where warning works (chibok, nigeria)

The kidnappings at Chibok, in northern Nigeria, are difficult to recount; it is a story of hiding, and not of telling. The initial subterfuge of Nigerian military officials, the unknown identities of the Chibok girls’ captors, the perpetual two-step of government diplomacy with Boko Haram, the girls’ captors–as weeks pass, with most of the Chibok girls no closer to home, these obfuscations appear more common than transparency. When–if–the girls return, they will bring many stories to narrate; likely, many fewer will be heard.

It is unexpected, then, that we might view the events at Chibok as a positive case of early warning. Not prevention, of course; the girls’ eventual abduction suggests as much. Still, the essence of effective warning–the continuous, accessible flow of accurate information to Chibok’s vulnerable civilians–was apparent in the hours prior to Boko Haram’s violent swarm. A rare wealth of reporting describes the kidnappings’ preceding events. At approximately 9:30 pm, on April 14, the chairman of the Chibok school’s Parent Teacher Association contacted the town’s designated military commander to warn of an impending attack, according to a Reuters investigation. An earlier report by Amnesty International places an even earlier time-stamp–7:00 pm–on the military’s knowledge of the town’s imminent danger. According to the Amnesty report, the first to learn of Boko Haram’s plans was a group of community militiamen in Gagilam, near Chibok, who communicated the warning via phone to Chibok officials. Local security officials paid the warnings little heed, likely because of widespread fear among appointed military units. Many fled to the nearby mountainside; the Chibok girls were taken.

We can speculate about possible reasons why Chibok’s warnings worked, prior to the abject failure of the Nigerian state’s local security forces. The first appears to be the now-robust growth of community militias in Borno state and its surrounding regions. These groups, sometimes referred to as “vigilantes” or the “civilian JTF” (Joint Task Force, the Nigerian military moniker for an ad-hoc domestic operation) are a form of “hybrid governance.” The militias fill gaps in the services of the Nigerian state–in this case, for better and worse, violence–but reject formal incorporation by state authorities. Their efforts to gather and distribute information about Boko Haram’s civilian violence have apparently become more sophisticated, especially in areas of greatest need. The militias are a human infrastructure; as their networks strengthen, their ability to warn vulnerable civilians multiplies.

The second feature may be unique to Chibok. The site from which the girls were abducted was a boarding school, which hosted students and, sometimes, parents from across northeastern Nigeria. Chibok is a node–there, the flow of information is a bidirectional event. Civilians who received warnings from Gagilam, the neighboring town, passed that information as far as Maiduguri, the capital city of Borno state. In warning, networks matter, and Chibok’s–rather, its civilians’–was expansive.

Where warning is concerned, the circumstances are rarely as favorable as Chibok’s were. That local communities are an event’s first responders is a well-worn adage of early warning; still, the internal and external strength of these communities’ networks often vary. Where existing networks lag, international assistance may be useful. Global NGOs–Invisible Children, in LRA-affected communities in Central Africa, the Free Burma Rangers, in Burma’s Karen state, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Peace Direct, in Burundi–have developed extensive programs to strengthen information networks to vulnerable civilians in conflict zones. These are long-term initiatives, with long-term dividends. A short-term gap remains: among civilians who weather the immediate consequences of mass violence, but who lack a warning infrastructure like Chibok’s, where can local and global actors contribute?


a tale of two hashtags

Boko Haram, in northeast Nigeria, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), somewhere near the Central African Republic, share several common factors. They are:

