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Understanding and Preventing Mass Atrocity Crimes outside of a Crisis Context

Date: Friday, 12 November 2010
Time: 2.30pm – 4.30pm
Venue: Seminar Rooms 2 and 3, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, S4, Level B4.


Click play to listen to the audio recording of the seminar.

Speaker: Mr Francis Deng, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide.
Chairperson: Amb. Barry Desker, Dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).



As we pass the five-year mark following the commitment of states to the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) – the principle that states have an obligation to protect their populations from the mass atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing – it is timely to take stock of the status of the nascent RtoP norm and consider the successes and failures in its continuing implementation.

Within the context of a broader strategy to operationalise the RtoP principle, Mr Francis Deng, the Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, aimed to raise awareness of the root causes of genocide and to plot a way forward for states to prevent its occurrence.

Due to the controversial nature of the term ‘genocide’, and because in the midst of crises, discussion is often reduced to whether a situation can actually be termed ‘genocide’, Mr Deng’s presentation focused on how to advance an agenda for the prevention of genocide outside of a crisis context.

He contended that genocide is an extreme form of identity related conflict, which is often provoked by horizontal inequalities vis-à-vis access to political power and economic and social resources. Therefore, Mr Deng advocates a structural approach to prevention, incorporating strategies such as the establishment of good governance, the promotion of respect for democratic values and broad respect for the dignity of the human person, as well as the development of legal norms and the rule of law, including effective judicial systems.



In 2005, at the UN World Summit, in a landmark show of global consensus, states expressed their support for the principle of RtoP. Underlying the RtoP is essentially the transformation of the notion of state sovereignty – from one constituted by a ‘right’ to one conditional on ‘responsibility’.

The core principle here, ‘sovereignty as responsibility’, was an idea first explored by Mr Deng in his role as Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the late 1990s in response to the dilemma posed by the lack of a protection framework for IDPs. While refugees enjoyed international status and protection (at least in principle), IDPs lacked any legal or institutional protection. In situations of intrastate conflict or unrest, particularly in the context of the fragile post-Cold War environment in Africa, Mr Deng observed that IDPs often faced discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion from the rights enjoyed by citizens. Furthermore, states would hold up the principle of sovereignty in a very negative way as a barricade against any concern expressed by the international community. This presented the issue of a severe vacuum of responsibility.

In this context, Mr Deng saw an urgent need to reconcile the notion of state sovereignty with the protection needs of individuals, specifically IDPs. To this end, Mr Deng and his colleagues came up with the notion of ‘sovereignty as responsibility’. An implication of this was that responsibility for protection would have to become internalised, with the responsibility shifting to the local, national and regional levels.

Mr Deng acknowledged that genocide, as one of the four crimes that the RtoP encompasses, is a particularly sensitive and emotional issue. In situations where crimes of genocide are potentially unfolding, the best that we can often get is debate over whether a situation can technically be considered genocide, and this is usually accompanied by a substantial amount of denial. In the past therefore, genocide has typically only been recognised in retrospect, after many people have lost their lives. In view of this dilemma, the aim of Mr Deng’s agenda, which focuses on the prevention of genocide outside of a crisis context, is to minimise the chances that the international community will actually be confronted with the predicament of responding to apparent crimes of genocide.

In order to frame his broad strategy for prevention, Mr Deng suggested that genocide is essentially an extreme form of identity related conflict. However, it is effectively horizontal inequalities – differences in access to power, resources and rights to citizenship among different groups – that typically act as the catalyst for transforming this diversity into violent conflict. As such, conflicts often emanate from gross inequalities, the denial of rights and a reaction to the intolerable dehumanisation of people.

With inequitable diversity often at the core of genocide, Mr Deng suggested that constructively managing diversity and institutionalising equality in societies should therefore be the primary avenue for preventing genocide at an early stage – before situations escalate to a point where denial sets in. Some of the key avenues for reducing inequitable diversity are via the development of good governance, respect for democratic values, respect for the dignity of the human person, development of legal norms, and the rule of law. Essentially, this means promoting respect for fundamental rights and equality irrespective of differences in race, ethnicity or religion.

As part of his role in alerting relevant actors to situations that could deteriorate into genocidal crimes, Mr Deng outlined eight factors that his Office considered risk factors and which constituted its framework of analysis:

  • inter-group relations and how these have historically played out, including discrimination and past conflicts
  • the existence of circumstances that hinder the state from preventing genocide
  • the presence of illegal arms or armed elements
  • the motivations of leaders and actions that encourage divisions
  • the presence of dynamic factors and circumstances that facilitate the perpetration of genocide
  • the presence of elements of acts of genocide
  • evidence of the intent to destroy, or destroy in part, which is at the core of genocide
  • the presence of potential trigger factors, e.g., elections

Ultimately, this framework of analysis not only represents a tool for gathering information, but also a means for governments to examine their strengths, weaknesses and possible areas for improvement, i.e., it acts as a tool for prevention through self-scrutinisation and regulation.

