L’histoire risque-t-elle de se répéter en Centrafrique?

Because sometimes I write in French.Here is an article of mine that appeared in the Huffington Post QC

 

En 2011, c’était la Libye. En janvier 2013, le Mali. Aujourd’hui c’est la Centrafrique. Pour la seconde fois en un peu plus d’un an le gouvernement Hollande a décidé d’intervenir dans un pays africain, où les violences entre les combattants de la Séléka et les miliciens anti-Balaka entre civils musulmans et chrétiens ont déjà fait des milliers de morts et de déplacés.

Du coup, les questions fustigent. Quel est le but de ces interventions? Que veut la France sur le continent africain? Y a-t-il une «doctrine Hollande»?

Certains taxent la France de néo-colonialisme, de vouloir revigorer la Françafrique malgré les promesses de Hollande que ce temps était révolu. « Le président français doit arrêter de nous pomper l’air », dénonce le quotidien burkinabé Le Pays. D’autres pensent que la France veut contrecarrer les avancées chinoises sur le continent. Finalement, il y a ceux qui suggèrent que Hollande utilise la politique étrangère pour redorer son blason alors que son taux de popularité est au plus bas dans une France en crise économique.

Vu la nature complexe et parfois très douteuse des relations Franco-Africaines, ces interrogations sont légitimes. Il serait naïf de penser que la France n’a pas d’intérêts économiques dans ces pays. Mais il faut aussi rappeler que les Centrafricains, comme les Maliens, il y a un an, font face à une violence inouïe. Avant l’intervention française, 450 personnes avaient été tuées en deux jours, le Président Michel Djotodia étant incapable de faire quoi que ce soit pour protéger son peuple.

Sur le plan diplomatique, on ne peut pas dire que l’Union africaine ait montré beaucoup d’efficacité. Sur le plan militaire, la Mission internationale de Soutien à la Centrafrique sous conduite africaine (MISCA) ne semblait pas en mesure de ramener la sécurité. Après avoir alerté l’ONU et l’Union européenne, seule la France a pris la décision de venir en aide aux forces africaines. Le premier ministre Jean-Marc Ayrault déclarait alors que la France prenait ses responsabilités internationales et que « l’inaction n’était pas une option. » Personne d’autre ne semblait prêt ou capable de prendre l’initiative.

Vu l’ampleur de la tâche et la gravité de la situation, la France et les forces africaines ne peuvent pas agir seules. Catherine Samba-Panza, la présidente intérimaire centrafricaine, est favorable à une intervention de l’ONU. Une action concertée et multilatérale avec les membres de l’Union africaine est donc essentielle. La semaine dernière l’Union européenne a finalement décidé d’envoyer des troupes – une décision qui a d’ailleurs enfin été validée par l’ONU.

Mais certains pays, comme le Canada par ailleurs, semblent croire qu’ils ne doivent pas s’intéresser à ces conflits. Ni le Canada ni les États-Unis ne sont implantés dans la région et la Centrafrique semble si éloignée. C’est une erreur. Quand le Mali ou Centrafrique s’embrasent, c’est toute la région qui est affectée. Ce que cherchent les djihadistes, c’est des territoires instables où s’installer, comme on l’a observé au Mali. La France l’a bien compris : ce n’est pas seulement la sécurité des populations locales qui est en jeux – la sienne aussi.

Faut-il rappeler au gouvernement Harper que le Canada a pris des engagements en adhérant à des normes internationales comme la Responsabilité de protéger. La doctrine n’est certes pas parfaite, mais il est question de protéger des civils et de prévenir une montée de la violence alors que les Nations Unies ainsi que les soldats rwandais sur place s’inquiètent déjà d’un possible génocide.

Si l’ambassadeur canadien pour la liberté de religion, M. Andrew Bennett, se déplace en Ukraine afin de montrer son indignation suite aux menaces contre la liberté religieuse de l’Église grecque catholique ukrainienne, pourquoi ne prend-il pas position sur la Centrafrique ? La communauté ukrainienne étant importante au Canada, il semble que le gouvernement ne pense qu’à l’appui électoral et évite donc de s’engager dans un conflit qui semble lointain. Mais, encore une fois, ne pas comprendre que dans un monde interconnecté, les conflits dans l’Afrique subsahélienne, tout comme dans le Sahel, peuvent éventuellement affecter les intérêts et la sécurité des Canadiens aussi.

