the four dilemmas of a mass atrocity

Two decades since the simultaneous crises of Rwanda and Bosnia redefined public and scholarly concern for mass atrocities, the mass atrocity research agenda remains surprisingly straightforward. Compare the mass atrocity agenda, for example, to its closest corollary in comparative politics: studies of violent conflict proliferated in the Cold War’s aftermath, often in fractal form. In probing the onset, duration, and termination of large-scale violence, conflict scholars split categorical hairs over civil war, insurgency, criminal networks, and other, similar events. The mass atrocity agenda is relatively consolidated: definitions of a “mass atrocity event” only vary along numerical lines, ongoing debates over the use of the term “genocide” notwithstanding. The reasons for the agenda’s convergence are probably as much structural as they are empirical: the U.S. government-funded Political Instability Task Force (PITF) until recently drove much quantitative research on mass atrocities, and qualitative research must rely on a small population of observable case studies. In its current form, the agenda now coalesces around four dilemmas: why mass atrocities start; why they continue; how they end; and, what various actors–internal and external, local and international–can do about it. Each dilemma shares the common purpose of observing a mass atrocity: how to stop the next one from occurring.

This essay attempts a comprehensive and critical survey, which to my knowledge does not yet exist, of the nascent field of mass atrocity research. Alex de Waal et al.’s essay “How Mass Atrocities End,” published in January 2012, is probably the closest public approximation of such a document; the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation’s Deconstructing Prevention conference, held in New York in February 2013, is similarly insightful. The complementary practices of prevention and response, however, are small if significant subsets of a mass atrocity’s multiple dilemmas. Though a total understanding is of course impossible, better representation is both possible and necessary. This requires a thorough reckoning with the contemporary agenda’s findings and shortcomings.

This essay is organized into two sections. After defining the scope of analysis, the first section delineates the four fundamental dilemmas of a mass atrocity, mentioned above. I approach these dilemmas with a critical lens: as a mass atrocity researcher, I find some components of the research agenda (e.g., drivers of escalation) more compelling than others (e.g., the search for “root causes”). To assess these dilemmas, I use the explanatory metaphor of a “mass atrocity ecosystem,” which recently has gained currency among conflict researchers. This metaphor simplifies the complex narrative of a mass atrocity’s basic dimensions, as well as the opportunities and consequences of internal and external response. Following this section, I conclude by surveying opportunities for continued improvement.

Before I begin, a couple of scope notes. Mass atrocities are an interdisciplinary subject of study, and merit systematic inquiry from plural perspectives. History, anthropology, sociology, psychology, literary analysis, philosophy, legal studies, gender studies, and their respective subfields each lend relevant findings to our collective understanding of mass atrocity. Indeed, while I primarily concern myself with political explanations of a mass atrocity–how political institutions, communities, and societies enable, restrict, perpetuate, respond to, and prevent mass atrocities–I must accept multiple threads of interpretation. I cannot understand the domestic role of international judicial institutions, for example, without the legal principle of complementarity, nor the contested impact of ethnicity on a perpetrator’s political psychology without the anthropological concepts of myth and memory. Even so, political behavior is my general unit of observation. As I discuss below, I understand the total act of mass atrocity as a political one, motivated by political ends, achieved through political means. A soldier may murder to achieve access to a commercial mine, but the context in which the soldier murders, and the institutions that punish the soldier (or, as is frequently and unfortunately the case during a mass atrocity, do not) are political.

In my experience, literature reviews generally emphasize peer-reviewed studies, rather than more diverse types of empirical and theoretical research. This essay takes a broader approach, both because the body of peer-reviewed scholarship–like the community of scholars–is small, and because NGO reports, policy briefs, practitioner conferences, and even blog posts probably hold greater sway over the public discourse about mass atrocities than do academic journals. Where this looser criteria may impact the rigor of this essay’s findings, I hope to compensate with a more comprehensive portrayal of the field’s plural agendas. In that vein, it is worth noting that this essay is not an annotated bibliography of all mass atrocity-related works, but rather a critical analysis of how mass atrocities are written about, and why it matters. My conclusions draw on both my familiarity with an empirical population of mass atrocity cases, and a close reading of published texts. These conclusions are themselves open to criticism, which is always the mark of a successful, robust field of research and practice.

How mass atrocities start

The research agenda’s first dilemma, how mass atrocities start, differentiates “mass atrocity” from tangential categories of violence. What makes something “mass,” as opposed to just an atrocity; what makes something “atrocious,” as opposed to just condemnable; what makes something a “mass atrocity,” as opposed to just political violence–these three distinctions shape the existence of a mass atrocity event, as well as our knowledge of its occurrence. This section addresses these in turn, and concludes with a critique of the field’s common assumptions.

