Preventing Crises, Preventing Atrocities

10 November 2016   ·   Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi)

On October 20, the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Genocide Alert organized a roundtable on Preventing Crises, Preventing Atrocities: Lessons and Opportunities for Transatlantic Cooperation. The event was held at the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt in Berlin.

In August 2011, President Obama declared that the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide is “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” Since then, his administration has implemented a series of reforms to prioritize mass atrocity prevention, including establishing a high-level inter-agency Atrocities Prevention Board. At the roundtable event, Ambassador Lee Feinstein (D) and Tod Lindberg (R) presented the findings of their study “Allies Against Atrocities: The Imperative for Transatlantic Cooperation to Prevent and Stop Mass Killings” supported by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Stanley Foundation. Together with speakers from GPPi, Genocide Alert and the German Foreign Office as well as participants from German civil society and academia, they debated lessons learned from US reforms that could be useful for Germany to take away for its current process of developing new guidelines on crisis prevention, stabilization and peacebuilding. The following recommendations were discussed during the workshop.

1. Use the new guidelines to establish mass atrocity prevention as a key objective for crisis prevention, conflict management and peacebuilding

In the context of German history and recurrent commitments of senior German leaders to “never again” allow genocide to take place, the need for such a priority is self-evident. During the discussion, several participants emphasized that a top-level priority for mass atrocity prevention could also help prioritize among a broad range of conflict and crisis risks: mass atrocities are the worst of the worst in terms of the human toll, and as a result, they are the most difficult situations for peacebuilding later. In principle, as one participant emphasized, if any other crisis risks and peacebuilding needs are to be prioritized according to some measure of German interest that will include geographical proximity, an exception should be established for mass atrocity risks: German responsibility to prevent mass atrocities does not end a few thousand kilometers from Berlin.

The key to any progress of implementing reforms within the Obama administration was top-level political leadership – a signal from the President that he expected the departments within his administration to make progress on atrocity prevention. The German government’s new guidelines provide an opportunity to signal that this should also be a priority in Germany. In the fall of 2017, the next coalition agreement will provide another such opportunity.

The American guests emphasized that the US was impressed with German leadership on the refugee crisis. They and other participants highlighted that Germany could be a leader on mass atrocity prevention without necessarily increasing its military weight: Germany instead could work with the US to champion prevention together.

2. Implement a stronger focus on mass atrocities in practice

To more effectively contribute to mass atrocity prevention, participants argued that Germany would have to invest more in “classic” crisis prevention and peacebuilding, but this itself would not be enough. Across the conflict cycle, there are specific measures to be strengthened that target the risks or the perpetrators of mass atrocities, many of which tend to be given lower priority from a pure crisis or conflict prevention perspective. Several examples were mentioned during the discussion:

  • Invest more in monitoring systems to better track whether the security forces that Germany is training or has trained are involved in mass atrocities;
  • Improve the implementation of international criminal law within Germany and the EU by better prosecuting perpetrators that are in Germany and improving smart sanctions.
  • Increase support to the efforts by UN peacekeeping missions to protect civilians.
  • Ensure that early warning indicators and the systems available to monitor development assistance include indicators specific to mass atrocities, such as increases in hate speech and systematic preparation of mass crimes.

It was emphasized that none of these measures are alternatives to pursuing political solutions to conflicts. To the contrary: these would have to be complementary. As one participant put it: “While we work – sometimes for years – on big political solutions, we need to protect the civilians at the same time.”

3. Create organizational and financial firewalls between prevention and crisis reaction

A key lesson from the US that was highlighted during the discussion was the benefit of creating working structures and resources that did not compete with (and thus lose to) crisis reaction. The case of Burundi was discussed as an example: the US administration identified the 2015 elections as a likely flash point in mid-2013 and thus began working on violence prevention two years out. While the current situation in Burundi hardly makes it a “success”, it was argued during the discussion that it was remarkable that the country had been put on the agenda of policymakers early and that policy options were developed and set in motion before violence broke out. This was possible because the Atrocities Prevention Board had made separate time for such “upstream” cases (while other structures dealt with Syria, for example).

For the German government firewalling prevention would mean coming up with structures that ensure early inter-ministerial coordination on cases that need an early response. Such a new coordination mechanism would have to pursue a systematic way to make time for regular horizon scanning exercises on potential risks cases and discussions on the German government’s strategic goals in this country context and adjust each ministries’ actions accordingly. As one participant put it “prevention needs to be possible even when Syria is burning”. Similarly, it would be important to carve out funding in the relevant ministries that cannot be crowded out by reaction and that can only be spent on prevention measures. This would be particularly important for funds that are meant to be spent short and which are otherwise easily used up by stabilization needs.

4. Strengthen German support to developing sophisticated and court-proof visa bans and targeted sanctions such as asset freezes

As several participants argued, sanctions are no panacea: they need to be used carefully as they could also have a negative influence when used in the wrong moment or against the wrong person. Furthermore, EU targeted sanctions often fail to stand up to a legal challenge by the presumed perpetrators of violence and European policymakers are concerned about the legality of US sanctions regimes. As was argued during the discussion though, as long as only a very small number of people in Brussels and Berlin are even working on sanctions, these problems will not be resolved. The US Treasury has dozens of lawyers fine-tuning sanctions on key perpetrators of atrocities. By investing more into the development of sanctions, German and European policymakers could increase the quality of sanctions and thereby improve both their effectiveness and their legality.

5. Work on civil society backing for a stronger culture of prevention

In the US, one of the key drivers for reform was pressure from civil society and Congress to develop a more active policy on the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities. In Germany, although a large number of groups are committed to peacebuilding and human rights, the topic of atrocity prevention does not play a substantial role in the major human rights organizations. Several participants pointed out that more members of parliament, civil society organizations and policymakers will have to explain the benefit of investing in prevention to the general public – despite the difficulty of demonstrating success when a crisis has been prevented.