Genocide Prevention

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Preventing Genocide: Why it Matters

By Ann-Louise Colgan and Lawrence Woocher1

In the last century, tens of millions of people lost their lives in episodes of mass killings. Despite efforts to prevent and halt such massacres, we have witnessed them again and again in more recent decades, including in the Balkans, in Rwanda, in Sudan, and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

After the Holocaust—in which some six million Jews and many others were killed by the Nazi regime and its collaborators—the international community made a commitment that “never again” would such horrors be allowed to take place.

In fact, it was as a result of the Holocaust that the word “genocide” was created in the first place––from “geno-“, which is Greek for race or tribe, and “-cide” which comes from the Latin word for killing. “Genocide” refers to specific acts committed against racial, ethnical, national, or religious groups with the intent to destroy the very existence of that group. Legally, genocide was declared an international crime in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

But despite promises of “never again”, incidents of mass atrocities have continued around the world, and it remains challenging to prevent or halt these crimes.

There is no doubt that genocide and mass atrocities take a horrific human toll. The numbers can be hard to absorb––hundreds of thousands massacred in Rwanda, millions displaced from their homes in Sudan, tens of thousands raped in the Balkans. But the stories of human suffering move us all––families forcibly uprooted from their homes, women and girls subjected to sexual violence, innocent civilians killed or harmed simply because of who they are. These profound traumas scar societies for generations.

Internally displaced people in Darfur, Sudan live in refugee camps. (Photo Credit: Jehad Nga/The New York Times)

Refugees displaced from their homes by the Darfur conflict in Sudan live in camps like this one.

Many argue that genocide also threatens core national security interests, by destabilizing states and regions, and by the significant economic, and even military, costs associated with responding to it.

In recent years, a broad movement of citizen activists has coalesced around the notion that genocide is unacceptable, and that it can and should be prevented. Public polls in the U.S. consistently indicate that Americans want the U.S. to be a leader in addressing genocide, and the current and past presidents have stated that this is among the goals of U.S. foreign policy.

Internationally, the concept of a “Responsibility to Protect” civilians from mass atrocities has been unanimously endorsed by members of the United Nations, providing a strong foundation for international partnership.

But significant challenges remain, including making sure that governments are well-prepared to pay attention––and respond––to warning signs, and ensuring that international leaders have the political will to act in a timely and effective fashion to head off the worst crises.

In 2011, multiple crises erupted that included systematic violence against civilian populations. The international response to the situations in Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, Syria, and elsewhere varied widely, underscoring the challenges and inconsistencies that persist in efforts to prevent mass atrocities (click here for analysis from USIP).

In 2007, the U.S. Institute of Peace convened the Genocide Prevention Task Force––along with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Academy of Diplomacy––to help clarify why preventing genocide is important and how the United States can realize this goal.

The Task Force was co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, and it released its final report in December 2008.

Read about this initiative and its recommendations on structures, strategies, and partnerships that can help prevent genocide

Many of the Task Force’s recommendations were taken into account when President Obama announced the creation of a new Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) in April 2012. The Board is made up of senior representatives of various U.S. federal government agencies, and will meet on a monthly basis. The APB will seek to identify atrocity threats and oversee the development and implementation of policies to prevent and respond to mass atrocities. As such, it is intended to enable the U.S. government to more effectively deal with the threat of atrocities and to utilize a range of tools to forestall such violence against civilians. Read the White House's Factsheet on A Comprehensive Strategy and New Tools to Prevent and Respond to Atrocities.

Additional USIP Resources:

1Lawrence Woocher was a Senior Program Officer at USIP from 2006 to 2011 in the Center for Conflict Management.