“Mass” primarily conveys a numerical standard: “x”–a quantity usually ranging between 500 and 1,000–number of people died, or were raped, and the event is therefore a “mass atrocity.” For quantitative researchers, who use bounded criteria to create event datasets, this is a useful tool of observation. For everyone else, the numerical criterion simply raises more problems, some worthwhile (e.g., the observational utility of a single human death) and some less worthwhile (e.g., whether 999 civilian deaths, rather than 1,000, still “counts”). Regardless of the specific quantity, numbers–and, more relevantly, large numbers–are a common definitional thread.

If this seems obvious, it is: a “mass” event must be numerically massive. Additional qualitative and quantitative measurements may complement this numerical focus. After numbers, time is probably the second most common characteristic of a “mass” event. As Tibi Galis and Sheri Rosenberg observe, the timespan of “mass” relates, often inversely, to its numerical meaning. When researchers describe Hutu Power’s assault against Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians, it is common to say, “during the Rwandan genocide, nearly one million people died in one hundred days.” A mass atrocity’s speed is disproportionate; the Harvard Kennedy School’s Mass Atrocity Response Operations (MARO) report describes the event’s “escalation dynamic,” the inverse confluence of time and death, as ubiquitous. We expect life–and, to a degree, death–to be a long, protracted affair; when it is not, especially on a broad scale, our disgust generates distinctions. Thus, “mass.”

Though numbers and time ground a common understanding of “mass,” other, more difficult measurements exist. As anthropologies of mass violence demonstrate, a mass atrocity is a total event, in that violence touches all facets of human society–physical structures collapse, social institutions of trust and welfare erode, accepted norms mutate. The event’s scale effects are best described as transformative, rather than destructive: multiple survivor literatures suggest that new institutions emerge to replace their fragmented predecessors, both during and after the event. These social transformations are truly “massive,” exceeding the impact of lesser forms of violence. Unfortunately, their scale does not make them easier to measure; a mass atrocity’s outcomes are obscured by the conflict’s fog, which lifts with time.

Quantity-, time-, and impact-bounded criteria are victim-centric measures: they evaluate a mass atrocity’s impact on conflict-affected communities. The current agenda’s victim-centrism is both justifiable and preferable, as it establishes moral humanism as a common baseline. As Raul Hilberg’s research indicates, however, it is possible to maintain this baseline while broadening the agency of both perpetrators and (imperfectly-named) bystanders. Perpetrator-centric criteria, present in post-Eichmann debates over banality and bureaucracy during the Holocaust, would identify variations in the size, scale, and mobilization of perpetrator organizations: Hutu Power’s paramilitaries is organizationally distinct from Syria’s shabbiha militas, in terms of incentives marshalled and resources mobilized.

If multiple descriptions define an event’s “mass,” the defining factors of an “atrocity” are relatively straightforward. To construct a comparative definition of “atrocity,” it is useful to turn to the current state of genocide research, the mass atrocity field’s most direct antecedent. To paraphrase the UN’s relevant convention, genocide research includes all efforts to explain the eradication, in whole or in part, of cultural, religious, national, ethnic, social, and economic communities throughout history. This field, as Alex Zucker writes, is multidisciplinary: it approaches the act of genocide from a comprehensive base of empirical knowledge. Genocide studies expand public understanding of the total impact of mass violence, highlighting the myriad parallels between popular cases, such as the Rwandan genocide, and marginalized ones, such as the persecution of indigenous communities. Its framing focus on intent, however, masks the specific question of why people die in large numbers during episodes of mass violence. Depending on the timeframe of analysis, genocide may be everywhere. Specific strains of Islamophobia in the United States, such as the unfortunately popular writings of Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, could conceivably be described as “genocidal,” in that they advocate the general eradication of Islamic civilization. Few describe these writings as such, lest they rightly be accused of hyperbole. Put crudely, the substantive difference between Geller and Spencer’s writings, and incendiary, ethnically-charged speech in Côte d’Ivoire, for example, is the likelihood of mass death.

“Tonight, the night of the Holocaust, we experience our greatest suffering,” narrated Israel Spira, the Grand Rabbi of Bluzhov, during a Passover seder in Bergen Belsen, a German concentration camp. “We have reached the depths of the abyss, the nadir of humiliation.” If there is a moral and material hierarchy of human suffering, as both secular and religious philosophy attest, death surely sits atop. It follows that mass death, the rabbi’s “greatest suffering,” is the worst possible outcome of human political behavior. Indirect, humanitarian outcomes are important, but mass atrocity research focuses squarely on the act and occurrence of killing. An expanding moral concern for the specific agency of mass atrocity’s female victims and survivors recently has placed sexual violence, and especially rape, on par with the field’s death-centric criteria. This also makes empirical sense, as field studies suggest that mass rape, a perpetrator’s “weapon of war,” mirrors key components of mass killing’s strategic logic. While researchers describe torture and forced displacement within a general ecosystem of mass violence, these abuses fall short of a mass atrocity’s specific philosophical and empirical criteria.

