Soviet POWs covering a mass grave after the Babi Yar massacre, October 1, 1941. Credit: Johannes Hähle, Wikimedia Commons

Soviet POWs covering a mass grave after the Babi Yar massacre, October 1, 1941. Credit: Johannes Hähle / Wikimedia Commons

The following is an excerpt from an essay first published in Social Research: An International Quarterly. It is part of the journal’s issue Frontiers of Social Inquiry.

Recently, a new tension has arisen in the field relating to how to define the object of study. In keeping with the activist impulse of the field, the most vibrant contemporary definitional debates are centered on how to define prevention. The first book in the field explicitly speaking about prevention, Leo Kuper’s The Prevention of Genocide (1986), focuses almost completely on the role of international organizations like the United Nations in preventing atrocities. This “great powers” approach to prevention has been reinforced by more popular nonfiction, including Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize–winning A Problem from Hell (2002), which lambasts the United States’ failures to intervene in the face of multiple atrocities throughout the twentieth century. But today scholars and practitioners are frequently challenging these notions of prevention that focus on action at the UN level or that equate prevention with military intervention amid mass killing. An increasing number of scholars and practitioners are advocating for new ways of understanding and approaching atrocity prevention. Here, it is essential to note the undoubted influence that the world of practice, and in particular a growing cadre of atrocity prevention NGOs, has had on the scholarly study of atrocities. In fact, several of these NGOs run their own research divisions that produce reports that influence and inspire scholars.

This new wave of prevention scholarship, which has been produced both by academics and practitioners, differentiates itself from more traditional approaches to prevention in three principal ways. First, it promotes a more comprehensive concept of prevention that is not synonymous with intervention in the midst of crisis and looks far more “upstream” and “downstream” from the atrocity itself. One of the most important contributions of the field of genocide studies has been to frame genocide as a process, not an event (Rosenberg 2012; Stanton 1996, 2008). Large-scale killings of identity groups do not happen overnight. They are the products of long-term social and political processes that begin with smaller steps that, when unaddressed, can escalate to the level of mass atrocities. Understanding genocide as a process with identifiable characteristics has been key in designing strategies to prevent it. After all, if genocide does not just occur from one day to the next, policymakers and other stakeholders have multiple opportunities to impede this process before it results in all-out mass killing. Increasingly, scholars have applied this process model to the concept of prevention as well, illustrated most clearly in James Waller’s Confronting Evil: Engaging Our Responsibility to Prevent Genocide (2016). In this text, Waller describes prevention as a continuum that includes three different stages. Primary, or “upstream,” prevention includes the actions that can be taken before atrocities occur to make sure they do not happen in the first place. It involves clearly assessing the risk factors that exist in a given society and taking steps to mitigate those risks and protect vulnerable groups. Secondary, or “midstream,” prevention describes actions to stop ongoing mass killing. Although it can certainly include things like military intervention, it can also involve other legal, political, and economic response tools. Finally, tertiary, or “downstream,” prevention includes the measures a society takes in the aftermath of mass atrocities to address the structural harms that led to violence as they rebuild. It includes using the tools of transitional justice—things like truth commissions, criminal prosecutions, reparations programs, and reforming state institutions—to redress past harms and, in the process, amend the factors that allowed mass violence to occur in the first place. Not all scholars of prevention use these same terms to describe the prevention continuum. For instance, Ernesto Verdeja (2016) writes that contemporary approaches to prevention can be divided into two categories: structural prevention relates to addressing the underlying societal issues that may lead to atrocities so that they do not occur, while operational prevention involves responding to ongoing atrocities. Even so, this distinction maps easily onto Waller’s three-stage model, with upstream and downstream prevention falling within the categories of structural prevention and midstream prevention aligning with operational prevention. That said, upstream prevention involves more than transforming social structures and institutions; it also requires an attentiveness to risks for identity-based violence that can appear outside such structures—for example, the emergence of a new strand of nationalist extremism or the proliferation of hate speech. Even if these phenomena are not embedded in institutions, they can still lay a foundation for atrocities.

This multistage approach expands the potential for intervention both temporally and practically. It opens the window for preventive actions far beyond the moment of immediate crisis, when groups of people are already being killed en masse. But it also vastly augments the toolbox of potential intervening measures that can be taken. When atrocities are already underway, it is incredibly difficult to motivate a perpetrating state to curtail its actions. When prevention work happens upstream and downstream, however, there is greater opportunity to involve more stakeholders in the process of prevention. Most importantly, upstream and downstream prevention efforts do not involve humanitarian military intervention—by far the most contentious of the tools in the atrocity prevention toolbox. In an important distinction from the picture of prevention painted by Kuper and Power, among others, although midstream prevention certainly involves international action and support, much of the work of upstream and downstream prevention takes place on the domestic level. That is, this broader view of prevention argues that most prevention work can and should be inward looking, rather than the product of external intervention from other states.

