those leaders who oversee atrocities within their borders will no longer be allowed to carry on as though it is business as usual.

Community of Commitment

In a recent tweet, Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations labelled the groups that have evolved as a more or less permanent constituency for the prevention of mass atrocities as an “anti-genocide industrial complex.” While that may be a bit of a stretch, at the start of the 21st century, it has become apparent that people are no longer waiting for their governments to lead on important issues. Just as the environmental movement has grown in strength and numbers across the planet, those organizations working in the field of atrocity prevention have made significant progress in recent years, forming a community of commitment. The Enough Project, the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect and the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect are new civil-society organizations that have emerged on the international scene. These organizations act as the eyes and ears of the world’s victims, and not only hold governments’ feet to the fire when inaction in the face of atrocities is observed, but also document evidence showing which countries are enablers of such crimes.

Building National Capacities

It would be an understatement to point out that there is a global capacity problem when it comes to acting against atrocities. While the UN has limited ability to enforce international law, most countries that are signatories of the Genocide Convention have done very little to build the capacity and infrastructure for analysis and action. In the past few years, however, the Obama administration has made some important changes to ensure the prevention of genocide and atrocities. U.S. President Barack Obama has created, for instance, the senior position of director for war crimes, atrocities, and civilian protection at the National Security Council. Furthermore, mass-atrocity prevention is mentioned in strategic policy documents, and an Atrocities Prevention Board was created in 2012, making the U.S. a world leader in creating new national capacities. Obama is also helping the Government of Uganda disarm the notoriously brutal Lord’s Resistance Army and capture its leader, Joseph Kony. Other countries should emulate Obama’s policies and leadership.

Mobilizing Democracy

National governments’ responses to mass-atrocity crimes have typically been minimal, ad hoc, and lacking overarching policies to implement preventative strategies. There are currently no mechanisms in place to ensure national governments uphold their international obligations to act when massive human rights abuses are taking place.

The good news is that this might all be about to change. Experience in the United Kingdom and Canada shows that parliamentarians can make a contribution to focus the executive branch of government on the prevention of, and response to, genocide. Parliamentarians have a role in agenda-setting ahead of a crisis or while a crisis is underway, and can hold the executive, foreign office, or other administrative departments to account. In Ottawa, Senator Roméo Dallaire founded the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide and Other Crimes Against Humanity, which is supported by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies. In the United Kingdom, a similar group was formed within the British Parliament with the support of the NGO Aegis Trust.

Legislative leadership can also be found in Washington. On Aug. 5, 2010, Senators Russ Feingold and Susan Collins, with the support of 19 other senators, introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 71, which recognized “the United States national interest in helping to prevent and mitigate acts of genocide and other mass atrocities against civilians, and supporting and encouraging efforts to develop a whole of government approach to prevent and mitigate such acts.” In early December 2011, a bipartisan group of 29 senators sent a letter to President Obama offering to form a partnership in anticipating, preventing, and responding to genocide and other mass atrocities. In it, the senators expressed their support for improving U.S. capacity to prevent and respond to mass-atrocity crimes.

At the international level, the Inter-Parliamentary Union is delving into these issues as well, seeking to form a united front and share lessons learned on the role that parliamentarians the world over can play in holding executive branches to account in upholding their responsibility to protect.

Around the world, individual parliamentary leaders are emerging who will serve as atrocity prevention focal points in their respective legislatures, and will encourage the creation of national parliamentary groups focused on mass-atrocities prevention, similar to those in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Amplifying the Power of Witness

Harvard Kennedy School’s Mass Atrocity Response Operations (MARO) Project observes that, “The shameful nature of mass atrocities suggests the potential power of witness: surveillance and other forms of both high-tech and low-tech witness can deter or mitigate violence against civilians. During an intervention, witness can be critical for gathering evidence that can be used in future criminal proceedings.” While the power of witness has usually resided with journalists and the news media, the digital media revolution and new technologies now enable NGOs and individual citizens to capture evidence and track who is committing atrocities, as well as what individuals or governments are enabling these crimes. We can see from the situation in Syria just how much evidence of atrocities can be captured, recorded, and shared with the international community via social media. Conspiracies of silence appear to be becoming a thing of the past.

George Clooney’s Satellite Sentinel Project is an example of an NGO that is spearheading outside-the-box thinking in its use of technologies that just a few decades ago were the private domain of a select group of powerful countries. Using the services of DigitalGlobe, a company that sells digital satellite imagery and analysis, the Satellite Sentinel Project monitors the border between Sudan and South Sudan, recording and analyzing images of the movement of military aircraft and troops, burning villages, and mass graves. The organization then uses the information collected to warn the world via the global media to alter state behaviour.

Moving Forward

The global fight to combat mass-atrocity crimes is marked by more failures than successes, but real progress is being made. The above-mentioned developments cannot be discounted as insignificant.

While we might never be able to halt all atrocities, in the years ahead, the global architecture being created will render it increasingly difficult for governments and non-state actors to literally get away with murder.

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