“Mass atrocity,” as a particular form of political violence, is again more difficult to identify. Beyond the above criteria for “mass” and “atrocity,” “mass atrocity” creates two categorical dilemmas. Researchers interpret a mass atrocity’s origin point in different ways, likely as a result of the field’s interdisciplinary nature. In general, these interpretations mirror the distinction, popular among peacebuilding researchers, between “positive peace,” the collective prerequisites for a stable, equitable society, and “negative peace,” the literal absence of violence. Researchers in popular discourse describe the former, a structural perspective, in reference to a mass atrocity’s “root causes.” Root causes precede the onset of violence, and refer to the systemic fissures that may motivate various groups–state, non-state, and somewhere in between–to take up arms against civilian communities: political corruption, youth unemployment, inequitable access to public goods, and the like. Addressing root causes, the logic proceeds, preempts the structural enablers of violent conflict and, consequently, mass atrocities.

In a world of false dichotomies, I would prefer that mass atrocity researchers think about root causes, rather than ignore them. The causality of root causes, however, is fuzzy, and relies on an imprecise timeframe. While structural factors remain intact across time, microcosmic variations may alter their causal impact on the probability of mass atrocity. A five-year trend in youth unemployment, which probably influences the emergence of general social upheaval, shapes the likelihood of mass atrocity onset differently than a thirty-year unemployment trend. That civil conflict precedes mass atrocity is nearly an empirical truism, well-represented in a diverse body of popular and scholarly research. With that said, anomalous cases stand out, and the root causes framework does little to explain why, for an incomplete subset of violent conflicts, a mass atrocity does not occur. These anomalies, as central variables in the dilemma of a mass atrocity’s beginnings, may be as theoretically and empirically revealing as their common counterparts. Our knowledge of these origins is–and will remain–incomplete, and a more proximate analysis may prove more fruitful for researchers.

Unfortunately, the counterpart to positive peace is similarly unhelpful. A reductive version of negative peace describes mass atrocity as a linear event: there is a steady, unwavering progression from the absence of violence (“peace”) towards a mass atrocity’s occurrence (“not-peace”). In reality, mass atrocity is more accurately described as exponential: when a mass atrocity begins, its scale effects spiral upwards, generating progressively greater and recurring suffering. As this develops, the event’s origin points are often only accessible in hindsight. Popular memorials describe April 7 as the first day of the Rwandan genocide, although its political context probably resembled the Rwandan Civil War, between 1990 and 1994, more than researchers allow. A qualitative survey of historical mass atrocities demonstrates the variable development of mass atrocity participants throughout time: local violence scales, as do internal networks. This is not a new phenomenon–in a world-historical sense, patterns of violent conflict are no more complex in 2013 than they were in 1945. In applying common categories of historical analysis, a mass atrocity researcher might find, for example, greater similarity between the contextual role of Nazi Germany’s Einsatzgruppen–roving killing squads, deployed as a mechanism of paramilitary control across the Third Reich’s eastern front–and the Serb-nationalist perpetrators at Srebrenica, during Bosnia’s post-Cold War conflict.

We arrive, then, at an understanding of “mass atrocity” as a “meta-event,” defined as much by our observational categories as by its actual occurrence. As I discuss above, mass atrocity scales from a microcosmic factor–the local, the individual, the communal–to the macrocosmic event, which shapes popular interpretations of a mass atrocity’s trajectory. The long-standing reference point for mass atrocity research, though this has changed in recent years, is the aggregate: “Kenya’s post-electoral violence” or the “Guatemalan genocide,” rather than an intersecting collection of violent incidents. A mass atrocity’s aggregate interpretation distinguishes Rwanda’s conflict from Mexico’s civil conflict, which over the past six years killed tens of thousands of civilians: as I discuss elsewhere, we do not perceive Mexico’s widespread massacres as cohesive events–in fact, many are not–and they therefore remain “cartel violence,” rather than a mass atrocity. It must be said that to describe a “mass atrocity” as a “meta-event” is not to dismiss the extent of human suffering, but rather to suggest that our categories often shape our understanding of how mass atrocities start.

