The future of atrocity prevention and response

The next twenty years will be an exciting time for the concept of early warning. I believe the same applies to atrocity prevention and mitigation. The idea of early warning, and certainly quantitative early warning, is in its infancy. There is a good chance that the next two decades will see the institutionalization of early warning systems within IGOs, regional organizations, and national governments. On the prevention and mitigation front, R2P is less than a decade old. Unlike any norm before it, it provides a moral, legal, and operational backing for the prevention and mitigation of mass atrocities, which in turn deters potential perpetrators.

There are plenty of other reasons to find hope in efforts to close the response gap. First, early warning systems are improving. They are becoming more accurate, they are reaching out to include previously untouched constituencies and their proliferation across Africa demonstrates that they are now accepted as a necessary component for any effective anti-atrocity policy. Another positive sign is an emergent vein of scholarship that looks at how to direct early warnings to civilians on the ground rather than policy makers operating in metaphorical ivory towers. Along these lines, there are signs that the UN and regional organizations are improving their early warning capacities.

While evaluation of the effects of early warning is difficult and practically nonexistent, it does seem that the international community is getting better at it. Kenya offers a good case study.  In 2008, post-election violence killed thousands of people. Accordingly, prior to the 2013 elections, many analysts predicted a similar outcome. Fortunately, the elections went off with very little violence. Why? Well, combining analysis before and after the elections provides a picture of a thorough and multifaceted prevention effort. Writing in 2012, Babaud and Ndung’u argue that while there were serious flaws, Kenya is one of the few places where locally-led conflict prevention and early warning have happened. They also note the importance of the emergence of crowd-sourced prevention initiatives like Ushahidi, which provide quickly-available and accurate information on conflict dynamics. Unlike many early warning systems, Kenya’s had a clear and systematic flow of information, represented by this diagram:

Writing after the elections, Jay Ulfelder surveys a number of experts on Kenya and concludes that there were four main preventive efforts that had an effect: (1) a conscious effort by the Kenyan media to limit inflammatory reporting spurred by a combination of international pressure and memories of 2008, (2) a government SMS service that blocked hate speech, (3) investment in Kenyan infrastructure between 2008 and 2013, and (4) the restraining of major political actors through their links to Western money. He notes that these findings may not be generalizable to all prevention efforts primarily because the violence in Kenya would have been election-related. Regardless, it shows that not only can the international community work together to promote prevention, but that an array of fairly simple programs can have a real impact on the reduction of violence.

In 1999, then-United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote, “Today no one disputes that prevention is better, and cheaper, than reacting to crises after the fact. Yet our political and organizational cultures and practices remain oriented far more towards reaction than prevention.” Seven years later, in a report to the General Assembly, he wrote, “In its resolution 57/337, annex, paragraph 35, the General Assembly recognized the need to strengthen the capacity of the United Nations for early warning, collection of information and analysis. I regret to report that no significant progress has been made in this area. In fact, unlike some regional organizations, the United Nations still lacks the capability to analyse [sic] and integrate data from different parts of the system into comprehensive early warning reports and strategies on conflict prevention.”

Unfortunately, at the beginning of 2014, little more progress has been made. Despite early warning’s long history within the UN, it is still barely an institutionalized concept. If there are some reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for closing the response gap, there are just as many or more to be pessimistic. As it stands, the existence of any system that combines an intelligence gathering mechanism, an early warning component, and results in capable prevention or mitigation strategies is a fiction and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. The same institutional and psychological barriers that prevent successful atrocity early warning, prevention, and response will persevere. Ominously, a recent spike in both state collapses and global social unrest has likely contributed to a recent increase in mass killings, and this trend does not show any obvious sign of abating.

One estimate is that less than ten percent of civilians that survive natural disasters do so because of outside aid. This figure is likely even higher for civilian victims of violent conflict and mass atrocities considering the more advanced nature of disaster early warning systems and the relative lack of political complications caused by disaster aid. Even if there is major progress in closing the atrocity response gap in the next twenty years, the vast majority of civilians will have to survive on their own. Therefore, when we talk about outside prevention and intervention, we must remember that the efforts of the international community are ultimately peripheral to the conflict experiences of most individuals. Intervention is not, and will never be, a sustainable solution for preventing and mitigating mass atrocities around the world. Survival is almost always the burden of the persecuted.


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