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Rethinking the Structural Prevention of Mass Atrocities

In: Global Responsibility to Protect
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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.

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