Atrocity Prevention and COVID-19

24 April 2020   ·   Kate Ferguson

The COVID-19 pandemic will lead to an increase in identity-based violence around the world. States such as the UK and Germany should integrate prevention analysis into COVID-19 policies and decision-making, leverage existing identity-based violence and atrocity prevention mechanisms, and support new means of convening and holding virtual dialogue.

The prevention of identity-based violence and mass atrocities is not needed in some places some of the time but everywhere all the time. The COVID-19 pandemic will underline this truism, not undermine it. It’s an established lesson of atrocity prevention that moments of acute stress exacerbate existing structural risk factors of atrocities and create new ones. The current coronavirus crisis will be no exception; without timely and effective preventative measures, the economic, social, and political consequences will likely take more lives than the virus itself.

There Will Be an Increase in Identity-Based Violence Around the World

Every country in the world will experience identity-based violence as a result of the pandemic. We already see a documented increase in hate crime against people of Chinese and East Asian appearance across the global north, increased attacks against Muslims in India, and a worldwide rise in domestic violence. Some states have been quick in mobilising the crisis to justify, or distract attention from, authoritarian power grabs. Hungary’s government moved to freeze refugee applications within days of the virus reaching Europe and is seeking to end the legal recognition of trans people. In Brazil there are concerns that indigenous communities in the Amazon are in danger of being ‘wiped out’ by the disease as President Bolsonaro continues to deny its dangers. In Myanmar and Syria experts worry that the virus will be weaponised by the state against vulnerable displaced communities.

Those with expertise in mitigating division and preventing violence must now be leveraged to ensure that the COVID-19 response has at its heart what decades of practice have taught us: resilience of all kinds comes from intersectional, inclusive communities – whether in the face of a pandemic, economic crisis or identity-based division. This is as true on the global level as it is on the national and local. We are, therefore, presented with a once in a century opportunity to respond to a worldwide challenge with a genuinely global and prevention-oriented response.

Prevention of Identity-Based Violence Needs to Be Integrated Into Policy Responses Worldwide

The COVID-19 pandemic is the stress test our already stressed communities do not need. The trend of rising violence and mass atrocities across middle-income countries, including those with relatively strong institutions had already upended the “long-standing assumption that peace will accompany income growth and the expectations of steady, social, economic, and political advancement that defined the end of the twentieth century.” The globalisation of hate-based networks and growing polarisation in democratic politics has likewise upended the belief that the prevention of identity-based violence is only required in some parts of the world, but not in others.

The principles of atrocity prevention teach us that moments of stress can lead to rapid fracture and sharply increase the vulnerabilities of already marginalised groups as well as groups that may previously have considered themselves ‘safe’. Tolerating the suffering of one group render others more vulnerable and undermines social and political resilience to division, propaganda and fear.

The pandemic threatens to accelerate these trends, unless countries such as Germany and the UK integrate identity-based violence into both their domestic and international responses to the worldwide health crisis.

The Response to the Pandemic Cannot Be a Health-Only Response

Effective prevention, whether of disease or violence, requires an ecosystem. As communities, national governments, and international organisations wrestle with current challenges and prepare for worse to come, they must do so together and holistically across issues rather than pivot to a narrow health-only response. It is essential that the instinct to firefight does not come at the expense of longer-term interventions that will help prevent both predictable consequences of COVID-19 and those which we cannot yet see.

Organisations with expertise in preventing structural risk factors of identity-based violence, including mass atrocities, should mobilise to collaborate with local, national, and regional actors that implement COVID-19 responses. Donors should direct their support to endeavours which think and act cross-sectoral and recognise that social, political, and economic consequences of the pandemic will usher a new era for human rights. State and intergovernmental mechanisms tasked with upholding contributions to prevent marginalisation, hate crime, violent extremism and mass atrocities must not be deprioritised but be explicitly included in wider COVID-19 decision-making and scenario planning. Cross-cutting networks, such as the Strong Cities Network and the Focal Points for the Responsibility to Protect should be activated to elevate, connect, and communicate identity-based violence prevention commitments ‘at home’ and ‘abroad’ as mutually reinforcing essential obligations.

New Communication Tools Provide Chances for Truly Global and Intersectional Conversations

Having to discover new means of everyday communication, convening, and working hold opportunities to overcome geographical and resource obstacles that have hindered having truly global conversation about atrocity prevention for too long. Language barriers, access to stable internet connection and computers, and structural privilege will persist but the geography of our conversation has now changed. State and civil society actors are already adapting their programmes for the new reality. This opens possibilities for creative, inclusive and intersectional communication channels that help to break down barriers of bias and better connect local, national, and international perspectives.  

There is a chance for the atrocity prevention community, particularly organisations based in the global north, to learn from the very experts who are too frequently absent from the decision-making tables. Many colleagues, and many of the communities that the atrocity prevention sector has worked with and on behalf of, already possess the expertise and learnings of how to navigate acute strain, collective grief, home schooling, food shortages and chronic anxiety – often while also implementing effective preventative and protective activities.

What can states do?

1. Support a global ceasefire.
Most immediately and for a sustained period, states should throw their weight behind the Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire. These calls are supported by a coalition of over one hundred NGOs, many of whom work on the prevention of mass atrocities and towards positive, sustainable peace. If momentum can be sustained, and this unprecedented moment in world history can bring a pause to conflict, it will also open longer-term opportunities for peace, cooperation, and multilateral reform.

2. Integrate monitoring of identity-based violence indicators into COVID-19 responses.
Atrocity prevention teaches that certain processes and warning signs signal a society’s vulnerability to divisive and hate-based behaviours. These indicators of hate are used all over the world to assess resilience of states and societies. The integration of atrocity-specific analysis into COVID-19 policies and decision-making processes will help maximise and coordinate contributions towards effective prediction and prevention. This should include the insertion of indicators of risk particular to identity-based violence, including violent extremism and mass atrocities, into horizon scanning, next-stage scenario mapping, and strategic planning.

3. Leverage existing atrocity prevention mechanisms.
States that already have national prevention strategies, frameworks, or focal points tasked with implementing commitments to predict, prevent and respond to mass atrocities can ensure that COVID-19 related scenario planning and risk assessments are included in working processes of the relevant ministries. These actors and departments can convene within their own governments, raise questions, and share information, ensuring that those tasked with responding to COVID-19 and its consequences are applying an identity-based violence and atrocity prevention-sensitive approach.

4. Support new means of convening and virtual dialogue.
New means of communication could significantly impact common understanding of identity-based violence and atrocity prevention, help to narrow the gap between early warning and timely response, and even dismantle misconceptions of atrocity prevention and the responsibility to protect as exclusionary or ‘western’ agendas. In addition, establishing virtual ways of working could dramatically reduce the atrocity prevention sector’s carbon footprint, reconciling how we work with our shared mission.

This is a shorter version of brief first published by Protection Approaches on 20 April 2020.