A Community of Commitment

“The place to start is with prevention: through measures aimed in particular at building state capacity, remedying grievances, and ensuring the rule of law. My hope is that in the future, the Responsibility to Protect will be exercised not after the murder and rape of innocent people, but when community tensions and political unrest begin. It is by preventing, rather than reacting, that we can truly fulfill our shared responsibility to end the worst forms of human rights abuses.” – Desmond Tutu

I realize that this post is going to be biased because I am working for the Institute that hosted the event I would like to talk about. But my point is not necessarily to promote the work of the Montreal Institue for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) but to show that even though prevention does not seem to be on the minds of policymakers and politicians, civil society groups, NGOs and think tanks are leading the way. Last week MIGS organized a three-day professional training program on the prevention of mass atrocities. The aim of the course was to give participants the chance to understand what is being done in terms of prevention, and to share lessons on existing tools and ways we can come together to prevent these crimes.

There were nine thematic sessions:

  • International Law and the Genocide Convention (Prof. René Provost, Associate Professor, McGill University, Faculty of Law)
  • The Responsibility to Protect (Naomi Kikoler, Director of Policy and Advocacy of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect)
  • Will to Intervene and the Role of National Governments (Frank Chalk (Director of MIGS at Concordia University)
  • The Role of Journalists in Genocide Prevention (Allan Thompson, Professor of Journalism at Carleton University)
  • The Role of the UN and Regional Organizations in Preventing Mass Atrocities (Claudia Diaz (UN Office on the Prevention of Genocide)
  • Mobilizing Technology for Prevention (Colette Mazzucelli, Adjunct Associate Professor at the Center for Global Affairs, New York University)
  • Case Study on Technology and the Syria Crisis (Anwar Abas and Micah Clark, The SecDev Group).
  • Case study on the Arab Spring (Bessma Momani, Senior Fellow at the Centre For International Governance and Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario, and Brookings Institution in Washington, DC)
  • Case Study on Kenya and Hate Speech (Susan Benesch, Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute)

The wisdom of experience

“The aim of humanity is not to survive the future, but thrive in the future.”

Who better to open the training program than Lt-Gen. Roméo Dallaire, someone who has personally seen the consequences of the international community’s failure to act? Speaking about conflicts in general, Lt-Gen. Roméo Dallaire, gave three options for the future: survive it; build a wall; resolve it at the source. Our aim should not be to survive the future, he says, but to thrive and “to attack the source of the rage.” Dallaire’s optimism in the future is something striking considering what he has witnessed. But he continues to believe in the capacity of new generation to shape the future and act as leaders – a fitting start to this training program.

“All the things we said would happen in Syria if we intervened have happened even though we didn’t.”

Former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Irwin Cotler gave a impassionate speech on Canada’s need to condemn state-sanctioned cultures of hate and criticize crimes of indifference towards genocide. Looking back at the past, Cotler made it clear that we knew what was happening in Rwanda and Darfur but failed to act. Looking at the present, he underlined the need to hold Iran and the Khomeini regime accountable for a variety of atrocities and human rights violations, including incitement to genocide against the Baha’is. The former minister warned about the regime’s threat both to its people and to international security. Let’s also remember what happened to protesters who took the streets to denounce the 2009 elections, chanting Death to the Dictator…. Cotler’s mention of Iran and his Massacre88 Campaign was timely considering the elections took place on Friday.

Understanding prevention and the Responsibility to Protect

The first two sessions sought to give an overview of genocide and mass atrocity prevention, including the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). While Provost gave an outline of the international legal framework and elements of the crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, Naomi Kikoler focused on R2P. Although signed by a large number of states, the doctrine is often misunderstood by policymakers, politicians, legislators, academics but also by the general public, who see R2P strictly as military intervention, regime change or even neo-imperialism. The Iraq war certainly gave the concept of R2P a bad name. A member of the Global Centre for the Responsibility, Naomi Kikoler’s aim was to underline that states, and international and regional organizations have a responsibility to generate preventive and effective strategies to act when states that are unwilling or unable to protect their own people. These strategies involve a wide range of soft and hard diplomacy. If these tools fail, then outside actors have a responsibility to mobilize other forms of responses. Military intervention is certainly the last tool one wants to use – thus the emphasis on prevention. Despite setbacks, Kikoler believes that many small successes demonstrate that R2P is “something remarkable” but she regrets that Canada is no longer playing the normative role on the international scene. Perhaps the most important lesson learned from Kikoler and Provost is that states, regional and international institutions, but also civil society groups all have a responsibility in the mass atrocity prevention and in the R2P process.


