Ending Mass Atrocities is a Lengthy Project

Event Video

Panelists at an IPI policy forum on, “How Mass Atrocities End: What are the Lessons from the Past for Today?” agreed that putting an end to mass killing is the beginning of a larger undertaking of ending atrocities.

“Diminishing mass atrocities is quite a separate project than rebuilding in their aftermath,” Bridget Conley-Zilkic, Research Director, World Peace Foundation, said.

“How do we define ‘ending’?” Conley-Zilkic, who is also an Assistant Professor at Tufts University, asked. “A decline in killing is only one marker of the beginning of much longer project.”

Alex de Waal, Executive Director, World Peace Foundation, added that even “peace agreements very rarely mean a complete and decisive ending.”

The policies that have developed since the 1990s within the international community to respond to threats of mass atrocities—defined as widespread and systematic violence against civilians—were primarily crafted in response to the question: What can we do to help prevent, mediate, or halt mass violence?

The result of pressuring regimes to stop violence has been remarkably mixed, the authors of a new book that analyzes mass atrocity endings in Guatemala, Burundi, Indonesia, the Sudans, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Iraq found.

“Even the most robust policy response—international military force to protect civilians—does not produce a consistent outcome,” and the same holds for diplomatic and economic tools, Conley-Zilkic said.

“Atrocity endings are increasingly contingent, and post-1990s cases are governed by same logic—the perpetrator decides he can better pursue long-term interests other than by attacks on civilians,” she said.

Further to this finding, de Waal said, “Irrespective of the reason of onslaught on civilians,” in the cases considered, “it evolved in much the same way.”

This is why local and regional actors are the most important force in determining how and when violence can end, Conley-Zilkic emphasized, and have a better track record than international pressure in bringing about change.

A “perpetrator is guided by a strategic goal—almost never physical elimination of target group,” she said. It is “when they see their interests are better served by stopping violence,” that they consider alternatives.

Ben Majekodunmi, Senior Officer, Executive Office of the Secretary General, rounded out the panel by offering some insights on how this historical analysis relates to current work within the UN system.

Agreeing with his fellow panelists, he said, “Mass atrocities occur in a political space, and perpetrators are driven by political dynamics. If you change the political equation so that mass atrocities no longer equals success, the perpetrator will change how they act.”

Noel Twagiramungu, a Professor at the University of Massachusetts—Lowell, brought up the case of Burundi, and said the country is “now in danger, [and] at a crossroads, caught between two competing forces—the ruling elite seeking to hold power by all means, and the counter elite, trying to break it at all costs.”

Twagiramungu, also an associate of the World Peace Foundation, said the crisis, entering its 12th month, raises an important question—“To what extent, and under which conditions, [should] mechanisms to break the cycle of genocidal violence be reactivated to help reverse the current trends towards massive violence?”

Adam Lupel, IPI Vice President, who moderated the discussion, concluded, “It is easy to be rhetorically in favor of prevention or of stopping mass atrocities, but it is much harder to articulate concrete policies that work.”

The May 17, 2016 event was co-hosted by the World Peace Foundation.