we’re getting better at thinking about mass atrocities

Every year, the U.S. government’s director of national intelligence, the Grand Poobah of the U.S. intelligence community, releases a public, unclassified “worldwide threat assessment.” Most years, the threat assessment is a tedious, bureaucratic document: it signals, to Congress, foreign policy priorities that are obvious to the average U.S. news-reader. Strictly speaking, it is not an analytic document, but a political one. It conveys–to Congress, to the general public, to the internal U.S. government bureaucracy–what policymakers want other political officials to find important, to fund, and to authorize. It does not capture, vacuum-like, the full scope of global threats to the national security, safety, and livelihood of the United States and its citizens.

In that sense, the document is useful because it describes the things that policymakers care about, and, more importantly, how policymakers themselves describe those things. Since 2010, the worldwide threat assessment has included a brief section about mass killing, genocide, or mass atrocities. The section, as John Allen Gay observes, is “always about one box-checking paragraph long.” Mass atrocity prevention is, and will remain, a marginal priority for the U.S. government, and five years of annual threat assessments reflect its unimpressive stature.

Still, this year’s threat assessment is remarkable–not because it conveys a new focus on mass atrocities, but because it frames the old focus in a better way:

“The overall risk of mass atrocities worldwide will probably increase in 2014 and beyond. Trends driving this increase include more social mobilization, violent conflict, including communal violence, and other forms of instability that spill over borders and exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions; diminished or stagnant quality of governance; and widespread impunity for past abuses. Many countries at risk of mass atrocities will likely be open to influence to prevent or mitigate them. This is because they are dependent on Western assistance or multilateral missions in their countries, have the political will to prevent mass atrocities, or would be responsive to international scrutiny. Overall international will and capability to prevent or mitigate mass atrocities will likely diminish in 2014 and beyond, although support for human rights norms to prevent atrocities will almost certainly deepen among some non-government organizations. Much of the world will almost certainly turn to the United States for leadership to prevent and respond to mass atrocities.”

As Jay Ulfelder observes, the contents of this paragraph are debatable: twelve years after the establishment of the International Criminal Court, it’s not clear that international criminal justice–the popular salve for grave impunity–contributes much to the onset of mass atrocities; additionally, “international will” is a clichéd, unhelpful bellwether of mass atrocity response. Even so, the paragraph suggests that the U.S. government, or at least the U.S. intelligence community, now views mass atrocities as a systemic trend, rather than a haphazard assortment of violent conflicts. For example, compare the 2014 threat assessment to the 2012 edition, the first published after the release of President Obama’s landmark directive on mass atrocity prevention:

“Unfortunately, mass atrocities have been a recurring feature of the global landscape. Since the turn of century, hundreds of thousands of civilians have lost their lives during conflicts in the Darfur region of Sudan and in the eastern Congo (Kinshasa). Recently, atrocities in Libya and Syria have occurred against the backdrop of major political upheavals. Mass atrocities usually occur in the context of other instability events and often result from calculated strategies by new or threatened ruling elites to assert or retain control, regardless of the cost. Violence against civilians also emerges in places where poorly institutionalized governments discriminate against minorities, socioeconomic conditions are poor, or local powerbrokers operate with impunity, as in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. In addition, terrorists and insurgents may exploit similar conditions to conduct attacks against civilians, as in Boko Haram’s recent attacks on churches in Nigeria.”

The past four years of mass atrocity-related assessments are similar. Each approaches “mass atrocity prevention” as a game of policymaking Whac-a-Mole; the “global landscape” that Clapper describes in the 2012 report is in fact the sum of six conflicts, in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Syria, Kyrgyzstan, and Nigeria. In this line of thinking, whether an event is a “mass atrocity” depends on the U.S. government’s classification of it as such, and nothing else.

In the 2014 edition, a “mass atrocity” is a global phenomenon, one which interacts with trends in regime transition, political repression, and disorder. This shift isn’t merely an intellectual exercise; it has real consequences for how we engage the task of mass atrocity prevention. The more we view mass atrocities as a global event, the easier it is to understand the potential preventive role of political actors, old and new, beyond the United States: regional mediation bodies, the United Nations, and civil society groups, among others. We’re still a long way from that event, but if the 2014 threat assessment is any indication, we’re getting there.

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