Why mass atrocities continue

Frustrated with the restrictive categories of “traditional” conflict analysis, scholars of various types of violence–insurgency, civil conflict, criminality–recently have adopted the “conflict ecosystem” as an explanatory metaphor for the inherent dynamism of large-scale violence. Patrick Meier’s information economy of conflict early warning most closely resembles this ecosystem’s applications. Using this ecological metaphor, Meier demonstrates the networked quality of information exchange during conflict, which determines a simple Venn-diagram of technological transfers and risk indicators. If we extend Meier’s metaphor, we can grapple with a mass atrocity’s conceptual lifecycle, comparable to the biological ecosystem’s role in an organism’s development. In ecological terms, two key characteristics sustain a mass atrocity ecosystem: its organization, or the internal structure of violence, and its environment, or the external structures that constrict and enable an organization’s development. This section describes the organizational and environmental elements of a mass atrocity ecosystem, and describes how an ecological interpretation of mass atrocities may explain their persistence.

Despite the lack of perpetrator-centric criteria for assessing the onset of mass atrocity, mass atrocity researchers have thoroughly studied the micro-processes that cause organizations to continue violence. In most studies, mass atrocities appear as a variable symptom of organizational weakness. This weakness–that is, a lack of control–emerges from within the perpetrating organization, as well as from the relationship between the perpetrators and its domestic targets. Per Benjamin Valentino, a mass atrocity is a last resort, with few exceptions. Even the historiography of the Holocaust, which despite its moral and historical significance mass atrocity researchers infrequently assess, bridges a fundamental “intention/function” divide: as Timothy Snyder describes, current historical consensus, insofar as it exists, acknowledges the “Final Solution” as a gradual event, rather than a static, ever-present consequence of Nazi rule. In Clausewitzian terms, a mass atrocity is an extreme means, dangling at one end of an extreme politics. Perpetrating organizations have varied strategic goals, and, according to Valentino, most mass atrocities occur when perpetrators are otherwise unable to achieve them. A historical lens may illuminate the steady progression from acts of political repression to a fully-fledged mass atrocity, but hindsight obscures. If small-scale repression sustains a political regime, the infrastructure of authority probably will opt against mass killing, which is fiscally costly and institutionally destructive. Of course, this behavioral explanation rests on two disputed assumptions: that regime members participate in collective, but non-unitary decisionmaking; and, that these plural decisions occur in a rational system that pools the perceived interests of various actors. If we accept these assumptions, whether the state’s resources are sufficient, and how the state mobilizes them–that is, the organization of state-sponsored politics–will inform its violent character.

States are of course not the sole mass atrocity perpetrators, as evinced by recent waves of inter-communal violence in South Sudan’s Jonglei State, among other crises. As Jeremy Weinstein indicates, Charles Tilly’s commentary on state-building extends to non-state contexts: a rebellion also depends on the mobilization of organizational resources, and of violence, in particular. An organization’s internal politics of control govern who uses violence, how frequently, and towards whom. Where these criteria vary between state bureaucracies and non-state organizations, the distinction is likely a matter of scale, rather than substance.

Though violence represents a different means–and achieves different goals–for distinct members of the organizational ecosystem, the fundamental parity between state and non-state organization remains. Mass atrocity during Valentino’s state-sponsored violence compensates for the weakness of less-extreme politics; in non-state organizations, its purpose is similar. Weinstein’s insurgency study clarifies Valentino’s “strategic logic”: indiscipline is widespread within perpetrating organizations, whatever the organization’s intended outcome. Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann study was nearly correct: perpetrators are banal creatures, and the infrastructure of violence drives their banality. Contra Arendt, however, the organization’s banality follows from the accidental autonomy of its components, and not the consolidated decisions of the political bureaucracy.

In a biological ecosystem, an external environment may shape an organism’s lifecycle–if the human body catches a common cold, exposure to extreme weather, or to an external virus, may impact both the body’s ability to combat the virus and the resilience of the virus to medical treatment. Just as a human uses external resources–medicine–to sustain itself, so too do violent organizations rely on the continuous supply of various goods from external environments. These goods are probably best understood in reference to the organization that uses them, in keeping with the resource-distribution discussion above. Direct goods are usually tangible and material, and an organization that lacks them will become immediately less effective in perpetrating mass atrocities: revenue streams, both licit and illicit, arms and ammunition, food rations, and transport mechanisms are the direct lifeblood of a mass atrocity ecosystem. Indirect goods are usually less tangible, and an organization that lacks them will become gradually less effective in perpetrating mass atrocities: social cohesion, ethnic unity, and political ideology are the indirect facilitators of a mass atrocity ecosystem. As Stathis Kalyvas finds, ideology often follows substance; that is, the existence and distribution of direct goods may determine who uses which indirect goods, and how. This game-theoretic progression, however, is imperfect. A Hutu soldier may become Tutsi to achieve short-term gains–more cash, more drugs, more authority–but the soldier also may not, perceiving an eventual risk of political retribution or, more likely, death. As in any ecosystem, the relationship between the use of direct goods and of indirect goods is bidirectional, complex, and dynamic, as it evolves within the organization’s lifecycle, throughout environmental space, and throughout time.