  • Destructive violence: In the years since its escalation of mass violence, in 2009, Boko Haram-affiliated attacks have killed large numbers of civilians in northeast Nigeria and, increasingly, northwest Cameroon. In its three decades of insurgency, the LRA has killed fewer but still many civilians. The relative scale of Boko Haram’s violence may have as much to do with the greater demographic size of its targets–towns and, sometimes, cities, in addition to small villages–as with the group’s tactics. Casualty counts aside, the groups’ devastation is constant. Each has crippled its affected local economy, and has caused mass displacement on an extraordinary scale. Those who have survived either group’s violence will not likely live to see their communities restored.
  • Ideology: The common-ground between the respective ideologies of Boko Haram and the LRA is not obvious; notionally, Boko Haram is Muslim, and the LRA is Christian. Whatever their notional differences, however, both Boko Haram and the LRA share an ugly millenarian politics: their respective interpretations of Islam and Christianity advocate mass social upheaval, rather than incremental change. Of course, the LRA’s millenarian belief is more explicit, and its links to the history of millenarianism in northern Uganda, where it was originally formed, are stronger. Historically, violence soon follows millenarianism; whether that’s a consequence of belief, or of other factors, is unclear. Some view ideas–here, ideology–as an important driver of violence; I am not among them.
  • Tactics of violence: Like government forces, violent insurgencies use specific tactics to accomplish strategic goals. Till recently, Boko Haram’s primary tactic was mass violence, which allowed the group to establish a political stranglehold over several local areas in northeast Nigeria. In recent months, Boko Haram has also added kidnapping to its violent arsenal, as during the recent abduction of more than two hundred schoolgirls in Chibok, in northeast Nigeria. LRA-linked fighters frequently abduct children from civilian communities; however, it is not clear that Boko Haram fighters learned the tactic from their counterparts in the LRA. Indeed, the two common tactics probably serve two different functions: many speculate that Boko Haram will hold the Chibok girls for ransom, while LRA fighters rarely use kidnapping for financial gain.
  • The Toto effect: Both Boko Haram and the LRA are located “in Africa.” Similarly, a bistro in France and a butcher in Poland are both located “in Europe.” Really, it’s irrelevant.

The respective violence of Boko Haram and the LRA has sparked two social movements–against Boko Haram (we’ll call this “Bring Back Our Girls”), and against the LRA (“Kony 2012”)–which also share several common factors. They are:

  • Norms: Each movement is accurately described as a member of a larger, global human rights community. Both advance “human rights norms”–that is, an aspirational belief in the safety and security of individual persons. Human rights entail the return and protection of Chibok’s schoolgirls, who remain vulnerable to various abuses while under Boko Haram’s control; likewise, rights require the capture and prosecution of the LRA’s key perpetrators of mass violence, including Joseph Kony, the group’s near-mythical chief. Where their priorities differ, either group shares a guiding principle, in a global sense.
  • Tricky avenues to securing those norms: If the safety and security of individual persons is the dominant concern of both Bring Back Our Girls and Kony 2012, neither campaign offers a morally pure path toward that goal. Neither the Nigerian military, which would rescue the Chibok schoolgirls, nor the Ugandan military, which would apprehend Kony, will accomplish either goal with minimal harm to civilians; abuses will occur, and often, because the business of these militaries–most militaries, in fact–is more often killing than protecting. Neither is the so-called “political solution” to either insurgency, sans violence, a morally praiseworthy affair. Such is the nature of securing rights: moral action rarely aligns with political reality.
  • A digital public: On Twitter, users refer to the campaign against Boko Haram by its hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls; Kony 2012, #Kony2012. By design, these hashtags are fleeting. Activism seeks to change the basic function and foundation of society; hashtag activism, if we must use the term, only offers a voice to those desires. Applied correctly, that voice can be just as powerful. Hashtagged communities think sentimentally; many fewer follow with moral action. But that’s fine: a digital public–fifty-nine Twitter followers, or twelve-thousand six-hundred and thirty two–is a fungible thing. For some, hashtags are a form of moral self-satisfaction; for others, they are genuine portraits of empathy. We should strive toward the latter, as a moral purpose, but the former is always a necessary intermediary. Leslie Jamison inscribed it best, in an essay “in defense of saccharin(e)”: “[W]e’re talking about people using text to imagine themselves across the distances of separate lives.”

These two categories, and the seven total factors that comprise them, have prompted several comparisons between the Bring Back Our Girls and Kony 2012 campaigns. In general, the comparison reads:

  • Kony 2012, a campaign largely branded, staged, and claimed by the San Diego-based advocacy organization Invisible Children, was an inorganic movement: it was, in Lydia Polgreen’s words, a campaign for Californians, and not for the survivors of the LRA’s violence. In contrast, Bring Back Our Girls is Nigerian-born, branded, staged, and claimed. Therefore, the campaign is an indigenous symbol of a democratic process so often absent from Nigeria’s governance.
  • Kony 2012 was a campaign of Western norms, projected globally. In contrast, Bring Back Our Girls is a campaign of global norms, projected locally.