Mr Deng argued that with diversity constituting the underlying (but not proximate) cause of genocide, the potential for genocidal conflict is therefore universal. This suggests that some countries are successful in managing their diversity where others are less successful, or have failed completely. Mr Deng pointed to the experience of Singapore as a model for the successful management of diversity and as evidence that diversity need not threaten national unity and peace. In Sudan, on the other hand, he noted that diversity had been grossly mismanaged. In fact, decolonisation in Africa had often witnessed the ‘diversity’ that was created through colonial rule (e.g., by bringing together different groups into nation states, and the implementation of divide-and-rule strategies) erupt into tensions. Indeed, it was in the context of intrastate tensions that the African Union (AU) had instituted the principle of ‘non-indifference’ into its Constitution, which implied an obligation on the part of African states to intervene in neighbouring countries torn apart by conflict and extreme human suffering. This represented an example of sovereignty being moderated in line with the norms of a particular regional context.

The strategy that Mr Deng put forward for the prevention of genocide could be seen to fit within continuing efforts to frame the RtoP as essentially a call for prevention. While the RtoP comprises three pillars, namely, the state’s own responsibility to protect, the responsibility of the international community to provide assistance and capacity building, and the international community’s responsibility to respond (and ultimately be more assertive) in the face of mass atrocity crimes, there was still a fairly wide perception that military intervention (merely one of a number of responsive measures such as sanctions) constituted the very essence of the RtoP. However, gradually, through conscious efforts to increase awareness on the three pillars, and emphasise the relative importance of the first two pillars, Deng noted that there has been a shift in favour of the RtoP. However, Mr Deng insisted that while a broad preventive culture – one that is not obsessed with a fear of intervention – is the goal, there still needed to be an awareness of the need to accept the possibility of pillar three as a last resort if the need arose in the future.

Finally, Mr Deng noted that there is constructive debate on the RtoP occurring across the world, although he recognised that there were still significant differences among regions, including strong reservations in some. He proposed that a regional approach was the most propitious way forward for implementing the RtoP. To this end, while in the region, Mr Deng met with representatives from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Committee and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), as well as held consultations in Jakarta and Cambodia. He noted his willingness to work on the broad RtoP agenda with ASEAN as a key sub-regional grouping. Indeed, contrary to perceptions that ASEAN is focused on the non-interference principle, he said that there was an encouraging degree of responsiveness to his approach in the region.


The ensuing discussion covered a variety of themes related to the RtoP, including the role of civil society in implementing the principle, the tricky issue of consensus, the eight-point framework of analysis, including its place in an RtoP early warning system, the concept of ‘non-indifference’, the issue of impunity and the legal implications of the RtoP, and ASEAN’s role in operationalising the principle in the region.

In terms of civil society organisations (CSOs), Mr Deng stressed that they are very important partners, and play an invaluable role in gathering early information on the ground and in raising awareness. For this reason, the UN has held periodic meetings with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and CSOs. Civil society plays a role different from but complementary to the UN. As an arm of the Secretary-General, there are inherent constraints on Mr Deng’s Office; CSOs, on the other hand, are generally not restricted from expressing their views openly. This suggests a useful synergy between the UN (working somewhat discreetly) and the non-governmental community (through their speaking out).

In terms of the eight-point framework of analysis, it was queried how the UN intends to utilise or act upon these identified risk factors. The UN gathers information daily, predominantly through working with other UN bodies, including those on the ground, and then processes and analyses the information to identify possible risk or crisis situations in order to advise the Secretary-General and UN Security Council (UNSC) of such.

In terms of establishing an early warning system, Mr Deng suggested that 80 per cent of the said framework could actually be applied to the four mass atrocity crimes, and the need now would be to identify the final factors. In regards to establishing an overarching early warning system, Mr Deng recognised that the AU, European Union and various UN departments each had their own early warning frameworks; however, there was something to be said for this diversity, as compared to watering them down by attempting to incorporate them into one overriding framework.

A number of points raised by seminar participants revolved around the notion of ‘non-indifference’. Mr Deng reflected on the willingness of African states to act upon this principle in the context of the broader implications it had for the importance of proponents framing the RtoP appropriately. Rather than using the term ‘intervention’, ‘non-indifference’ implies positive behaviour on the part of states who engage with a neighbouring country that is experiencing tensions. Reflecting on his experiences, Deng argued that when engagement was framed as a way to help a country fulfil its responsibilities, rather than as a threat to its sovereignty, it proved to be an effective moral challenge that countries generally responded positively to.

