In the  latest edition of Sur: An International Journal on Human Rights, I have an essay about the genocide prevention and response movement. Below is an excerpt and the entire piece can be accessed here.


1  A Moment Ripe for Self-Reflection

Today’s genocide and atrocity prevention efforts emerge from a long history of mass murder of civilians being accepted or deemed a lesser concern than negotiation processes, political allegiances, or the need to win a conflict. There is no shortage of examples of terrifying assaults against societies’ most vulnerable groups. The most recognized cases like the Holocaust, Rwanda and Srebrenica, dominate discussions, but there are also many less known cases like Guatemala.

The civil war in Guatemala (1960-1996) was among the bloodiest of Latin America’s Cold War conflicts. An estimated 200,000 people were killed or disappeared. Two specific years in the 1980s stand out as the most lethal. Between 1981-1983, some 100,000- 150,000 Guatemalan Maya were killed by the national armed forces (JONAS, 2009, p. 381). As part of a scorched earth counter-insurgency plan, governmental forces killed, raped, tortured, and forcibly displaced Maya in the rural mountain regions. Beginning in 1983, the army undertook measures to control the survivors, ushering in a second phase of assault marked by a combination of amnesty and intensified militarization of surviving communities. In the worst hit community, Rabinal, 14.6% of the population was killed and 99.8% of the victims were from the Maya population (HIGONNET, 2009, p. 27).

For the Guatemalan government, the offensives were deemed necessary to finally end the long-running civil war (1960-1996) and enable modernization of the state. For the key outside countries that supported the government, particularly the U.S., the most salient feature was Marxist insurgency, only one example of the perceived global threat. Human rights activists from Amnesty International and Americas Watch (now Human Rights Watch) were targeted as communist sympathizers for even documenting the atrocities. The U.S. government accused such groups of being part of “a concerted disinformation campaign […] by groups supporting a left wing insurgency” (SIKKINK, 2004, p. 167).

It was not until the United Nations-sponsored Commission on Historical Clarification in Guatemala published its final report, Memory of Silence, in 1999, was the term “genocide” applied to the violence. The Commission’s report describes what happened as “acts of genocide against the Maya people that live in the Ixil region, Zacualpa, northern Huehuetenango and Rabinal” (HIGONNET, 2009, p. 131).

Much has changed since the 1980s – and particularly since the failures of Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina and the exponential growth of the field in response to Sudan. Today, the value of genocide and atrocity prevention work is recognized by global leaders and it is undertaken from a wide range of disciplinary and organizational approaches. While some of the most vocal and visible actors are in the U.S., individuals, organizations, and coalitions from around the globe, including places that have experienced past violence, are tackling atrocity prevention and response issues.

The field of genocide and atrocity prevention work is united in the ethical belief that entire groups of civilians should not be assaulted and the normative assumption that special measures should be created to protect against and respond to this violence. But beyond the ethical and normative consensus, much more discussion is needed. For the field to consolidate its progress and continue to grow, it must strengthen its capacity for self-reflection and criticism.

Today’s genocide prevention movement is marked by four signature characteristics. First, the field is emerging and not understood as coalesced.1 This is a time of great creativity and experimentation. This means that the basic practices, assumptions, tools, and vocabularies are up for debate. Multiple goals exist, and the differences between them lack clarity. One area where this is particularly noticeable is in the wide range of terminologies used to describe the phenomenon at hand: genocide, mass atrocities, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and so forth.

Second, in the shift from an emphasis on response to one of prevention, many people and organizations in the field (although certainly not all) have chosen to focus on structural concerns, both in terms of the conditions that enable violence to occur and in the agencies and forums that might respond to occurrences of violence. Both areas are born out of study of patterns across cases, a perceived imperative to engage before lives are lost, and the need to have stronger response measures queued up (within the “toolbox”) and ready to go. The shift can also be seen in the efforts of grassroots activists who are trying to realize a permanent and sustained constituency of engaged citizens, rather than creating new interest with each new individual case.

But crisis still drives the policy discussions and there is no low tide to allow for careful construction of new systems. Hence, the bureaucratic changes are undertaken in an environment where it is easy for longer-term needs to be overshadowed by today’s most pressing concerns. Further, improving response necessarily demands understanding case-specific dynamics, which is an entirely different set of skills and knowledge. Finally, introducing normalcy into response mechanisms for extraordinary violence threatens to lower the bar for when extraordinary measures can be undertaken.

Third, there is a shift from a historical human rights posture of opposition to governments to that of working cooperatively with governments and multi-lateral or international organizations to create stronger, more diverse, and attuned response mechanisms. This does not mean that advocates refrain from criticism of governmental policy; even the most cursory glance at recent reports would quickly refute that assertion. It is rather a subtle attitudinal change towards viewing government as a largely positive partner, even if one that needs goading at times, that should further assert its global power. The shift means that non-governmental actors have found allies inside governments and are choosing strategies that aim to result in real policy changes. This positive impact should not be underestimated.

However, such a strategy only works if there is a government that is willing to engage and bend to such pressure, hence it offers a model for action in only certain societies and on certain issues. It may also deepen national biases by prioritizing conversations within pre-established national political communities rather than compelling a search for international coalitions with diverse partners. It means that the field is developing around actions that are perceived as more possible because of their potential appeal to key governments, rather than necessarily being guided by circumstances in places at risk of or experiencing mass violence. And it invites governments to use coercive measures—an invitation that, once issued, may be difficult to control and/or recall.

Today’s genocide prevention activists have expanded further than many previous human rights campaigns to engage the general public in applying pressure on their own governments, particularly in the U.S. As a result, the movement has shown considerable creativity and tapped into a passion for its issues among a broader public. The presence of an audience for this work is doubtless and a great accomplishment for the field will be if it continues to grow and professionalize without losing the spark of ingenuity that characterized its most compelling public outreach efforts. Drawing in a larger public contributes to the field’s capacity to make its policy recommendations stick and to sustain political focus on the issues.

The first challenge of this trend is that maintaining a strong public outreach effort can consume an organization’s resources and promote policies and measures of success that shift the focus more to what people as advocates can do, and away from what will improve conditions for the individuals at risk. Second, members of the general public are not currently well educated enough to be informed actors in the movement. There is very little understanding of the dynamics of foreign policy making, case-specific background, and/or even the most basic concepts at play (i.e., human rights versus humanitarian organizations). While this may be a broader foreign policy concern, it has specific ramifications for organizations that emphasize the role of a public movement.

Not everyone will agree with this presentation of the challenges facing the field or how the field of genocide and atrocity prevention should respond to its challenges. However, the strength of a field is not measured solely by its points of consensus, but also the vibrancy of its debates. This paper attempts to outline both areas of consensus in the field and the knowledge base that informs it, as well as areas of contention. To this end, it aims to be provocative in highlighting debates that are already underway in the field of genocide and atrocity prevention. The questions raised in this paper do not lend themselves to easy answers nor necessarily to consensus, and this may not be desirable. Instead, it is a hope that they contribute to the field’s capacity for self-criticism and reflection, while also challenging it to reach out to other fields to share insights and join forces.


Full essay is available here.

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