These comparisons are both correct and incorrect:

  • Neither Kony 2012 nor Bring Back Our Girls are isolated moments, in space or time. As LRA researcher Ledio Cakaj observes, the Concerned Parents Association, a civil society group in northern Uganda, emerged in the aftermath of a mass LRA abduction in 1996. Its guiding norms–the return and protection of abducted children–more closely mimic the Bring Back Our Girls campaign’s than they do Kony 2012’s. Their values remained local in nature, and largely local in scale.
  • Kony 2012 was, fundamentally, a campaign of Western norms, but for reasons rarely referenced. The theory of change behind Kony 2012 was indirect: in its advocacy efforts, Invisible Children sought to alter U.S. foreign policy first, and the LRA’s operations second. By their telling, Kony 2012 participants shifted the moral compass of U.S. foreign policy to achieve new rights for LRA-affected civilians. For many, this citizen engagement–democratic participation, on behalf of others beyond ourselves–is a contradiction in terms; some days, I count myself among this crowd.
  • In a global ecosystem, how do we trace the location of a norm? Here, the theory of power is imperfect. The story of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, both analog and digital, is as follows: the parents of the abducted draw attention to their plight, which draws the attention of their local communities, which draws the attention of their national communities, which draws the attention of their international communities. This path is rarely static: the stories of the parents of the abducted resound alongside the empathy and sympathy of their global supporters. Instinctively, the Bring Back Our Girls campaign is a local event, staged before a global audience. But at what point is this no longer true, and how do we ensure that those local stories remain as resilient as their narrators?


The grand larceny of Chibok’s girls began under the cover of darkness, and there it has remained.

Three weeks ago, unknown insurgents, now widely linked to Boko Haram, a group active in Chibok’s surrounding Borno state, abducted dozens of schoolgirls, each reportedly preparing for their final exams. Of course, Boko Haram’s involvement is murky–its figurehead, Abubakar Shekau, has not claimed responsibility for his foot soldiers’ actions–but probable. Like the identity of their captors, the girls’ current location is unknown. Too-rare testimonies of exodus, such as that of Deborah Sanya, an eighteen year-old abductee, suggest the girls are located in the Sambisa Forest, the proximate site of multiple known Boko Haram training camps. Meanwhile, a grief-stricken “community leader” recently suggested that some girls, forcibly married to Boko Haram members, are now en route to either Cameroon or Chad, both of which closely border the group’s lightly forested territory.

Where Boko Haram’s violence are concerned, little is ever clear. Massive, brutal destruction is the only certainty of the group’s operations, and often of the government’s response as well. In the four years since Boko Haram’s violence has expanded, and the group’s eight years prior, thousands–perhaps tens of thousands–of civilians have died. The life of a civilian in northeast Nigeria is a constant gamble–in areas where Boko Haram is active, killing is a matter of when, and by whom. The anonymity of the disappeared is a common feature. Initially, the girls were one hundred; now, they are two hundred and thirty-four, perhaps more. For international observers, the numbers are immaterial: it’s a lot of girls, and very few names. Girls–women–like Deborah, whose suffering is known, are all too rare.

The parents of Chibok now speak in their daughters’ stead. The protests are mounting: against Boko Haram, but also against Nigeria’s government, for its bumbling response; international media, for its lagging coverage; and, international governments, for standing by. As during most crises, the response of President Goodluck Jonathan’s federal administration has been duplicitous at best. Two days after the initial abduction, Nigeria’s defense ministry claimed its troops in Borno state–its “joint task force” and their handy paramilitaries–had recovered the girls, then one hundred and twenty-nine, and both Nigerian and international media were quick to believe them. But the government’s deception quickly collapsed, and a half-hearted search-and-rescue has continued apace.