Au début du mois, le sénateur Roméo Dallaire se trouvait devant les Nations Unies afin de rappeler à l’assemblée que 20 ans plus tôt, on lui avait tourné le dos tandis que des atrocités de masse se profilaient à l’horizon au Rwanda. Alors que nous entamons les commémorations du génocide rwandais, les atrocités qui se déroulent en ce moment en Centrafrique, les images des machettes et des corps, font resurgir de mauvais souvenirs. Il serait donc plus qu’opportun de montrer que nous savons apprendre de nos erreurs du passé.

 

Central African Republic and the French Intervention – No longer a Bystander

 A year ago, when then President François Bozizé appealed to the US and “French cousins” to help repel Seleka’s advances on Bangui both countries refused. Angry crowds attacked the French embassy and criticized France’s passivity, especially since the former colonial power has a military presence in the former colony since 2003. When French President François Hollande visited Central African Republic (CAR) in late December he made it clear that he would not mingle in internal affairs, insisting that these days were over. Hollande knows the dangers of renewing its ties with its colonial past.

A year later, the CAR is on the brink of collapse. UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, warned that the country is at risk of genocide if nothing is done. Similarly, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that the country is “on the verge of genocide”.

After ousting Bosizé, Seleka leader Michel Djotodia proclaimed himself President. In September, he dissolved Seleka and only integrated some of them into the army, leaving the others unattended to. Since then the country has plunged into chaos as undisciplined rebels commit widespread looting and abuses against those they consider as Bosizé supporters. The deep climate of insecurity has led to the creation of anti-balaka forces (self-defense groups) who have taken up arms against ex-Seleka fighters. The most worrying aspect of the crisis is the rise of sectarian violence between religious communities. Indeed, the majority of the Central Africans is Christian while Séleka fighters are predominantly Muslim, many of them from Chad and Sudan.

So who is going to act now?

In view the gravity of the situation, France has decided to send an additional 800 soldiers to help the 3,600-strong African Union force restore order. France’s decision led an Algerian journalist to state that it signifies a return of “Françafrique” since this new operation comes only ten months after the French intervention in Mali. The debate over France’s reason for intervening is always raised.

Why is France intervening after standing by in March 2013? The main reason cited by Paris is a humanitarian one. The situation is deteriorating badly and grave human rights violations are being committed, including rape and massacres. The self-defense groups are just as bad as Séléka and 460,000 people have already fled. Djotodia is unable to restore order and appears completely lost. For Hollande intervening has now become a question of responsibility. Whether there are real risks of genocide or not, Rwanda still haunts the French political class.

Beyond humanitarian reasons, there are of course security concerns and geo-strategic interests. This is not another Mali where soldiers are dealing with organized jihadists who have taken over a territory. What we are seeing in CAR is a complex social conflagration with, on one side, 15.000 to 20.000 violent Seleka rebels and on the other anti-balaka groups ready to commit massacres against the Muslim population. Nonetheless, there are real concerns that if nothing in done, jihadists who fled Mali and Libya may find refuge in CAR. There are also risks of spillovers and contagion into the two Sudans, the Congo and Chad, none of which are really stable.

Will the belated intervention bring stability to CAR? 1,200 French soldiers are unlikely to restore long-term stability, especially in a country bigger than France. However they will at least support the ill-equipped MISCA in an attempt to restore order. The French also hope that the UN will send additional peacekeepers as quickly as possible. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recommended 6,000 to 9,000 men.

But what CAR needs is a political solution and France made it clear that it is the role of Central Africans to settle these problems. Since its independence, CAR has never established a strong political structure or arena. Djotodia is clearly unable to deal with the situation. Just a couple of days ago, he denied assertions that the country is at risk of genocide and accused the international community of manipulating public opinion. “For me, there is nothing to show that we can even talk of what is going on as genocide. This is simply vengeance. A regime committed abuses, it is now gone. Its victims are taking revenge, that is all.” “That is all”? Graver still he criticized displaced Christians in the north: “He who wants to drown his dog, accuses it of having rabies, that’s all. Our situation is no less dramatic than that in other countries but it is portrayed as such. It is unfair.” The self-proclaimed President is either blind to the populations’ suffering or he is unwilling to prevent violence.

 As the International Crisis Group states, it’s “better late than never.” The current situation could have been prevented if regional and international organizations had acted early instead of being bystanders. Nobody moved a finger when Seleka staged a coup but the consequences should have been anticipated. The political situation will clearly not be settled through a military intervention but at least some seem to move beyond the bystander role.

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.

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 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.

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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”).

Not just for geeks: digital technologies and social media for the prevention of mass atrocities

For a few years now, several agencies and NGOs have been doing research on the potential and downsides of technology for human rights purposes. The question is: how can new digital technologies and new media be used for social change and mass atrocity prevention, including to monitor and prevent human rights violations. These technologies can both high-tech, such as satellite imagery and mapping, and low-tech, such as smartphones and social media. Research on the use of new technologies has really emerged in the past couple of years, in part thanks to specific situations, including the Arab Spring or the genocide in Sudan in 2003, also known as the “first genocide of the digital age.”

