Rethinking the Structural Prevention of Mass Atrocities

In: Global Responsibility to Protect
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  • 1 Griffith University

Interest amongst scholars and policy decision-makers in the prevention of genocide and other mass atrocities has grown in recent years. Despite this, many have overlooked problems inherent in the commonly accepted notion of prevention. Crystalized in the Carnegie Commission’s 1997 report, ‘Preventing Deadly Conflict’, prevention has typically been understood in two parts, one addressing impending cases of violence (direct prevention) and the other focusing on the underlying causes of violence (structural prevention). The concept of structural prevention is especially problematic. Commonly defined as the identification and addressing of ‘root causes’, this conceptualisation contains at least two limitations: first, there is an implicit assumption that root causes lead inevitably to violence, and second, there has been a tendency for international actors to decide, in general and global terms, what counts as root causes and how to ameliorate them, downplaying the role of local contexts and overlooking the preventive work of local and national actors. This article argues that the concept of structural prevention needs broadening to incorporate an understanding of the dynamic interaction between the risk that root causes pose, and locally-based mitigation factors that foster resilience. Effective long-term prevention should be based – not only on identifying and ameliorating negative characteristics in countries at risk – but also on contributing to the complex management of diversity. While this makes intuitive sense – and may in fact reflect the reality of how much preventive work is done – such an approach has not hitherto been reflected in conceptual understandings of prevention adopted by the United Nations, as well as academic researchers.

  • 1

    S/2004/567, 13 July 2004.

  • 7

    Pat O’Malley, ‘Resilient Subjects: Uncertainty, Warfare and Liberalism’, Economy and Society 39/4: 488–509 (2010), p. 99.

  • 10

    Hamburg and Vance, Preventing Deadly Conflict, p. 69.

  • 11

    Ibid, p. xviii.

  • 14

    S/2008/18, p. 14.

  • 20

    Stephen John Stedman, ‘Alchemy for a new world order: overselling “preventive diplomacy”’, Foreign Affairs 74/3: 14–20 (1995), p. 18.

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  • 26

    Hamburg and Vance, Preventing Deadly Conflict, p. 69.

  • 28

    Hamburg, Preventing Genocide, p. 5.

  • 34

    Dress and Rosenblum-Kumar, ‘Deconstructing Prevention’, p. 241.

  • 36

     See, for example, Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide (New York: The Free Press, 1979); Barbara Harff, ‘No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust? Assessing the Risks of Genocide and Political Mass Murder since 1955’ The American Political Science Review 97/1: 57–73 (2003); Leo Kuper, Genocide: Its Political Use in the 20 th Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981); Jacques Semelin, Purify and Destroy.

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  • 41

    A/63/677, p. 13.

  • 42

     See, for example, Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide (New York: The Free Press, 1979); Ben Kiernan, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2005); Robert Melson, Revolution and Genocide: On the Origins of the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); and Semelin, Purify and Destroy. While negative cases (non-genocidal cases) are sometimes referred to, they are never included as one of the principal analytical subjects. For a discussion on the methodological limitations of such approaches, see Stephen McLoughlin and Deborah Mayersen, ‘Reconsidering Root Causes: A New Framework for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities’ in Bert Ingelaere, Stephan Parmentier, Jacques Haers and Barbara Segaert (eds.), Genocide, Risk and Resilience: An Interdisciplinary Approach (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013); and Scott Strauss, ‘Retreating from the Brink: Theorizing Mass Violence and the Dynamics of Restraint,’ Perspectives on Politics 10/2: 343–362 (2012).

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  • 46

    Chirot and McCauley, Why Not Kill Them All? p. 155.

  • 47

    A/55/985, p. 2.

  • 48

    A/60/891, p. 1; S/2008/18, p. 2; A/63/677, p. 8.

  • 49

    A/63/677, p. 10.

  • 50

    Alex J. Bellamy, ‘Mass Atrocities and Armed Conflict: Links, Distinctions and Implications for the Responsibility to Prevent’, The Stanley Foundation: Policy Analysis Brief (2011), p. 11; Ban Ki-moon, State Responsibility and Prevention, p. 8.

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  • 52

    Ibid, p. 7.

  • 57

    Harff, ‘No Lessons Learnt’, p. 63, Jones, Genocide, p. 389.

  • 59

    Harff, ‘No Lessons Learnt, p. 64.

  • 65

    A/67/929, p. 11.

  • 68

    Human Security Report Project, Human Security Report, p. 38.

  • 71

    A/67/929, p. 9.

  • 72

    Yi Feng, ‘Democracy, Political Stability and Economic Growth’, British Journal of Political Science 27/39: 401–418 (1997), p. 413.

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  • 74

     See Stephen McLoughlin, The Structural Prevention of Mass Atrocities: Understanding Risk and Resilience (Oxon: Routledge, 2014), pp. 157–159.

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  • 75

    Harff, ‘No Lessons Learnt’, p. 65; Barbara Harff, ‘Assessing Global Risks of Genocide and Politicide: A Global Watch List for 2012’, in J Joseph Hewitt, Jonathan Wilkenfeld and Ted Robert Gurr (eds.), Peace and Conflict 2012 (Boulder ca: Paradigm, 2012), p. 54; Goldstone et al., ‘A Global Forecasting Model’.

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  • 76

    Ban Ki-moon, State Responsibility and Prevention, p. 11; Hamburg and Vance, Preventing Deadly Conflict, p. 84; Arnim Langer, ‘When do Horizontal Conflicts Lead to Conflict? Lessons from a Comparative Study of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire’, in Frances Stewart (ed.), Horizontal Inequalities and Conflict: Understanding Group Violence in Multiethnic Societies (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008), pp. 163–189.

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  • 77

    Human Security Report Project, Human Security Report p. 52.

  • 83

    Lissi Rasmussen, Christian-Muslim Relations in Africa: The Cases of Northern Nigeria and Tanzania Compared (London: British Academic Press, 1993).

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  • 84

     See McLoughlin, The Structural Prevention of Mass Atrocities, pp. 134–136.

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