If international media has been slow to catch up, this is no longer the case. Unfortunately, no greater clarity has followed the abductions’ new global spotlight. As John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, observed last week, the basic facts of the crime are no clearer than they have been. Despite a multi-week swarm of local information-gathering, credible information about the girls’ location, or about their captors, is in short supply. Like any violent group, Boko Haram is an organization in name only–the culprits may be linked to Shekau, or they may not be. In a criminal sense, we know little about the captors’ motive. International media reports reference the group’s Hausa-language name–in English, it roughly translates to “Western education is a sin”–as an implicit clue; others, such as Nicholas Kristof, suggest the girls’ abduction is a human-trafficking event. Neither are certain: Boko Haram’s Islamist ideology is rarely a useful guide to their violence, and neither ransom nor illicit sales seem to fund the group’s operations at any scale.

Despite this information gap, international op-ed pages have now arrived at the What is to be done? stage of international coverage. As is often the case, recommendations follow protests by local groups and concerned members of the Nigerian diaspora, but scarcely align with these protests’ proposed actions. Some protestors suggest negotiations between the Nigerian government and the as-yet unknown captors; this proposal appears uncommon among Western op-eds. Instead, columnists like Nicholas Kristof recommend a more aggressive response. They lean on the blunt instrument of Nigerian military force, a reliable but often counterproductive instrument of counterterrorism. To assist the Nigerians’ efforts, Kristof suggests, intelligence-sharing–satellite imagery and ground-level information alike–should be frequent and unfettered. However, the recent surge of Nigerian military resources in Borno state, prompted in part by international outrage, likely does more to deepen the crisis than to resolve it. According to Amnesty International, Nigerian military violence killed more civilians in 2013 than did their insurgent adversaries.

The proposals of local protestors may be similarly misguided: one can imagine a scenario in which negotiation encourages more future abductions rather than fewer, whatever its immediate appeal. Given these two poles, each unattractive in their own right, I’m not confident that the solution to Chibok’s crisis is any clearer than our knowledge of its details.

information as institution

Last month, rumors emerged of an Ebola outbreak in Guinea; by March 26, Guinean health officials reported 63 deaths as a result of hemorrhagic fever, a key symptom of the virus. When interviewed, Guinean citizens, humanitarian workers, and health officials have referenced the social corrosion of Ebola’s viral spread. “Rumors are rife among communities,” said one Guinean aid worker. If the response of Guinea’s health ministry and its regional partners has improved, all but containing Ebola’s spread, disinformation remains rampant. Earlier this week, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has provided emergency medical services in Guinea since 2001, surged its in-country staff, in part to more broadly deliver public health information to Ebola-prone communities.

Remote Guinean communities are globally opaque; located abroad, humanitarian groups may arrive with limited information about access points, infrastructure, quarantine spots, and potential sites of Ebola outbreak. As during recent separate crises, humanitarian crisis-mappers have attempted to fill these gaps. Since early this week, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOTOSM), a volunteer-based coalition of geographers, imagery analysts, and data scientists, has mapped three key towns to which MSF may deploy. HOTOSM’s “open” platform refers to the group’s crowd-sourced operations rather than its output, which exists on a restricted-access site. Other OpenStreetMap efforts, such as the group’s flagship map, are fully public. To confront MSF’s Guinea operations, HOTOSM has adapted its parent-group’s design to manage and produce sensitive data.

In past writing, I have described information as a resource: it is scarce or abundant, or somewhere in between, and various groups may control its distribution. Indeed, the scarcity of information is among the motivating factors behind MSF’s response to the Guinean Ebola outbreak. Here, information also mimics–albeit imperfectly–a discrete institution. Institutions have rules that restrict their members, and structures that govern relationships in their internal society. Public health services determine who lives, who is treated, who is infected, and, too often, who dies. As an institution, information is similarly fickle. Rumors generate violence; disinformation may further endanger a vulnerable civilian; and, true, accurate information may enable that same person’s survival. Power and privilege, which govern institutions the world over, also determine a civilian’s unequal access to the institution of information, and to knowledge of their health, safety, and security.