The Institute (MIGS) I work for is one of several centres that has decided to study how social media and digital technologies can be used to prevent genocide and mass atrocity crimes by creating a Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention Lab (@DMAP_Lab). Our aim is to look at various initiatives and new technologies that have already been used and at the potential of other technologies. Here are the main applications of technological advancements and innovations for mass atrocity and genocide prevention

– Gathering information and evidence using social media and cellphones to get information from communities at risk. New technologies such as satellite imagery have also proved effective.

– Manage and visualize information– Creating database where the large amount data is collected and then analyzed by teams of experts. Considering the complexity of the situation, being able to visualize patterns is essential.

– Direct prevention and intervention – The data cannot only be used as evidence of mass atrocities and genocide but can also be used to prevent atrocities by monitoring early warning signs of conflicts (monitoring hate speech on social media is particularly effective). Social media and cellphones can also be used to coordinate humanitarian interventions and to inform populations are risk of targeted abuses.

What follows are a set of case studies

  • Innovative Uses of Geospatial Technologies

As I said, the Darfur genocide in 2003-2004 is known as the first genocide of the digital age. Why? Twenty years ago, when the Rwanda genocide was taking place, several journalists on the ground were taking pictures. But printing and sending these pictures abroad took time. Imagine if not only journalists but also individuals like you and me had had smartphones and Twitter at the time? There would have been massive evidence of the killings. Would it have changed the decisions of the international community? We cannot say for sure but I think that the availability and accumulation of images may have pushed the general public to put pressure on their governments to act instead of being bystanders to genocide.

Fast forward to the Darfur genocide. In 2003, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the smaller Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) conducted an insurgency in Darfur. The Khartoum government responded by leading a brutal counter-insurgency campaign against the non-Arab tribes in Darfur. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died as a result of these deliberate and indiscriminate attacks while millions were forced to flee their destroyed villages. After much tiptoeing, the international community decided to act. On March 19, 2004, Mukesh Kapila, the outspoken UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, described attacks against civilians were ‘close to ethnic cleansing.’ Pressured to speak out in the face of clear human rights violations, the UN Security Council and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued statements. However, it took another three years the UN Security Council to mandate a full United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

In 2006 Amnesty International and the American Association for the Advancement of Science created Eyes on Darfur, a project that uses satellite technology and on-the-ground imagery to map and collect evidence of the atrocities. Funded by the Save Darfur Coalition, the project provided satellite imagery to document abuses and violence by showing before and after pictures of villages in Darfur. It was clear that people were being killed and driven out of the land. On the Internet, viewers could literally look at maps of destroyed villages, thereby raising public awareness and enabling action by private citizens and NGOs who could now put pressure on policy makers to act. Furthermore, high-resolution satellite imagery can be used by international courts. 

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Another major organization involved is the Satellite Sentinel Project, launched on December 2010, and which uses DigitalGlobe satellites passing over Sudan and South Sudan to capture imagery to detect: bombardment and attacks; village razings; early warning of attacks on civilians; and evidence of apparent mass graves and forced displacement. Their partners at the Enough Project then analyze the imagery in order to produce reports and put pressure on policymakers to act. SSP’s reports are available to everyone, from the general public to journalists, from policymaker to the International Criminal Court.

Satellite imagery and videos were also in Zimbabwe in 2005 to document forced evictions and demolitions under the government’s Operation Murambatsvina (“Restore Order”). Some 700,000 people were driven out of their land as the government destroyed farms, schools and other legal structures. Porta Farm, a settlement west of Harare, was completely destroyed and up to 20,000 residents were evicted. The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights brought the case to the African Court on Human and People’s Rights.

 The same geospatial technology was also used in Kyrgyzstan (2010), Lebanon (2006), Georgia (2008), and Pakistan (2005-2009) to allow viewers to visualize the extent of violence and human rights abuses committed in these regions.

 

  • Crisis mapping and crowd sourcing: Ushahidi, Crisis Mappers, and Standby Taskforce

In the aftermath of some of the violence and humanitarian crises, several organizations, largely volunteer based, started working on crisis mapping for humanitarian response. The objectives can vary: mapping and monitoring elections, mapping hate speech and human rights abuses, coordinating humanitarian responds and disaster preparedness. Organizations doing this kind of work include TechChange, Ushahidi, and the Standby Task Force (SBTF). Since their creation they have grown important organizations and communities helped by volunteers worldwide, including here at the Institute.

In 2013, TechChange teamed up with Ushahidi, a web based crisis mapping platform and tech company, to monitor the Kenyan elections. Developed in the wake of the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya, Ushahidi uses Crowdmapping to generate crisis maps. In 2013, the Uchaguzi project sought use crisis mapping technologies to promote transparency and accountability, free and fair elections, and thereby reduce risks of violence. How does it work? The system allows people to collect data from text messages, Twitter, and online reports, which are then geo-tagged. Once this vast array of information has been classified, monitors can then look for signs of hate speech, voter intimidation, poll fraud, or reports of violence.

In 2011, the Syria Tracker collaborated with entities such SBTF, Crisis Mappers and Ushahidi to map evidence of mass human rights abuses in Syria. The aim of this experimental project was to localize large military equipment, large crowds and checkpoints using high-resolution satellite imagery as well as reports. The idea of Syria Tracker is for experts to look at before and after pictures. Between March 18, 2011 and April 8, 2013 they managed to document 62,811 killings.

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  • Social Media: Monitoring and mapping hate speech

In 1998, MIGS started monitoring local government-owned and privately-owned news media (radio, television and newspaper) in at-risk countries to detect signs hate speech and risks of violence. Hate speech (based on ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender etc) is a widely recognized indicator of elevated risk of genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and serious war crimes. The project is based on our knowledge of the Rwanda genocide: before and during the genocide, state-owned newspapers and radio station Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines widely disseminated anti-Tutsi propaganda and incited violence against the “cockroaches” (Tutsi). Today, the destructive role of these Rwandan media has been widely acknowledged.

Social media have revolutionized how we directly communicate and share information. From the Arab spring we have learned that while they do not drive revolutions, social media can play key role during modern-day activism, including in terms of mobilization, coordination, empowerment and collection of evidence. With the rise and popularity of social media and digital communication, MIGS and other organizations started monitoring social media, including in Syria and during the Arab Spring, in order identify early warning signs of sectarian conflict or to monitor current conflict. These new media can be a great source of information and risk assessment if the data is contextualized and analyzed in the proper way. Recently, the Sentinel Project (and Mobiocracy) launched a new project called Hatebase, a database that sets out to be “the world’s largest online database of hate speech.” The project is of the project’s mandate to detect warning signs of ethnic violence in at-risk countries. The aim is to sight instances of hate speech (terms such as “cockroach”, for example) and to map their frequency, localization, migration and transformation. The project seeks to create “the world’s largest online database of hate speech.”

  • Limitations

Of course technology has its limitations. For example, satellite imagery is expensive and requires time and capacity. Real time human rights violations have never been captured by satellite, which limits our capacities to act in a timely manner. Social media are much less expensive and thanks to “as the “power of witness” and citizen journalism provide resourceful on-the-ground reports of abuses. However, it is always crucial to a) analyze source of Tweet or Facebook post and to question their reliability  (Youtube, for example, is full of hateful comment b) to have a deep knowledge of the context and the region, including of the linguistics when analyzing hate speech.

There are challenges in applying technology to complex societal problems such genocide. Each situation is different thus software and technology requires the right experts to analyze the data. Most importantly, the right human intent and the political will to act constitute the biggest part of the equation. Today, massive human rights abuses are still taking place in Sudan, Syria etc. Therefore, it is important to know that digital technology and social media are not a complete solution to mass atrocities. However, it is no longer possible for perpetrators to hide. The evidence is there and for everyone to see: as we become witness to mass atrocity crimes, the goal is now to mobilize leaders.   

However there is true potential in these new technologies. Open mapping technologies and social media analysis can complement to work of NGOS and government agencies. It is the combination of tools, warning factors and initiatives that will increase our potential to prevent or at least mitigate conflicts, mass atrocities and genocide.

President Obama’s Atrocity Prevention Board: one year later

In 2011, under Presidential Study Directive-10 (PSD–10), President Obama created the Atrocities Prevention Board. In his landmark speech, Mr. Obama recognized mass atrocity and genocide prevention as “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” Officially established in April 2012, the board was a major step in the improvement of the United States’ efforts to act “before the wood is stacked or the match is struck.” The creation of this board, particularly in the American context, constitutes a significant step towards the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide.

Last week, the White House published a factsheet summing up the purpose and record of the Board.  But while the creation of the Board must be saluted, one year later I have mixed feelings about the impact of the Board’s efforts as described here. The factsheet appears a little too self-congratulatory and fails to mention shortcoming 

  • The Board as an inter-agency Atrocities Prevention Board: too much bureaucracy?