This expanded conception of prevention, however, does not come without its complications. At times, it can be difficult to distinguish between some of the tools of upstream or structural prevention and the simple practices of good governance. For example, Verdeja writes that structural prevention “focuses on the long-term prevention of harms, such as by conducting risk assessments, promoting liberal democracy, addressing profound economic and political inequalities, fostering the rule of law, encouraging integration into the global capitalist economy, and supporting human welfare and development, among other strategies” (2019). Of course, most of these strategies are a principal concern for all modern democracies, and it is work that they carry out without necessarily thinking of it as atrocity prevention at all. Does that matter? Does something need to be called atrocity prevention for it to be atrocity prevention? Many prevention scholars and practitioners would say no, though the intentional application of what Alex Bellamy (2015) calls an “atrocity prevention lens” may lead to better results, as it would make the prevention of identity-based mass violence a principal goal of the intervention. Nevertheless, there are still many scholars who focus specifically on operational prevention for the very reason that if we call everything atrocity prevention, it may cease to be a meaningful concept. For example, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide recently published an interactive website, “Tools for Atrocity Prevention,”4 which is based on a survey of empirical scholarly studies on the efficacy of atrocity prevention tools. Tellingly, most of the tools listed in this resource fall squarely within midstream or operational prevention frameworks, including arms embargoes, official amnesties, and peacekeeping operations. Such approaches reinforce the idea that prevention is (1) equivalent to response in the midst of ongoing crisis and (2) in the purview of foreign policy and international engagement/intervention, rather than the kinds of domestic measures articulated above relating to structural prevention.

The second development in the study of prevention within the field of genocide studies is characterized by a move away from a geographical divide that frames the Global South as the primary place of atrocity perpetration/victimization and the Global North as preventer/savior. Until recently, as Elisa von Joeden-Forgey puts it, “genocide prevention has been a field located in the Global North but preoccupied with the Global South” (2020, 45). Many contemporary genocide and prevention scholars are pushing for a reorientation of these assumptions, which have too often contributed to neocolonial interventionist policies and practices, in order to undo this unidirectional understanding of prevention (Feierstein 2019). We see this development manifesting in several ways. First, scholars are increasingly highlighting countries in the Global North as perpetrator nations. This perhaps began with the decolonizing impulse in the field, which has focused on settler colonial states as perpetrators of genocide (Moses 2010a; Wolfe 2010; Woolford, Benvenuto, and Hinton 2014; Short 2016). But it is also represented in other ways. For instance, in his recent book, Jeffrey S. Bachman (2022) provides a compelling depiction of how the P-5 (permanent members of the UN Security Council)—the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France—have become “outlaw states” in the ways they have interpreted and exercised the Genocide Convention and R2P not as tools for prevention, but to achieve de facto impunity for themselves and their allies to perpetrate atrocity crimes. Alexander Hinton (2021) has detailed the rising threat of genocide in the United States that coincides with a rise in white nationalism. UK-based atrocity prevention NGO Protection Approaches published a 2019 report detailing a rise in risk of atrocities in the United Kingdom (Ferguson and Fearn 2019). And, of course, Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent atrocities therein have demonstrated yet again that the Global North is not immune to atrocity crimes.

While more and more scholars have shone the spotlight on the Global North as perpetrator rather than savior, when it comes to mass atrocities, fewer have researched the innovative prevention solutions emerging from the Global South. As Susan Appe, Nadia Rubaii, and Kerry Whigham write, the “prejudicial disposition toward the Global South as the sole perpetrators or likely victims of atrocity has also blinded scholars and practitioners in the Global North. Some of the most innovative policy solutions to mitigating risks are emerging out of the Global South: in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, in particular” (2020, 88). Although mass atrocities certainly occur in the Global South, most of these countries do not experience consistent atrocities and therefore have a great deal to teach the world about managing atrocity risk and preventing such violence. Some of these approaches have developed at the national level, such as interministerial bodies charged with promoting a whole-of-government approach to atrocity prevention. Importantly, most of these national mechanisms are designed to have a domestic or inward-looking focus, based on the idea that the best solutions come from within a country, not from without (Capicotto and Scharf 2018; Greene and Sentongo 2019).

Kerry Whigham is Assistant Professor of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention at Binghamton University and Co-Director of the Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention.