In the late 1800s, Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously introduced a principle that would later come to be known as “Chekhov’s gun”: “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”[i] Chekhov thereby succinctly illustrated the principle of “foreshadowing”: inclusion of a pistol on stage orients the audience’s expectations throughout the performance. It is not a matter of firing or not firing the weapon; its very presence organizes a framework for understanding how events are perceived and what actions might therefore follow. His principle goes further, instructing his fellow playwrights on the art of focusing only on what is necessary and irreplaceable. While the artistry of rhetoric is undeniably reduced in the texts of international institutional discourse, in the realm of policy on atrocity prevention and response, “Chekhov’s gun” applies.

Maintaining the “pistol on the wall” has oriented the imagination of atrocity prevention and response in four key ways. First, work on atrocities is locked into a mind-set of the permanent emergency. Second, lessons at odds with military action from even the canonical cases are forgotten; the dominant framework assumes that these cases required military action and therefore subsequent policies needed to legitimize it. Third, triage, attempting to identify the greatest risks and tailoring policy tactics (the “toolbox”) to engage them, is the best model for prevention. Fourth, consensus on principles supporting civilian protection is worth risking in order to enable coercive action, rare as it might be.

Finally, the pistol on the wall also has meant that the work of atrocities prevention and response has prioritized approaches that render it palatable to governments and multilateral organizations. A strong example of this comes from Iraq, as noted in a previous essay. This is not to argue that “policy recommendations” should not be made or heeded—but rather that advocates should be wary of beginning with what is palatable and then shaping recommendations in light of this understanding.

This essay begins a short series exploring the five traits relating to policies and approaches for mass atrocities response and prevention as discussed above that emerge as a result of the “pistol on the wall.” This sets aside for the moment how the militarized approach to atrocities prevention and response impacts decision-making of actors within the country where atrocities occur.

While coercive military intervention is not by any stretch the preferred or commonly deployed tool for responding to mass atrocities, including it in the atrocity response toolbox has produced a limited, yet hegemonic way of imagining prevention. It invisibly polices the borders of what is considered relevant. It is time not only to be critical or hesitant about it, but to reject it outright. What other insights, cases and practices might become apparent if we took the pistol off the wall?

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[i] Gurlyand, Ilia. 1904. “Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov,” in Teatr i iskusstvo 1904, 28: 11, 521.

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