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Human Rights and Preventing Mass Atrocities: Making the Connection

Updated: Mar 13, 2020

On 4 December 2019, Rights for Peace and SOAS Human Rights Law Centre held a joint event to explore the role of Human Rights in the prevention of Mass Atrocities. Dr. Kate Ferguson co-director of Protection Approaches, Mariana Goetz, founder of Rights for Peace and Professor Clara Sandoval from Essex University Law School spoke in a lively debate chaired by Dr. Lutz Oette, Director of SOAS' Human Rights Law Centre.

Kate explained that Protection Approaches was established to fill a gap: there was no UK-specific focus on preventing mass atrocities either amongst NGOs or UK government. There was a need to raise awareness and drive policy change on the specific challenges of addressing identity-based violence, a term Kate coined in her PhD research. The UK still needs a coordinated and integrated approach to situations where mass atrocities are a risk, bringing trade, foreign affairs, development and defense policy together to mitigate or avoid the next Myanmar. She emphasised the need to work to prevent mass atrocities everywhere, all the time.

The progression of hate-based violence that leads to genocide is now well understood and documented – from the Holocaust and pogroms of old to Rwanda, Darfur and Myanmar. These well documented histories show us that mass atrocity crimes start with the erosion of individual and group rights. While this process, as pointed out by Kate, is not necessarily linear, we can see that there are opportunities to intervene legally at earlier stages in the "Pyramid of Hate".[1]

However, it is when toxic divisions such as these erupt that international human rights organisations flock to the scene, to gather evidence in response to mass atrocities: seeking to support prosecutions for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. In the transitional justice context, there is an assumption that ‘if you work for justice, peace will follow’.[2] However, experience has shown us that it is much more complicated. In the short term, criminal justice prosecutions might even appear to be diametrically opposed to peace and reconciliation. Nonetheless, accountability for mass atrocity crimes is necessary and its also the law. So how do we reconcile international justice efforts with peace building? Can we focus endeavours further upstream to support prevention and mitigation, or justice efforts that will promote guarantees of non-repetition?

Mariana outlined 3 strategies being pursued by Rights for Peace that aim to prevent hate crimes from becoming mass atrocities:

  • Human Rights Education - which has become unfashionable once used to be a key theme at the UN. There was even a "UN Decade for Human Rights Education", identified as "an essential contribution to the long-term prevention of human rights abuses and represents an important investment in the endeavour to achieve a just society in which all human rights of all persons are valued and respected." An example of our recent work can be seen in our blog on countering identity violence in South Sudan.

  • Monitoring and Cases can also contribute to prevention. While human rights violations are being monitored all the time, and cases based on discrimination are also brought at different levels, there appears to be little concerted effort to systematically look at violations as precursors to mass atrocity crimes, as part of a pattern based on identity hatred. We can explore bringing complaints to UN bodies to build up a picture of hate. We are also looking at incitement cases.

  • Advocacy to promote a mass atrocity prevention approach to justice is needed to ensure that accountability efforts promote justice writ large, instill a sense of fairness and address underlying grievances. There are many policy nuances to the way we prosecute, The connection is theoretical and relies on the notion that human rights monitoring, casework and international justice will have an deterrent effect with little connection to conflict analysis and the drivers of division or underlying grievances.

Clara Sandoval spoke passionately about the link between reparations for victims of mass atrocity crimes and prevention of further cycles of violence. Victims have a right to a remedy and reparations to mass atrocity crimes. Empowering affected communities to advocate for reforms needed to prevent repetition is not just a possible strategy, it is a dignifying and empowering way to redress the balance between down-trodden victims and perpetrators still wielding power. In many countries where Clara has worked, such as Colombia or Mexico, victims movements can be incredibly powerful forces for the social changes needed to address underlying injustices. However, these movements need to be strengthened and supported - a strategy that fits well into Rights for Peace's mandate.


[1] The Pyramid of Hate was designed by the Anti-Defamation League.

[2] Bassiouni (1996), Searching for Peace and Achieving Justice: The Need for Accountability. 59 Journal of Law and Contemporary Problems, p.9

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