Preventing Mass Atrocities: Germany Finally Needs a Strategy

26 May 2021   ·   Robin Hering, Gregor Hofmann, Jens Stappenbeck

Germany falls short of its commitment to systematically prioritize the prevention of mass atrocities. There is no strategy in sight and it lacks expertise and much needed personnel. The German government should issue an interministerial assessment report as the basis for a coordinated strategy and build up the resources required for its implementation.

The violence currently committed in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, and China exemplify the urgent need for action against mass atrocities, including systematic war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocidal violence. In situations of serious concern such as in Ethiopia a rising number of reports identify ethnically motivated acts of violence and massacres against the civilian population. Together, these different cases demonstrate the brutality, perfidy, and complexity of mass atrocities and their political contexts. Current developments in Myanmar and Xinjiang illustrate once more that mass atrocities do not necessarily occur in the context of armed conflicts. An exclusive focus on conflict early warning and prevention is therefore not sufficient for mass atrocity prevention. Mass atrocities are a distinct type of political violence that must be analyzed and addressed accordingly. The same levels of specialized expertise, structures, and concepts that are in place for the analysis and prevention of terrorism are also required for the prevention of mass atrocities.

Faced with mass atrocities, Germany tends to show either hesitation or passivity. In mid-2017, when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya suffered extreme violence in Myanmar, the German government and leading politicians across all parties remained silent for far too long. When violence and suffering in Yemen reached such an extent that UN experts said it should "shock the conscience of humanity”, Germany was entangled in its usual debates surrounding arms deliveries but did not discuss concrete measures of prevention or mitigation. While close allies of Germany are taking a clear stand against China's crimes against the Uyghur population, the German government has remained largely inactive, prioritizing other interests. Last but not least, a moratorium on deportations to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which continues to gravely violate human rights, expired at the end of 2020 without further support for a renewal by the German Conference of Interior Ministers.

This track-record is not exactly impressive – especially considering that in its 2017 guidelines "Preventing Crises, Managing Conflicts, Promoting Peace", the German government declared the prevention of genocide and severe violations of human rights belonged to the German raison d'État, its reason of state. An important step forward! But which measures were taken towards its implementation and to improve mass atrocity prevention efforts?

‘After the Fact’ Criminal Prosecutions Do Not Prevent Atrocities

The recently published report on the implementation of the German government’s guidelines, four years after their publication, reveals little progress. Regarding the cross-cutting issue of human rights, the report references the "German Government’s Action Plan for Human Rights 2021-2022”. Furthermore, the government created a new working group on promoting the rule of law, security sector reform, and dealing with the past and reconciliation, which among other things is tasked to transfer the new transitional justice strategy into joint ministerial work. However, the guidelines' statement on atrocity prevention as Germany’s raison d'État remains unaddressed. 

The closest the implementation report gets to the issue of mass atrocities is a reference to Germany’s commitment to strengthen international criminal justice and its support for EU and UN sanctions regimes. In recent years, the German judiciary has indeed made significant progress in this area, for instance regarding the legal prosecution of war crimes in Syria and the mass atrocities committed by the so-called Islamic State. This was partly possible due to the immense amount of accessible evidence and witnesses, but also because the "Central Office for Combating War Crimes" was upgraded to a well-staffed war crimes unit within the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). Thereby, progress was made in applying the principle of universal jurisdiction as enshrined in the German Code of Crimes Against International Law. A striking culmination of these efforts was the world's first trial against the Syrian torture regime in Koblenz, Germany.

The judicial prosecution of mass atrocities are undoubtedly important and Germany's commitment is exemplary. But ex-post judicial procedures alone remain too incomplete and too ineffective to stop current atrocities or to deter future perpetrators, even those that are still active in Syria. By itself, this commendable effort does not do justice to the German raison d’État and it would be wrong to burden criminal prosecution with the task of mass atrocity prevention.

Germany Is Not Living up to Its Own Standards

With respect to mass atrocity prevention, Germany thus fails to meet its own goals. The concept of raison d’État or reason of state would usually entail the identified fundamental state interests taking precedence over other interests. For the prevention of genocides and other mass atrocities, state authorities should therefore always consider whether and to what extent their actions can prevent and counteract such crimes. 

The German government has yet to deliver a strategy or a working approach to achieve this objective. Although crisis prevention and early detection have gained importance in German foreign policy, there is no dedicated concept to prevent mass atrocities. Even after the publication of the guidelines, a lack of strategy and political prioritization remains. A predominant focus on armed conflicts continues to carry the risk of creating blind spots. 

