Turning the Hope for “Never Again” into Reality


By Laurel Stone

This month, the world remembers the 19th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Despite the presence of a UN peacekeeping force, extremist Hutu groups vying for control of the country used the shooting down of a plane, which killed the presidents of both Burundi and Rwanda, as a trigger for enacting their plans of targeting the Tutsi ethnic group. Within one hundred days, these extremist Hutu militants killed over 800,000 people in their quest for political and ethnic domination.

The lack of action by the international community revealed a major flaw within the UN’s ability to act in a timely manner, leading to increased calls for the creation of early warning systems that could identify and prevent the potential for genocide to occur. Despite this realization during the 1990s, the international community is only now beginning to create policy procedures for early warning tools. If the UN is to follow through on its promise to “never again” standby as genocide unfolds, these early warning systems need to be further implemented and developed across multiple levels of global governance.

The Kenyan electoral violence in 2007 provided another instance portraying the UN’s inability to properly assess rising escalations and act in time to prevent rampant violence from occurring. These elections fragmented the peaceful society along ethnic lines, dividing neighbor against neighbor in the violent struggles encouraged by losing candidates. As international media covered the unrest, reports of mass atrocities signaled the need for international action. But the UN did not have a system in place to quickly assess the situation and deploy the necessary means to contain the violence.

After the electoral violence was mediated by creating a power-sharing government between the fighting candidates, the UN realized its need to specifically focus on developing policies to prevent genocide. In response to this acknowledgement, the UN created the Office of the Special Advisor to the Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG). This office created an Analysis Framework to identify the indicators of the incitement to genocide by assessing the triggers leading to mass atrocities. In addition to providing analyses of current threats, this framework offers a platform for multiple actors to adopt their own prevention policies. Agencies like UN Women specifically have utilized the OSAPG’s Analysis Framework by adding their own gender-specific indicators to use in their country programs. The mainstreaming of this framework across the UN system will greatly aid this organization in developing the early warning tools necessary to mitigate the circumstances leading to genocide.

Yet, this Analysis Framework is not the panacea for the UN’s history of inaction. The framework provides the first step to systematically identifying common triggers of mass atrocities; however, the actual implementation of this analysis is the hardest part of the prevention policy. The UN needs to continue mainstreaming this framework not only across its agencies, but also in its field operations. This requires extensive training at all levels of the UN system. While the OSAPG office has initiated this process, the UN must consistently work to fully adopt this Analysis Framework and the ideal of preventing atrocities in each level of governance.

The UN is not the only organization to address the need for adopting early warning systems. Regional organizations, like the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), also created frameworks and policy mechanisms for analyzing data indicating the likelihood of genocide occurring in ongoing conflicts. The European Union (EU) and a regional grouping of Latin American states are currently in the early stages of discussing the potential avenues for including the adoption of these early warning frameworks. Countries like the United States and Argentina are also beginning to discuss how their respective governments can implement early warning tools into national security strategies. The creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board by the US last year signaled an emerging shift in the national priorities of states to consider the need for early warning tools in domestic policies in addition to international agendas.

However, these regional and state strategies for addressing early warning capabilities are only in their infancy. These developments reflect the same implementation problem that the UN faces. Finding systematic ways to collect and analyze data can be challenging as triggers of mass atrocities can vary across instances. Furthermore, implementing a plan of action after a confirmation of impending mass atrocities is even more challenging because it requires having the ability to act in a timely manner. While these challenges, faced by both the UN and regional organizations, demonstrate the obstacles in creating effective early warning systems, another international actor has the potential to fill in the gaps left by larger organizations.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide a potential avenue for streamlining data collection in a way that uses a visualization of threats to identify the level of risk. These visualizations of threats can be generated through a tool called crisis mapping. Civilians, aid workers, and local officials can send information about events on the ground through SMS messaging, emails, Facebook, and Twitter to websites who plot the location of the incident and the level of risk on a map. A NGO called Ushahidi actually developed a crisis mapping platform in response to Kenya’s 2007 electoral violence. Since their initial recordings of the atrocities occurring in Kenya, Ushahidi has extended its platform to cover electoral processes and escalations in violent conflicts around the world. The technological innovations allowing for these crisis mapping platforms to accurately portray escalating violence provides a vital tool for early warning systems.

Crisis mapping offers NGOs an opportunity to utilize their strengths in atrocities prevention plans by providing vital information for larger organizations. However, a key weakness again lies in the capabilities of these grassroots organizations to act upon the data collected. In order to move toward an international system that properly identifies the risk of genocide and implements preventive action, each of these international actors must create a common strategy that provides a policy of atrocities prevention.

By developing a common strategy for the creation of early warning systems, international actors can take the broad mandate of atrocities prevention and instead target the factors that are most likely to incite mass violence. Two potential avenues for a common strategy have already begun to aid the UN, states, and NGOs in their prevention attempts. The first specifically targets the enablers of genocide, those that provide the required resources to continue the violence. By exposing these third-party enablers and inhibiting their ability to aid perpetrators through enforcement mechanisms like sanctions, one crucial trigger of mass atrocities can be commonly targeted by international actors.

Another common strategy for international actors to use is the containment of hate speech. Hate speech is a common incitement for ethnic violence because leaders often use it to instill fear regarding the other ethnic group and then encourage ethnic-targeted violence. The presidential elections in Kenya last month raised the fear that hate speech could again be used to encourage ethnic targeting. Through the utilization of the crisis mapping initiative, Uchaguzi aided international workers to note the use of hate speech in the country during the elections so local officials could mediate any escalating ethnic tensions. Another group called La Benevolencija seeks to target hate speech through a media campaign that combats ethnic myths in Rwanda, Burundi, and the DRC. These efforts to contain hate speech can provide a more narrow strategy for atrocities prevention efforts by honing in on a threatening catalyst to genocide.

Kenya’s presidential elections last month were hailed as a successful mitigation of potential mass atrocities. As citizens tensely awaited the electoral results, the UN, NGOs, and local leaders reminded Kenyans that violence is not the answer. By limiting the capabilities to incite violence through monitoring hate speech and targeting the crimes of the past enablers of electoral violence, Kenya experienced a much smoother transition than the elections that fragmented the country five years ago. While we can look at this one instance of success, atrocities are still occurring in multiple locations around the world.

If the international community truly wants to keep genocide from occurring again, then each level of global governance must find a common strategy that can implement atrocities prevention goals. As the UN, regional organizations, states, and NGOs remember the 19th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, acting upon this need for better early warning systems could take the hope of “never again” and turn it into a reality.


Laurel is a Senior Editor (and incoming Deputy-Editor-in-Chief) for the Journal and a first year master’s candidate at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations.  She specializes in Conflict Management and International Security.


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