First Things First: Prioritize Mass Atrocity Prevention

18 July 2019   ·   ​​Chiara De Franco

The EU has to mainstream mass atrocity prevention into its security, development, and trade policies which requires political prioritization. Conducted seriously, this would lead to structural prevention and sharpened warning-response mechanisms. Germany could improve the coordination in Brussels to anticipate risks in regions that contribute most to refugee flows.

For an organization rooted in liberal values and constituting a pillar of the international liberal order, the European Union (EU) is, quite surprisingly, struggling to develop a coherent plan for mass atrocity prevention. This problem was brought to my attention between 2012 and 2013, when I coordinated research for the EU’s Task Force on prevention of mass atrocities. I learnt that mass atrocity prevention is 1) rarely mentioned in core EU documents and by EU actors despite the EU’s commitments to protect and promote human rights and its purported support for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which is an international commitment to prevent and react to genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity that was endorsed by all member states of the United Nations at the 2005 World Summit; 2) neither integrated into the EU foreign policy-making, nor embedded in conflict prevention tools or human rights policies; and 3) hindered by problems of coordination within the EU as well as of cooperation with local and international partners.

Today, six years after the publication of the Task Force’s report, my assessment is unchanged. While some progress on mass atrocity prevention has certainly been made, the aforementioned problems remain. These issues can only be overcome via a sort of political mobilization led by key member states like Germany.

Lack of consensus leads to fragmented, interest-based action

Marginal progress in the world of EU atrocity prevention has indeed been made since my first foray into the policy area over half a decade ago: The EU now has an R2P Focal Point, a senior level official responsible for supervising and promoting the implementation of R2P, and recently hosted the 9th Annual Meeting of the Global Network of R2P Focal Points. Moreover, the European External Action Service (EEAS) has developed conflict warning tools that include the monitoring of mass atrocity risks and a toolkit that offers practical guidance on atrocity prevention to EU delegations, missions and operations on the ground. However, while all of the above are laudable first steps, the 2016 EU Global Strategy only states a vague commitment to promote R2P without providing any clue about when, where, and how to do so.

Perhaps this feeble guarantee is driven by the EU’s own internal discord regarding the prevention and mitigation of mass atrocities, topic areas on which member states are typically unable to reach a consensus. Research conducted on the EU’s engagement with conflicts in Central African Republic (CAR) (2013-2014), Myanmar (2013-2018), and South Sudan (2013-2018) demonstrates that these actions were driven by the interests of some member states (France, for example, in the case of CAR) more so than by a consensual EU strategy. Moreover, they proved highly fragmented, as decisions about development, trade, and use of military force were not coordinated. Thus, political discord and an overall lack of direction caused action to be “too little too late.”

Mass atrocity prevention requires political prioritization

It is important to understand that mass atrocity prevention and response often manifest themselves in difficult political situations, forcing a state to, for example, confront governments suspected of committing mass atrocities, lift sanctions against a trade partner, revert economic cooperation, and, if and when necessary, threaten the use of and/or deliver military action. It also requires a holistic approach that exploits the interconnections between security, development and trade.

Ideally, mainstreaming mass atrocity prevention into EU security, development, and trade policies implies that the Commission, the Council, the Parliament, and the EEAS have a common understanding of when, where and how the EU should intervene. In other words, it requires political prioritization. This is a long overdue, yet-to-be-initiated process that many believe is an impossible objective for a complex organization like the EU. The present political context – rife with burgeoning nationalism – seems to aggravate this pessimistic view: The necessity of prioritizing the protection of distant others – a political mandate already somewhat selfless and abstract – is only becoming more and more difficult to sell.

Atrocity prevention is relevant to key European strategic objectives

A pessimistic assessment of what the EU can achieve is often linked to the misperception of mass atrocity prevention as an idealistic goal that has nothing to do with the EU’s core interests. Nothing could be further from the truth. The prioritization of atrocity prevention is actually a great opportunity for the EU as it requires defining political strategies based on perceived needs and interests as well as responsibilities. Clearly, the end goal is protecting human beings at home and abroad, which can very well be a self-interested choice.

Investing resources in the political prioritization process means going beyond the normative field while recognizing the relevance of atrocity prevention for a number of policies aimed at achieving key European strategic objectives, such as political stabilization and democratization in the European neighborhood. Thus, its outcome should be a set of guiding principles about when, where, and how to intervene. Mass atrocity risks might emerge in different areas of the globe at the same time (as in the three aforementioned cases), and the EU must be able to understand when and where its intervention can be most beneficial in relation to its perceived interests as well as for the populations at risk. This is not an easy exercise, as it requires taking into consideration both a UN stated preference to invest regional organizations with primary responsibility over their respective regions as well as recognizing the reality of a colonial past that makes European interventions problematic.

Structural prevention is the way forward

A serious political prioritization exercise would lead to single out “structural prevention,” that is, tackling the root causes of mass atrocities as the EU’s most tangible approach moving forward. Arguably, the EU has both the capacity and interest to orient the democratization and economic development of third countries at high risk of mass atrocity crimes. Structural prevention could be mainstreamed into existing development and trade policies – an area where the EU is a world leader – and be used to facilitate political stabilization that might avert future refugee crises. Furthermore, structural prevention of atrocity crimes would target also the root causes of extreme poverty, tackling another important issue on the European agenda: containing migration.

This approach might help the EU to strengthen its role as an international rule-maker as well as counter those political forces that are exploiting the migrant and refugee crises to move European politics towards illiberal values and policies. It would imply generating a consensus surrounding the preventive dimension of R2P and connect R2P with existing policy frameworks that enjoy more support and legitimacy in the EU context, such as human security and the so-called “comprehensive approach.” It would also demonstrate that engaging in mass atrocity prevention does not mean preparing for another Libya, but, rather, avoiding another Libya through earlier and more holistic action.

The EU must sharpen its warning-response mechanisms

Structural mass atrocity prevention requires sharpening warning-response mechanisms that provide policy-makers with timely information as well as analysis stressing the relevance, utility, and even necessity of anticipating and/or managing gross violations of human rights in a given country. In a forthcoming book exploring the workings of persuasion in foreign policy, my co-authors and I explain in great detail why effective warning-response mechanisms are necessary and offer clear recommendations about how they can be developed. The EU, for example, should empower its delegations so that they become able to generate timely, relevant, and accurate warnings and value expertise, particularly when it challenges conventional wisdoms and is politically inconvenient.

As a trusted, respected and powerful member state, Germany could take a lead in the prioritization process and launch initiatives aimed at improving the EU’s structural prevention and warning-response mechanisms. Germany could support coordination between the Commission and the EEAS to anticipate and mitigate risks in those countries and regions whose citizens are contributing most to migrant and refugee flows. Berlin should also push for concrete policies of structural prevention, such as making mass atrocity prevention the EU’s key criterion for arms exports. This is in line with Germany’s stated preference for non-military intervention, which in 2011 put the country in the difficult position of challenging European (and non-European) allies over the issue of intervention in Libya.

It is high time that the EU and its member states recognize that mass atrocities undermine their development, refugee, and migration policies. The best path forward is for structural prevention to become a key objective of the EU’s next Global Strategy. At the end of the day, one of the lessons we should draw from the refugee crisis is that mass atrocity prevention really is a common European interest.

Europäische Union Atrocity Prevention Europa

​​Chiara De Franco

Chiara De Franco is Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Southern Denmark.