Overall, there is a lack of expertise and thematic awareness when it comes to mass atrocity prevention. Before the guidelines were adopted, the German government had employed only one analyst in the Federal Foreign Office in support of the prevention of mass atrocities and the implementation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Since then, this position was reduced to a 50 percent part-time position. When the Federal Foreign Office created its so called “Directorate-General S” in 2015, an "R2P Focal Point" was designated at the level of deputy director-general. This position has been downgraded to a head of unit level. This is still far away from meaningful commitment.

It's Time to Systematically Assess Existing Capabilities and Opportunities for Mass Atrocity Prevention 

The German government should develop or commission an interministerial report on mass atrocity prevention capabilities and opportunities. In addition to the Federal Foreign Office and the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, this assessment must include the Ministries of Defense, Economic Affairs and Energy, Interior, Finance, and Justice as well as the Chancellor's Office. The report should focus on the question of how a so-called atrocity prevention lens can be integrated into existing structures. Not only the NGO Genocide Alert, but also international experts and the UN recommend this mainstreaming.  

Such an assessment report requires a critical examination of foreign policy instruments and decisions. It should look into how German ministries can improve information sharing on risk factors such as a history of past mass atrocities, persistently weak statehood or political instability combined with ethnic tensions, which were identified by the UN Office on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect. This is especially important as specific intelligence is needed to analyze the capacities and motivations of potential perpetrators (e.g., stockpiling weapons or increased hate speech) and to reflect upon the likelihood of events that could trigger mass atrocities (e.g., violent attacks, government crises, or revolutionary upheavals). Additionally, such an assessment should present opportunities to coordinate interministerial action towards potential state and non-state perpetrators. 

More Coordination, More Expertise and More Personnel Is Needed

Based on this report, a coordinated strategy should be developed and expertise on mass atrocity prevention strengthened through targeted training and recruitment.

A study published in March 2021 on the German government's actions before and during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda highlights the importance of interministerial coordination, thematic expertise, and sufficient personnel. While the study shows that the responsible actors in Germany were better informed about the escalating situation at the time than previously known, there was a lack of knowledge about the specifics of genocidal processes and insufficient coordination between the ministries. As a result, Germany remained inactive while more than 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were murdered in less than 100 days.

International cooperation is needed as much as coordination on the national level. Officers specifically entrusted with the prevention of mass atrocities, such as the R2P Focal Point, must build a network with contacts in other governments. Moreover, they should develop proposals to mainstream mass atrocity prevention throughout German governmental action and coordinate corresponding activities. This is precisely how to fill the gap: the prevention of mass atrocities must be permanently and proactively considered and pursued in all situation evaluations and political decisions – not only in the Federal Foreign Office. 

The importance of an interministerial report and action vis-à-vis mass atrocities has been recently underlined by the atrocities the Chinese government perpetrates against the Uyghurs. Foreign trade should not be continued and promoted in cases of serious human rights violations in concerned partner states. Companies involved in developing measures for the targeted surveillance of ethnic minorities must not be allowed to contribute to developing digital infrastructure that enables information flows which are the basis of our democratic society.

It's Time to Act!

Even under then-president Donald Trump, an expansion of mass atrocity prevention capabilities succeeded in the U.S. due to large bipartisan support of the Ellie Wiesel Act. Amongst others, the act offers trainings in atrocity prevention and recognition of early warning signs to U.S. officers. It also mandates an annual presidential report to the Congress on U.S. efforts to address atrocities and genocide and manifests atrocity prevention as a national security interest. The raison d’État wording of the guidelines has already built the obvious bridge to Germany’s historical responsibility – so, why is no similar process in motion in Germany, of all places? The importance of mass atrocity prevention was highlighted repeatedly: in the guidelines, at numerous commemorative events, at a hearing in the parliament. Given this background, the German government should match words with deeds and develop a corresponding strategy involving all ministries and strengthening German expertise. Issuing an interministerial assessment report on mass atrocity prevention capabilities and opportunities would be an important first step.

Early Action Atrocity Prevention Genocide

Robin Hering

Robin Hering is Vice Chairman of Genocide Alert. As a Research Associate at the University of Passau he investigates the possibilities of safe areas for the protection of civilians as well as how German politics and society deal with mass atrocity situations.

Gregor Hofmann

Gregor Hofmann is Chairman of Genocide Alert. Moreover, he is a member of the Forum Foreign Policy of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. He is working as an officer in the Presidential Department at the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre.

Jens Stappenbeck

Jens Stappenbeck is Executive Director of Genocide Alert and a Doctoral Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), where he is focusing on risk analysis and early warning. He also works as a superforecaster/adviser at Good Judgement Inc. and is a board member of the German Platform for Peaceful Conflict Management.