What the factsheet reveals is that the Board, as an inter-agency body, has created a highly bureaucratic and technical framework responsible for improving our capacity to prevent mass atrocity crimes. Indeed, the body is composed of senior representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Justice (DOJ), Homeland Security (DHS), the Joint Staff, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Office of the Vice President and the National Security Staff. According to its mandate, the Board “coordinates the development of new policies and tools (…) to enhance the capacity of the United States to effectively prevent and respond to atrocities.” Thus within the board’s agencies, new doctrines and tools have been created in the past year.  

But while the Board is responsible for coordinating and prioritizing efforts, could the accumulation of agencies, research and tools, as well as the highly bureaucratic, technical and technocratic character of the Board make timely action and decision-making actually more complex? Although I highly welcome the creation of the board, this is my fear in the long run. This week, I attended a presentation at the Canadian Parliament given by Dr. Mukesh Kapila, the former Head of the UN in Sudan who was abandoned by his peers as the Darfur genocide unfolded. Speaking to parliamentarians and deputies, Dr. Kapila rightfully argued that institutions have lost their human side, and that we have therefore also lost our capacity to hold individuals accountable when they fail to act. Where are the individuals behind the institutions, he asks? This is my fear with the prevention board: that it could be another set of faceless agencies, a complex bureaucratic system that manages problems but does not solve them. As Dr. Kapila argues, institutions, such as the UN, have gotten coward and need to be served by people again.

  •  Policies and tools: from creation to political will to act 

Over the past year, the Board’s individual agencies have undertaken research and created a number of tools and policies responsible for improving the U.S.’ capacity to prevent mass atrocities. These elements include new analytical frameworks, “alert channels”, recommendations about data collections, and best practice handbooks. This is important. Governments, policymakers, military personnel and civil servants should be given the appropriate tools and knowledge to prevent mass atrocities. But when time comes, these tools must also be used. It is one thing to create a set of early warning systems, alert channels or to use new technologies but it is another thing to act once the risk assessment has been made. Management is the minimum requirement, leadership and political will to act are the real tools.

  • Case studies: the good and the bad

The White House factsheet refers to specific cases in which is Board’s has been involved in the past year, including Burma, Kenya, central Africa, and Syria. Some of the more successful initiative include US and UN efforts to address the problem of armed groups in Central Africa, in particular the LRA and the M23 that are perpetrating atrocities. The United States (USAID and the State Department for example) has indeed contributed to peacekeeping capabilities and civilian protection in various ways.

But the picture is less positive elsewhere. According to the fact sheet, “the U.S. Government is playing an important ongoing role in supporting efforts to address violence and protect vulnerable communities” in Burma. But what is actually being done? Two weeks ago, Human Rights Watch published a report clearly condemning ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in Burma: “The Burmese government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement.” Reports of human rights violations committed against this Muslim minority have actually been emerging for months. Not only has the Burmese government failed to address these violations but local authorities have also stood by while these crimes were being committed. They are complicit in the violence because they stand by while abuses are being committed. Furthermore, the Burmese government’s attitude towards of Rohingya and other minorities, some of them portrayed as stateless people and illegal migrants, has encouraged and rationalized exclusionary practices and abuses. While Burma has made several efforts in terms of democracy, the world has been quick to lift sanctions in order to develop economic ties with Burma, thereby leaving human rights considerations aside. The US along with the European Union only expressed worries or urged the government to act on human rights issues but nothing else has been done. Just last week, new reports of sectarian violence in western Myanmar emerged again. Why is the Board not acting on these issues when the evidence is clearly there?

The Board’s record in Kenya and Central Africa is more positive. This year’s elections in Kenya were peaceful partly thanks to international efforts in voter education and mitigation of potential election violence. However, the major problem remains is that the elected president Uhuru Kenyatta has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in post-election violence five years ago. One of the Board’s mandate is to combat impunity and promote accountability but Kenyatta’s election throws a shadow over the board’s attempt to deny “impunity to those who commit atrocities, at home.

Finally what about Syria? It remains our biggest failure this year. The international community remains in complete deadlock, mostly because we have been waiting for so long. The Board seeks to “share the global burden, by strengthening multilateral institutions (…)” and states that the “United States is working to build the capacity of the United Nations for atrocity prevention (…).” Yet in Syria the regime is killing hundreds of people every week, especially children. There is no miracle solution now only one that may be less damaging than another. Syria is what happens when “we fail to act preventatively before violence is at full blaze.”

I highly welcome the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board and encourage other countries to do the same.  But we must also guarantee the board a) is governed by people, not of faceless agencies that manage problems instead of solving them, and cannot be accountable b) puts emphasis on successes and shortcomings in order to learn lessons.