The right to information, as a moral notion, is a product of a global democratic norm that promotes transparent governance as its keystone. In the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) sense, the right to information presumes capacity–that is, that the institution from which public information is acquired is able to collect, protect, restrict, and distribute its knowledge. Recently, humanitarian groups, such as the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Signal Program, have invoked a humanitarian right to information, to enable various state and non-state groups to better use information communication technologies (ICTs) to assist civilians in disaster-affected areas. The humanitarian right to information applies to the context in which civilians use information, and not the institution that supplies it.

Both norms–the transparency of information and its humanitarian right–view information as a resource, to be given by some and removed by others. This frame is sensible but limiting. If information is primarily a resource, and ICTs its vessel, those civilians who lack the latter must logically also lack the former. This is rarely the case. Guinean residents have had information amid the Ebola crisis; however, that information, especially prior to MSF’s arrival, was often inaccurate or delayed. Likewise, civilians during conflict have information, but it is often poor and insecure.

If information exists throughout, and is neither simply scarce nor abundant, “institution” may be our most effective metaphor for its social function. Weak institutions provide an inadequate basis for social cohesion, while strong ones unite and secure human livelihoods. In securing the right to information during crises, especially conflict, international actors should seek to strengthen crippled institutions, rather than to provide a lacking resource. Only then can humanitarians expect a brighter future for civilian protection.

Update: Kate Chapman, the director of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, has provided the following comment below, reposted here: “Which restricted access site are you referring? All the data being digitized goes directly into OpenStreetMap and is available publicly.” For those users interested in the mechanics of HOTOSM’s crowd-mapping exercise, this clarification is helpful. Thanks, Kate.

on ukraine’s mass violence

Each viewer observes the photography of the ongoing street battles in Ukraine’s capital through a different violent analogue. “Shit, Kiev” may refer to a clustered unit of riot police; a rolling, ashen cumulus; a ramshackle barricade; or, an injured protester wandering amid the city’s flaming carcass. These scenes are Civilization V, Zack Snyder’s latest superheroic melee, an imagined siege of Stalingrad–at once, or each alone, depending on your vantage. The impression of the carnage, of that protester overwhelmed by his crumbling environs, dehumanizes as it empowers.

If Kiev is the current center-stage, Ukrainian politics, especially since the country’s national elections in 2012, is a tragedy of continuous errors. Triggered by the current government’s side-step towards the authoritarian patronage of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the EuroMaidan movement trumpets its cosmopolitan virtue. As elsewhere, however, Ukraine’s European future is merely the movement’s vanguard. The EuroMaidan–literally, the “European square”–is a rendezvous between grievances local and global. While the movement’s core contests the pro-Russia stance of President Viktor Yanukovych, others raise the country’s oligarchic turn, or the repression of civil society, or of media, or of political opposition. Ukraine’s democratic promise, a voguish topic during the Cold War’s aftermath, is now a tattered work of historical fiction.

Kiev is the EuroMaidan’s icon, as Tahrir or Taksim were Egypt’s or Turkey’s, respectively. The gradual fracture of the Ukrainian polity also extends far beyond the rubbled borders of Independence Square. To Lviv, where, at time of writing, opposition protesters seize control of local municipal buildings. To Crimea, that historically autonomous thruway along the Eurasian Black Sea, where pro-Russian MPs now gains an ever-stronger foothold. Ukraine’s internal disorder, so momentous, betrays the false rhythm of its capital city’s repressive barrage.

Kiev’s violence, like any violence, is no bold romance. The Square’s apocalypse–the billowing smoke-monsters, and what they represent–absorbs the half-life of Ukraine’s civil society, which struggles against the subtle violence of the Yanukovych regime. The glacial decay of the Ukrainian public sphere, as a political thing, is a years-long, intentional affair. In the decade since the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukraine’s governing patrons have engaged an aggressive campaign of civic subterfuge. Hired hands extract, scalpel-like, the popular grist of Ukrainian social movements. By authoritarian design, the organizations that comprise the EuroMaidan have become the weak, vulnerable pillars of now-shrinking public.