Who provides direct and indirect goods to perpetrating organizations–that is, the environmental drivers of the mass atrocity ecosystem–is a subject of increasing concern for mass atrocity researchers, both in understanding why mass atrocities continue and, as I discuss below, how they end. Cedric de Coning describes local peacebuilding processes as “self-organizing,” riffing on the complex composition of political societies. De Coning’s model approximates an extension of peacebuilding’s Hippocratic norm: “first, do no harm,” of which “external peacebuilders” have done plenty. Anthony diRosa, a mass atrocity researcher, adapts de Coning’s complexity theory, which condemns Western, neoliberal peacebuilding as an exercise in ideal-types. As the unintended consequences of external interventions, and particularly of the use of military force, have become more apparent, both moral and strategic interpretations of political self-organization have become popular: strengthen the foundations of organizational resilience, and the environmental factors will sort themselves out.

Whatever its normative benefits, the isolation of self-organization processes appears its own exercise in ideal-types. An external environment, which variably sustains and constricts a mass atrocity, is a mass atrocity’s ubiquitous mainstay. This is not merely a recent consequence of 21st-century globalization, although the expansion of licit and illicit networks probably shapes the environmental scale of the mass atrocity ecosystem. Researchers and advocates emphasize the corrosive impact of “third-party enablers,” which range from parastatal arms dealers, such as the Russian Rosoboronexport’s shipments to Assad-aligned military forces in Syria, to state-sponsored insurgencies, such as the Sierra Leone’s Muammar al-Qaddafi-trained Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Call it the Love Actually Theory of Mass Atrocity Ecosystems: intervention is all around, and not just among the do-gooders. That is, self-organization may be a useful theory of structural analysis, but it is empirically rare. De Coning’s complexity cuts both ways: if external actors cannot totally restructure the organization of mass violence, neither perpetrating organizations nor atrocity-affected societies can totally withstand its external environment. This is not an assessment of the capacity or will of local organizations, which as James Scott frequently demonstrates may be surprisingly adaptable; rather, organization/environment interdependence is an inherent characteristic of the technological and institutional ecosystem of mass atrocities.

While we are on the topic of ecosystems, a brief interjection. As the consequences of global climate change mount, various researchers have probed a causal link between climate stressors and myriad dismal futures, including heightened risks of violent conflict and, separately, mass atrocity. Snyder describes this as the “Bloodlands thesis,” after his transnational history of World War II-era mass killing in Eastern Europe. The resource burdens of global climate change may precipitate a wave of mass killing, akin to Nazi Germany’s designs in Soviet Ukraine, the “breadbasket” of a panic-stricken continent. Despite the accepted non-correlation between climate change and conflict onset, it may be useful to narrow the scope of inquiry, and to imagine scenarios in which natural stressors may facilitate the onset of a mass atrocity, rather than general conflict. In the context of an organization/environment relationship, climate change may impact the mobilization of both direct and indirect goods within a perpetrating organization. Food shortages, brought on by disrupted agricultural cycles, might prompt organizational permissiveness towards looting, an enabling context for mass rape; on the indirect end, new migratory patterns might reshape communal identities and the political institutions that inform them. In each scenario, however, climate change is a distant stressor. Substantial threats to human and natural environments are worth monitoring for their own sake, but practitioners should expect few atrocity-related benefits from efforts to mitigate climate change.

How mass atrocities end

The end of a mass atrocity appears deceptively straightforward. To continue with the ecosystem metaphor, it logically follows that the point of ecological collapse, where the external environment ceases to enable the perpetrating organization, and where the perpetrating organization can no longer sustain its internal integrity, is the mass atrocity’s end-state. The popular imagination fixates on the event’s inevitable discontinuity: if a mass atrocity must begin, it must also end. Empirically, a mass atrocity’s end-state is never so simple; this section complicates the field’s contemporary understanding of the event’s conclusions. This section’s divisions are naturally the inverse of our initial dilemmas: what makes an end-state “over,” as opposed to less massive; and, what makes an end-state morally acceptable, as opposed to less atrocious. As above, this section addresses these in turn, and critically considers what (and how) we know about how mass atrocities end.

