A United Nations armored vehicle passes displaced people walking towards the U.N. camp where they have sought shelter in Malakal, South Sudan, Monday, Dec. 30, 2013. (AP / Ben Curtis)

A United Nations armored vehicle passes displaced people walking towards the U.N. camp where they have sought shelter in Malakal, South Sudan, Monday, Dec. 30, 2013. (AP / Ben Curtis)

In a year that has seen “more new mass killings than any year since the early 1990s”, with ongoing atrocities in Syria, Burma and Darfur, and alarming new levels of violence in Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan, it may be hard to think about successes in the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities.

Yet not all the news is bad. Unprecedented efforts to prevent and stop mass atrocities took place in 2013. Lest we lose hope, it is important to recognize what successes there have been. So here are a few highlights in the fight to end genocide and mass atrocities in 2013.

  1. Awareness of atrocity crises – there is a strong argument to be made that 2013 has seen a higher level of attention to mass atrocity crises and cases of rapid response than ever before.
    The outbreak of mass violence in CAR and South Sudan saw relatively quick attention at the United Nations Security Council and in the capitals of world powers, resulting in rapid deployment of French and African Union troops in CAR and authorization to double the number of peacekeepers in South Sudan. The White House Atrocities Prevention Board, whose role has largely been obscured, was recognized at a Senate Foreign Relations Hearing as playing a key role in the CAR response. It is too early to know where these crises and the international response will end up, but the fact that there is high-level attention and an international response is an improvement from years past.For perspective, a new book by Gary Bass, The Blood Telegram, documents how the highest levels of the U.S. government knew about mass killings in Bangladesh in 1971, yet chose to ignore them. While not unthinkable, it is much less likely that such a level of killing could be obscured today. For a more recent example look to Darfur where it took several months before the violence was mentioned regularly in major media outlets. Today, coverage of CAR and South Sudan is widespread. This is not to say that awareness and action are where they need to be, but progress has been made.
  2. Defeat of M23 Rebels in DRC – The year 2013 saw the first ever United Nations Intervention Brigade, authorized to take offensive action to protect civilians.
    The conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are far from resolved, but when you think back to a year ago with the M23 rebel group having taken over the key city of Goma and evidence of direct support for the group from Rwanda, the fact that UN peacekeepers and DRC troops effectively defeated M23 and that a peace agreement was signed this month is clearly a success. International pressure on Rwanda and high-level attention, including by the new U.S. Special Envoy Former Senator Russ Feingold, helped to secure peace with the deadliest group in eastern DRC, estimated to have displaced some 800,000 people and responsible for hundreds of deaths and rapes. The brigade has now turned its attention to the next big rebel group in the region. Eastern DRC is far from solved, but this unprecedented effort, combining proactive peacekeepers and robust diplomacy, gives reason for hope.
  3. Science and technology – The year 2013 saw the unprecedented use of unarmed drones by a UN mission to monitor the movement of rebels as well as civilians in need in DRC.
    The Satellite Sentinel Project continued to record evidence and to provide warnings of the movement of troops and military equipment along the Sudan-South Sudan border. The Tech Challenge helped to catalyze the innovative use of algorithms to predict atrocities and provide early warning. And new tools in forensic science helped prove that thousands of innocent Ixil Mayans were murdered in the 1980s, a key part of the case against former leader Rios Montt. Advances in science and technology can be and have been a double-edged sword, but 2013 saw a slew of efforts to adapt them to the goal of ending mass atrocities.
  4. Accountability – While justice for committing mass atrocities has been slow, the trend toward accountability seen in 2012 continued in 2013.
    The year 2012 saw the convictions of Charles Taylor (the first head of state convicted for atrocities since World War II) and Thomas Lubanga (the first person convicted by the International Criminal Court) and key trials for atrocities in Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda. In 2013, the ICC withstood its greatest challenge to date from the African Union. And former Guatemalan leader Rios Montt became the first former head of state convicted of genocide in a national court. Though the conviction was overturned, the historic trial forced him to face his past crimes and helped to ensure that the atrocities that occurred in Guatemala in the 1980s will not be forgotten. Other key trials for mass killings in Cambodia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia continue apace.
  5. Kenya – Proving successful prevention is by definition impossible.
    But efforts in Kenya in 2013 provide a strong case. At the start of 2013, the elections in Kenya were at the top of just about every atrocity prevention watch list. Over 1,000 people had been killed in post-election violence in 2007-2008 and there were several troubling warning signs that a repeat could occur. The international community responded with robust diplomacy and presence on the ground and worked with domestic groups dedicated to ensuring a peaceful election. While some violence did occur around the time of the election, no mass repeat occurred. While the case cannot be proven with certainty, Kenya in 2013 was a successful example of atrocity prevention and illustrates some important lessons to be learned.

With the level of mass killings seen in 2013, it can hardly be called a year of success for the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities. The glaring cases of mass killings and failures cannot be ignored. But neither should the newest efforts in the fight to counter them. Looking back at 2013 there is a lot to learn, not only from the stark failures, but also from the too often overshadowed successes.

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