 Bringing R2P to life

Considering the rather poor implementation record of the Responsibility to Protect, Dr. Frank Chalk’s session on the Will to Intervene and the Role of National Governments sought to explain why the international community should act in a preventive manner and why outside actors should intervene in one or another, even when mass atrocities are taking place in far away places. In the global world that we live in today, mass atrocities and genocide have consequences that reverberate throughout the rest of the world. Thinking about the self-interest of states and national governments are mainly, Frank Chalk emphasized that crimes committed in countries such as Sudan or Cambodia will have economic, social, and political repercussions in the US, Canada and Europe. Think about the influx of refugees, risk of pandemics, costs of military intervention compared to preventive tools etc. According to Frank Chalk, national interests “should include the prevention of mass atrocities, not just for humanitarian reasons, but also in the self-interest of our own citizens.”

Things went too far a long time ago: “Time for intervention in Syria was before racist chants became beliefs.”

Bessma Momani’s gave a very realistic view of the crisis in the Middle East. Although this CIGI Senior Fellow gave a comparative analysis of the Arab Spring (Tunisia, Libya, Egypt etc), the discussion quickly focused on the Syrian conflict and the consequences of the passivity of the international and regional organizations (“Time for intervention in Syria was before racist chants became beliefs”). The conflict has become extremely complex, making any form of intervention complicated, dangerous and hard to evaluate. By now, Western troops would do more harm than good, she says, and there is also no potential for regional humanitarian intervention from Jordan, Qatar, Turkey or Egypt. The entire region (and beyond) has stakes in the crisis: 1) Iran looks at Syria as one of the only anti-western states, 2) A battle in Aleppo would give Hezbollah a chance to show its a powerful regional force, 3) What has happened on the internal stage has given Russia a purpose again and it continues to see itself a superpower, and 4) the influx of refugees already has repercussion on neighbouring states, including Turkey. What arming to the rebels? Well how will arms be controlled? Momani’s Syrian case was a clear example of the need to act early. Momani’s realistic view of the conflict was very much appreciated. She acknowledged that Assad has been able to convince the world that there is a danger in removing him considering the sectarian character of the conflict. If the regime falls, what happens the day after? While it doesn’t justify the continuous murder of people we also have to ask the question of the day after.

Everybody can and must contribute to prevention

Claudia Diaz and Allan Thompson’s sessions showed that we all have a role to play in prevention. Diaz focused on the role of international and regional organization. As a member of the UN Office on the Prevention of Genocide, she is fully aware of the shortcomings of the UN system and that decision-making is made at the Security Council. Yet it is the role of UN bodies and advisers, such as the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, to contribute to prevention by alerting relevant actors where there is a risk of genocide and crimes against humanity, and to mobilize for appropriate action. Of course advisers and offices are limited in their action considering that member states make the final decision – they can “only” make recommendations and complement the work of the UN system as a whole. However, if these bodies alert member states, members won’t be able to pretend they did not know.

Allan Thompson fervent portrayal of the role of the media (journalists in particular) was both captivating and moralizing. Thompson reported from Rwanda in 1996 during the mass exodus of Rwandan refugees from eastern Zaire (now DRC) and later wrote a series of article on Rwanda, including on Lt-Gen. Roméo Dallaire’s testimony at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Thompson spoke about the controversies about the role and the impact of the media, the responsibilities of journalists, and audiences’ reactions. After speaking about the significant role of domestic media in inciting genocide in Rwanda, Thompson gave an accurate critique of the lack of coverage and understanding of what was happening on the ground at the time, which he think contribute the contributed to the Rwanda genocide. He raised crucial question: can media coverage have an impact of foreign policy? How should these issues be covered? What is the impact of this coverage on individuals and the general public? And how does one proof this impact? These questions also remain relevant in the world of social media. Today traditional and social media are focused on Syria, but what about Sudan and Burma for example? Who is reporting from there? Journalists have a responsibility to ensure knowledge, he says, and they can do so by sharing a human experience because emotions are a form of knowledge.  His own experience gave a realistic view of the consequences that journalists have when they fail their task: the responsibility to report.