With regard to the issue of impunity in post-conflict societies, Mr Deng admitted that it was a real concern. He argued that besides putting structures in place for prevention, there needs to be consideration of measures to punish violators. However, he also acknowledged a serious dilemma, that is, the (sometimes competing) demands for ‘justice’ on the one hand, and the desire of others to move on and forge reconciliation on the other. In some cases, he recognised that if justice is sought, there is actually a risk of perpetuating divisions. He referred to the clear tension in Cambodian society between those who demand legal justice for top Khmer Rouge cadre, and those who want to move on. Ultimately, even though a clear-cut answer is not possible, there is nonetheless a need to strike some sort of balance. In South Africa, the truth and reconciliation commission is recognised as having rather successfully balanced demands for justice and reconciliation.

This led to a related discussion on the political versus legal dimensions of the RtoP, with the point raised by a seminar participant that some Southeast Asian nations are inherently cautious toward legal monitoring mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court (ICC). Mr Deng responded that although the RtoP is very much a political concept, one which goes beyond the issue of prevention, where mass atrocity crimes have been committed, RtoP is also inextricably a legal one. Whether the case goes to the ICC is another question. However, Mr Deng reaffirmed his support for the ICC. Given that the ICC effectively acts as a deterrent, it is part and parcel of a broader strategy of prevention.

If multilateral consensus on engagement with a country experiencing mass atrocity violence is not possible, Deng conceded that intervention, although a very thorny issue, could in principle be an option; however, that would depend upon the merits of the case (the strength of the humanitarian need) and thus would need to be judged on a case-by-case basis. In this context, Mr Deng referred to the Australian-led engagement in Timor-Leste which preceded formal endorsement, as well as the UK’s involvement in Sierra Leone.

In terms of Southeast Asia’s role in implementing an RtoP agenda that incorporates a broad preventive strategy, Mr Deng emphasised the need for consensus to be contextualised. Global consensus is not really feasible, given that the UN itself is somewhat divided, and given the constraint posed by the UNSC permanent five’s veto power which allows them to prevent interventions based on self-interest. Sub-regional consensus is therefore more likely to be achieved, in accordance with a sense of solidarity and common purpose. In this context, Mr Deng reflected on discussions regarding Myanmar in the post-Cyclone Nargis period in the UN fora. Southeast Asian countries had opposed international interventions and implicitly expressed the view that it was an issue for ASEAN – and not the UN – to address. Indeed, in spite of ASEAN’s adherence to the non-interference principle, Mr Deng said that he was struck by the organisation’s lofty vision of establishing a Community, which suggested that, while it still upheld respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, its core values were beginning to evolve to a point where people’s needs were considered in tandem with traditional state security concerns. Therefore, while progress is likely to be gradual, developments such as this one suggest that consensus would more likely be achieved at the sub-regional level.

Finally, in looking to the future, discussions examined what had changed in the discourse and debate surrounding the RtoP since it was first agreed upon in 2005. A seminar participant questioned whether the key concern was indeed the kinds of information available (referring to early warning and prevention), or more so the political will to actually engage. If another Rwanda were to occur, would things be done differently this time around? Mr Deng acknowledged these reservations, but insisted that a certain progression in thinking must be assumed. He pointed to the significance of making people and governments aware that there are higher standards by which they will be judged. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that the potential for a similar response to a future Rwanda still existed, and in this context, reaffirmed the critical importance of engendering a broad culture of prevention. However, he suggested that with his Office as a focal point in the international community – with the aim of alerting key stakeholders to potential risk or crisis situations and mobilising action – the likelihood for a more responsible response was now greater. And, ultimately, as long as there is an opening that allows for constructive dialogue, there are opportunities for progress.


About the speaker:

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Mr Francis Deng of Sudan as the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide on 29 May 2007. The Special Adviser acts as a catalyst to raise awareness of the causes and dynamics of genocide, to alert relevant actors where there is a risk of genocide and to advocate and mobilise for appropriate action.

Prior to this, Mr Deng served as Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons from 1992 to 2004, and from 2002 to 2003 was Senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace. Mr Deng served as Human Rights Officer in the UN secretariat from 1967 to 1972 and as the Ambassador of Sudan to Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the United States. He has also served as Sudan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. Mr Deng is co-recipient with Roberta Cohen of the 2005 Grawemeyer Award for 'Ideas Improving World Order' and the 2007 Merage Foundation American Dream Leadership Award. In 2000, Mr Deng received the Rome Prize for Peace and Humanitarian Action.

Posted on: 12/11/2010 2:30:00 PM  |  Topic: Internal and Cross-Border Conflict

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