As I reference above, de Waal et al. cite the first Obama administration’s divergent interpretations of Sudan’s Darfur conflict as an example of a mass atrocity’s contested end-states. According to Lancet researchers, Darfur’s death-count dipped substantially after the imperfect Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006; as Eric Reeves unwaveringly observes, various violent organizations continue to kill Darfuri civilians in large, if indefinite numbers. Fewer people die now than at the peak of Darfur’s violence; what is not clear is how these numbers compare to prior trends in the mass atrocity event. If deaths occur on a large scale, but on a smaller scale than before, can researchers accurately and responsibly describe Darfur’s mass atrocity as “over”? If yes, what then does Darfur’s current violence become? Beyond de Waal et al.’s numerical trajectory of Sudan’s violence, a perpetrator-centric criterion is again relevant. Mass atrocity researchers during the conflict’s peak years described Darfur’s perpetrators in general terms: “state-sponsored janjaweed militia,” “members of the Sudanese Armed Forces.” International press reporting and NGO researchers tracked schisms in both government-aligned and rebel insurgencies, but these reports rarely shifted popular understanding of the conflict’s evolution. Evaluating Darfur’s stubborn intractability became an exercise in impressionism: if Khartoum’s tactics–that is, individual acts of killing–resembled past events, which were known to comprise a mass atrocity, then the conflict’s new iterations were as well. The shifting alliances of Darfuri Arab militias, as reported throughout the past four years by the Small Arms Survey, were immaterial, so long as general civilian suffering continued.

This outlook is morally sound–if death sits alone among the vast possibilities of human suffering, mass death in all its forms must be condemnable. Its sentiment, however, oversimplifies the ecology of a mass atrocity’s end-state. If a mass atrocity follows specific decisions by components of a specific organization, it stands to reason that, when those components shift in relation to both their internal counterparts and their external environment, the ecological dimension of the mass atrocity will also change. The contours of the Sudanese regime’s abuses in Darfur are constant, but the regime’s strategic posture–and, therefore, the organization of violence–morphed in the aftermath of South Sudan’s independence. Organizational change may result in a definite end-state, or it may not–see, for example, the embattled transition between Liberia’s “first” and “second” civil wars. It is also possible that strategic variations, such as leadership-level schisms in perpetrator organizations, may prompt an escalation of the mass atrocity, rather than its demise; new leaders may be less concerned with unit discipline, or may perceive mass violence as a more effective strategy. These variations, however, are scarcely captured by the collective concern for the discontinuities of a mass atrocity’s meta-event, referenced above. Across a range of historical casesSri Lanka’s civil war comes to mind, as does Algeria’s counterinsurgency–a mass atrocity is rarely “over,” even after the killing declines. That cautious, reversible decline may be the best a practitioner can achieve. Time enough to strengthen the foundations of a steady plateau in killing, but not to facilitate the precipitous drop the “is it over?” debate suggests.

The field’s moral hierarchy of suffering appears defensible at a mass atrocity’s outset; less so in its aftermath, when so-called “excess deaths”–from otherwise preventable ailments–may double or triple casualty rates. “Excess” death is also concurrent with an ongoing mass atrocity, but its public face is arguably more relevant as the direct violence ebbs. In our moral imagination, a mass atrocity’s survivor quickly becomes a post-atrocity victim: the Darfuri woman gathering firewood during janjaweed raids, once an emblem of resilience, unfortunately reemerges as the suffering victim of humanitarian crisis. Both facets are correct, yet neither offers any certain insight into the finality of the end-state. As with the search for root causes, the broadening of an end-state around humanitarian effects lacks explanatory power: whatever the second-order consequences of its decline, violent, mass death is primary to the preventive task. Refugee crises, as in the unraveling eastern provinces of Mobutu Sese Seko’s latter-day Zaire, may extend a mass atrocity’s reach; crumbling public health environments, like Liberia’s post-conflict systems, may perpetuate inequalities in access to life-saving institutions. That these factors are risky, and may guide the medium-term resurgence of mass violence, does not necessarily impact the mass atrocity’s observed end-state.

In describing a mass atrocity’s distinctive origins, I tangentially argued for an independent practice of mass atrocity prevention: the scale and impact of a mass atrocity differs from other forms of political instability, and therefore merits independent moral and political attention at its outset. The case for “mass atrocity mitigation,” as distinct from related peacebuilding efforts, is less clear. As with the origins of a mass atrocity, this dilemma often centers on categorical uncertainties: in the immediate aftermath of the NATO-led military intervention in Libya, the campaign against Qaddafi appeared a success; two years out, the experience of mass death, albeit in different forms, persists throughout Libya’s political scene. It is also a matter of expectations, however: “mitigation” implies a certainty not evident throughout a mass atrocity’s end-state. Rather than the progressive stages of mitigation, we might more accurately view a mass atrocity’s endings as a cyclical succession of preventive efforts: early warning systems, the foundation of preventive networks, exist throughout a mass atrocity, and not just after it begins. This preventive cycle defines the boundaries and opportunities of the mass atrocity ecosystem; in particular, the environmental factors that inform organizational behavior.