Technology: linking the global to the local

I have previously written about the use of new technologies for PreventionColette Mazzucelli and the two representatives of the SecDev Group both focus on the use of mobile phones, digital activism, crowdsourcing, cyber technology, satellite imagery and crisis mapping for prevention and early warning. I see them as experts on the application of these new technologies to early warning and humanitarian response. Prof. Mazzucelli has been involved in various projects, including geospatial analysis in Darfur and crisis mapping in Kenya and Libya with the Ushahidi (“testimony”) platform and the Standby Task Force, a form of digital activism. She showed that Ushahidi is now used in various situations (emergency situations, monitor elections, map incidents of violence, identify needs on the ground during a natural disaster) and accepts all kinds of report by email, text messages, Twitter, and phone apps. The aim? “Breaking the conspiracy of silence” and “closing the window of opportunity, in which governments may act with impunity.” Documented violence is of crucial importance for early warning and brining perpetrators to justice. I find that what is particularly crucial about her work is the focus on the role of education in developing strategies for prevention. As a professor, she wants to give young generations the necessary knowledge and tools to act on these issues, such how to collect up-to-date information and how to assess scope and scale of mass atrocities. As she emphasized “pedagogy is king. Technology can support human agency, but it’s up to humans to decide.”

Anwar Abas and Micah Clark of the SecDev Group, meanwhile, gave a concrete example of the strategic use of social media and other digital technologies by focusing on the Syrian conflict. The aim of the SecDev Group is to generate real-time analysis and evidence-based analysis to inform policymakers. As I have argued before, technology is provides clear evidence of human rights violations.

The SecDev Group and Mazzucelli are aware of the obstacles and limitations of new technologies, including of the so-called Big Data problem, the fact that only a faction of the huge amount of data collected is actually relevant. For example, if you are looking for videos of human rights violations committed in Syria on Youtube, you will find hundreds. But which ones are actually relevant and authentic? Similarly social media brings a risk of misreporting. Both presentations underlined the need to not only verify data but to understand to local context. This where collaboration between Tech experts, think tanks NGOS, and local communities becomes crucial because it links several kinds of knowledge and links the global to the local.

Dangerous speech – where are the limits of free speech ?

As demonstrated by Radio RTLM in the Rwanda genocide, dangerous inflammatory speech often precedes mass atrocities. This has now been recognized by courts but it remains difficult to identify the link between hate speech, incitement and genocide in a consistent manner. Dr. Susan Benesch is involved in a project that seeks to address this gap. Taking the example of Kenya, Benesch explained that she has been working United Nations’ Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (SAPG) to establish an analytical framework to identify, monitor and limit the effects of dangerous speech. The project monitors online space ands put emphasis on “smart monitoring” for prevention, that is a means to distinguish dangerous speech from other speech. Her framework is based on five variables: the speaker (degree of influence), the audience (grievances and fears), the speech act itself, the historical and social context, and the means of dissemination. Furthermore, Benesch is working on ways to limit the effect of dangerous speech and prevent violence: stopping the speech and limiting its dissemination, undermining the credibility of the speaker, and immunizing the audience against the speech. Using the last Kenyan elections as a case study, Benesch demonstrated the need to understand and study speech in order prevent violence.


Considering the demand of participants and speakers to remain in touch after the end of the three-day conference, I believe this first training program was a success and I hope it will be the first of many others. I think MIGS managed to create a small network of professionals and practitioners who seek to make the prevention of mass atrocities a reality. One even explicitly suggested the idea creating a network of support for prevention and R2P. By building support at home, we may be able to put pressure on our leaders to commit to prevention as well. As Dr. Frank Chalk explained,  “We must recognize that the key to mobilizing international support to prevent mass atrocities is to first garner domestic political support.” Step by step, these kinds of events organized by civil society groups will create a growing community of commitment. As Roméo Dallaire once said “Peux ce que veux. Allons-y” (“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Let’s go”).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s