This, too, is an image of mass violence, albeit one quite unlike its contemporary counterparts in Syria and the Central African Republic. An event’s massiveness refers to a measurement far greater than its basic body count, which, in Ukraine, is infinitesimal, however tragic. Kiev’s apocalyptic photographs display the imminent destruction of Ukraine’s public sphere, a human innovation: fallen buildings and scorched storefronts, darkened thresholds, uncobbled avenues. The terror-stricken bystander, a lone civilian, masked in her own blood.

why have mass atrocities declined in east asia?

The politics of East Asia have many problems, but mass violence ain’t one. So says Alex Bellamy, who compiles the relevant event data to describe the recent historical decline of mass atrocities in the region:

There are now fewer cases of genocide and mass atrocities in East Asia today than at any point in history for which we have reliable records. This article demonstrates and then tries to account for the dramatic decline of mass atrocities in East Asia. It argues that the decline was enabled by a combination of three major structural changes: reduction in the selection of mass atrocities as a weapon of war, increase in incomes, and progress towards democratization combined with the emergence of new ideas about sovereignty and their accommodation with existing principles of non-interference. Together, these structural and ideational changes created a changed regional context of increased costs and reduced payoffs for the commission of mass atrocities.

The imminent decline of mass atrocities contrasts against another recent, more tragic trend in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia: the region’s widespread occurrence of mass violence. As the current humanitarian crisis of Burma‘s Rohingya population suggests, the regional outlook is a patch-quilt of violent politics with inconsistent spots of non-conflict, and not the reverse. To his credit, Bellamy acknowledges the fragility of his first trend, which may yet conclude in a more dismal future for East Asia’s civilians. Even so, the post-Cold War data indisputably imply these civilians’ relative, if temporary security.

But why? In an earlier draft, Bellamy places the strategic use of mass violence, income growth, and regional democratization alongside shifting norms of human security; in this edition, the first three variables are separate, but interact with their latter counterpart. While human security norms–human rights, collective security, and the “responsibility to protect,” among others–proliferated amid East Asia’s era of mass violence, the political, economic, and social trends that Bellamy describes elevated the norms’ institutional importance. This explanation projects a liberal future for regional human security: the more peaceful, the more prosperous, and the more democratic East Asia becomes, the fewer civilians will die.

The liberal theory of mass atrocities’ decline feels good. Its empirical value, however, is foggier. Two gaps stick out: the political consequences of East Asia, as an aggregated regional unit, for human security are marginal; and, the “post-sovereignty” norms of East Asia’s “new” consensus are less new than Bellamy describes.

Breaking down “East Asia”: In some contexts, it makes sense to describe “regional trends.” A “region” like East Asia is many things–a geographic unit, a series of political bodies, an economic zone. If a river spans across multiple states, provinces, or local government areas, its riparian politics are accurately described as a “regional” event. Perhaps as a consequence of the region’s geography, the impact of East Asia’s human security crises is often more diffuse. In the 17 East Asian mass atrocity events Bellamy lists in a 2012 report, few beyond the (several) events linked to the 19-year Vietnam war–repression, mass killing, and civil conflict in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia–are regional phenomena. The events are not isolated, per se; in several, like Indonesia or North Korea, the geopolitics of U.S.-Soviet proxy violence or China’s regional sphere of influence, respectively, prompt their occurrence. In contrast to Central Africa, where regional security crises like the Rwandan genocide spawned subsequent mass suffering, or West Africa, where Liberia’s civil war spawned the same, East Asian mass atrocity events appear either significantly interdependent (Vietnam, et al.), or scarcely so (Indonesia, the Philippines, North Korea, and China).

East Asia’s norm “consensus”: Bellamy describes the “responsibility to protect” norm as an emerging consensus among East Asian states and security institutions. As Bellamy writes elsewhere, prominent security documents, treaty commitments, public statements, and diplomatic priorities suggest that, where possible, East Asian foreign policy agendas adopt human security priorities. That “where possible,” however, is key. Public statements of regional groups like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations demonstrate the partial success of human security norms; on the other hand, China’s inconsistent posture towards Burmese military abuses suggest these norms are less active than Bellamy asserts.

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.