What various actors–internal and external, local and international–can do to stop mass atrocities

The three previous sections explained the development of a mass atrocity: how it emerges, how it persists, and how it declines. This section describes the myriad processes that might stymie this development, both within the atrocity’s internal organization, and throughout its external environment. As I mention above, this question is the field’s most prevalent, likely as a result of the widespread presence and influence of non-governmental practitioners. In general, preventive advocates–inside government bureaucracies, outside of government bureaucracies, and within various transnational organizations–assess their practice in relation to three overlapping phenomena: space, technology, and norms. This section addresses these phenomena in turn, and critically discusses the utility of each for the mitigation and prevention of mass atrocities.

For many, power is a correlated function of space: those with more space are more powerful, and those with less space, less so. Spatial forms are not restricted to the physical, although land may be history’s most consistent arbiter of authority. When researchers refer to “local,” then, they refer to much more than the village, the hamlet, or the town. Local spaces can be geographically expansive, but socially small. Consider, for example, a hypothetical Reddit discussion board about mass atrocities, which unites disparate users around a common niche. Such a community is small enough to allow for direct, deliberative participation, and its resources–in this case, information–are more accessible than in larger communities. That’s not to say that there aren’t power disparities, as anyone who has spent fifteen minutes on the Internet knows. Those disparities, however, are perceived as more malleable than in larger-scale, extra-local organizations–compare the hypothetical r/massatrocities, which would be small, to 4chan, a notoriously broad and fragmented Internet message board. As I discuss above, similar spatial relationships are a critical element of a mass atrocity’s organization: the social norms and institutions that govern local relations cohere more easily and, importantly, more quickly than those of the province or the nation-state. Community-level efforts carry an inherent social advantage, as Oliver Kaplan indicates: collective-action problems are easier to overcome, and informal politics easier to co-opt. These local processes are not geographically contingent–it is more difficult, but not impossible, to mitigate violence across 35 square miles, versus three city blocks.

Just as de Coning’s self-organization is difficult to isolate, so too do extra-local spaces–trans-regional commercial transactions, non-governmental organizations, state institutions–infiltrate community-level processes. These extra-local interjections sometimes carry positive dividends for preventive efforts, such as NGO-guided information-access systems; in other contexts, they may have a negative effect, as during most international military interventions. The distinction between local and extra-local systems is fundamentally amoral; as we will see, the technological trappings of extra-local intervention, particularly in relation to local processes, define their moral and pragmatic character.

There are many ways to understand the diversity of preventive technologies, by which I mean the various processes that populate the political space of a mass atrocity. Such classifications should always be as clear as possible, so as to provide practitioners with a descriptive basis for practical thought. Policymakers often describe these technologies as a “toolbox,” a wanting metaphor for the policy bureaucracy’s experimental troubleshooting. It may be helpful to maintain an active, proven (or, alternately, disproven) list of actionable processes, but the “preventive toolbox” differs little from the general mechanisms of foreign policy statecraft. In general, these mechanisms fall into two categories, which correspond to their place in the mass atrocity ecosystem: those intended to strengthen the responsive environment, and those intended to influence a mass atrocity’s organization. The first often aims to streamline collective decisionmaking, whether at the bureaucratic level, as in the Obama administration’s Atrocities Prevention Board, or at the communal level, as in Ushahidi’s crowdsourced early-warning networks. Information is this first category’s lifeblood: the more it proliferates, the earlier it flows, and the easier it is to access, the more effective the outcome. The second category mobilizes this information for actionable results: economic and financial sanctions require targeted information about perpetrator’s support networks, and accountability processes are based on the systematic gathering of mass-atrocity evidence. As Sean Langberg observes, these two categories feed into each other: the most effective processes are often bidirectional, and simultaneously reinforce the resilience of a mass atrocity’s organization and environment.

It is tempting to further divide these processes; practitioners now differentiate between “violent” and “nonviolent” action. The latter occupies a unique moral and applied standing, per Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s research on civil resistance; in mass atrocity contexts, however, nonviolent response is also persistently difficult to define. Most researchers and practitioners define nonviolent response as “not violent,” which is of course the term’s most literal interpretation; others, it seems, implicitly extend the category to “not coercive,” excluding the implementation of economic and, in some circumstances, financial sanctions against perpetrating organizations. The mass atrocity ecosystem muddles this distinction, in keeping with broader, historical trends in the politics of protection. The organization of violence, a mass atrocity’s defining element, frames the intended execution of nonviolence, despite the practitioner’s best intentions. As Mary King demonstrates, the macro-history of violence is understudied and undercontested, particularly in its relation to nonviolent norms; as mass atrocities are inherently violent, however, total boundaries between violent and nonviolent response are impossible to determine. Even so-called “peace zones,” which operate beyond the pale of violence, require the prior consolidation of institutional control and civilian security. This grey line diminishes the distinction’s utility, if not the moral and applied value of such efforts.

It has become a matter of historical fact that “human rights” are not universal, as such, and that the rights pantheon emerges from an ever-evolving time and space. With due respect to Mr. Jefferson’s admirable document, rights were plainly alienable at the outset, especially if they must now be “defended,” in the unhelpful parlance of contemporary “rights talk.” What we currently describe as “rights” are better described as a common set of political norms, which when realized incrementally improve the human condition. The secular sanctity of life is the keystone of mass-atrocity related rights talk, and practitioners use various rhetorical innovations to describe this norm, the “responsibility to protect” doctrine (R2P) most prominent among them. Practitioners since the 2005 UN World Summit, which unanimously endorsed R2P’s simplest-common-denominator, emphasize R2P’s universality, despite apparent variations in its political application. Most political cultures acknowledge some version of R2P’s life-centered norm–the state, as Tilly observes, is little more than a scaled “protection racket”–but how those in power, as well as the institutions that control them, acknowledge and implement this norm varies widely.

R2P’s early iterations focused on the ethical criteria of external military interventions, a holdover from R2P’s partial origins in the “humanitarian intervention” debates of the 1990s. Though tentatively positive cases of mass atrocity prevention in Kenya, following two months of electoral violence in 2008, and in South Sudan, in 2011, demonstrated a plausible middle-ground between de Coning’s self-organization and violent interventions, NATO’s operations against government-aligned perpetrators during the Libyan civil war reincarnated R2P’s dated fixation on external military power. This focus often overstates the helpfulness of formal institutions for R2P’s global, future diffusion. Popular discourse makes much of the “death of R2P,” particularly since the beginning of Syria’s civil war, as if the doctrine’s existence depends entirely on its continuous and universal application. Observable policy outcomes are merely one indicator of a norm’s successful diffusion, and a very rare one, at that–one cannot demonstrate that R2P, as an isolated worldview, shaped a political organization’s wholesale embrace of a particular decision. For mass atrocity practitioners, the practical strength of R2P and its normative corollaries appear in the unseen–the marginal institutions and processes that precede organizational decisions. These norms pervade the mass atrocity ecosystem; not just R2P’s embattled consensus, which informs an atrocity’s external environment, but also divergent discourses on ethnic and political identity. The goal of an anti-atrocity idea, as an extension of the preventive technologies discussed above, must be to simultaneously strengthen the norm’s organizational and environmental relevance, while acknowledging that political pluralism may mitigate its results.


This essay attempted a comprehensive survey of the nascent mass atrocity literature’s prevailing themes. The mass atrocity ecosystem, which I used to describe the event’s lifecycle, is not a general theory, but an explanatory mechanism that clarifies the complex dilemmas of mass atrocity prevention. The ecological dilemma does not prescribe particular policies, nor does it suggest an observable uniformity to a mass atrocity’s trajectory. Rather, it is a metaphor of uncertainty, one which underscores our inability to fully know how a mass atrocity will start, how it will progress, and how local and international actors may contribute to its demise. Compelling theories of mass violence exist, but the ecosystem’s complexity should prompt caution and humility among practitioners who seek to end its human scourge.

This essay also established the mass atrocity as a unique form of political violence, and, as such, mass atrocity prevention as a unique form of conflict mitigation. This is rightly controversial, and merits further explanation. To construct an empirical and philosophical divide between “mass atrocity,” on the one hand, and “conflict,” on the other, is not to suggest that those communities that seek to mitigate either have little to learn from each other. Quite the opposite: the peacebuilding field throughout the past half-century achieved notable successes, and the young field of preventive practice should–and does–take heed. To the extent that our moral imagination views mass death as uniquely harrowing, and its prevention as uniquely obligatory, practitioners should adopt and improve on peacebuilding norms, practices, and institutions. There are also strategic reasons for cross-issue collaboration: preventive practitioners often compete for the same funds, and for the same political space, as colleagues across the progressive sphere.

If anything, this essay is a call for continued exploration: we may understand a mass atrocity’s victims, but not its perpetrators; we may understand the consequences of international response, but local processes are left wanting. And, more importantly, a call for humility: where a mass atrocity is concerned, doing something is never a firm guarantee.

Thanks to Sean, Danny, Ali, Tibi, Jay, and Alex for their comments. Also, to Sally, whose conference in Istanbul was a proving ground for several conversation threads. Here’s a PDF version of this post’s original content, which I have edited since publishing for clarity.

5 thoughts on “the four dilemmas of a mass atrocity

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