As the world looks back at 2014, particularly when talking about prevention of atrocities, it may seem difficult to argue for many successes. Syria rages on with over 200,000 now killed. Violence and record displacement in the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, and Syria have led to an unprecedented four humanitarian crises designated at the highest level by the United Nations.
But before you get too depressed, take a moment to realize that humanity has not been simply standing by and accepting the ongoing cruelty. Below are four successes that show that the news is not all bad in the world of atrocity prevention and that we have something hopeful to build off of for 2015.
UN Rights up Front Initiative
At the end of 2013, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched a new “Rights up Front” initiative meant to improve UN action to safeguard human rights and protection of civilians. The initiative emphasizes severe human rights violations as a leading early warning sign of atrocities and as a lens through which “to identify actions needed to prevent mass atrocities and armed conflict”. The initiative cited and sought to improve upon past failures in Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Sri Lanka by putting a new emphasis on prevention and early action.
In 2014 “Rights up Front” has been mentioned prominently in UN circles and has the potential to strengthen the “responsibility to protect” principle, which in 2015 will mark its tenth year since being endorsed by the UN General Assembly. Implementation of “Rights up Front” in its first year has been mixed with some initial encouraging signs in the decision for the UN Mission in South Sudan to open its doors to civilians (though a continuing challenge), but also challenged by willful neglect in protection of civilians by the UN Mission in Darfur.
Implementation will, without a doubt, remain a daunting challenge in 2015. But positive change starts with leadership and in adopting and promoting the idea that protecting human rights is a key part of atrocities prevention and that civilian protection is at the heart of what the UN is all about, the Secretary General has given those ideals a fighting chance.
Famine Averted in South Sudan
With the year that South Sudan has faced, 50,000 killed and nearly 2 million displaced, it is hard to use “success” in the same sentence as the country.
But it is also important to recognize the efforts that prevented the crisis from becoming much worse. A massive outpouring of international aid including air drops and international diplomatic pressure helped to avert a massive famine that the UN warned could put 50,000 children in danger of starvation. Activists helped by calling upon global and regional leaders to prioritize peace efforts in South Sudan at prominent gatherings including the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and the UN General Assembly meetings.
Famine will remain a real threat in 2015 if South Sudan’s leaders continue to fail to reach a sustainable agreement. More advocacy and more international pressure and aid will be needed, but, even amid the massive suffering already experienced in South Sudan in 2014, the aversion of famine was no small success.
Genocide Prevention in Action
One item that stood out to genocide prevention watchers in 2014 was the rare invocation of genocide prevention by a U.S. president as a priority reason for making a major foreign policy decision.
That is exactly what happened in August 2014 when President Obama cited genocide prevention as a main reason for beginning food drops and limited air strikes in Iraq where thousands of the Yazidi minority faced extermination by Islamic State (ISIS) militants on Mt. Sinjar.
As President Obama stated, “When we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye…We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”
To be sure, genocide prevention was not the only motivating factor and the response to ISIS has broadened since. Some critics argue that citing genocide prevention was opportunistic and hypocritical. Others point to the thousands of civilians who have suffered at the hands of ISIS as proof of failure.
But rarely has there been a case so clear for the need to act on the responsibility to protect civilians from the threat of genocide. ISIS militants surrounded and openly stated their intention to wipe out 40,000 Yazidi. The Iraqi government, in line with the responsibility to protect principle, requested international assistance. Polls have shown the support of the American people for action in the name of genocide prevention. And failure to protect all is an unfair bar that obscures a success in protecting many.
The fact that President Obama took action is significant not only in further establishing genocide prevention as a key foreign policy priority, but also for the thousands of Yazidi who are alive today because of the actions taken in the face of a clear genocide prevention imperative.
The International Criminal Court (ICC)
The ICC has certainly taken its share of big lumps in 2014 including the dismissal of the trial against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and the announced “hibernation” of the Darfur investigation. But the ICC also completed its second conviction, sentencing Congolese militia leader Germain Katanga to 12 years in prison for aiding and abetting war crimes, and the ICC withstood appeals challenges to its first conviction of another Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga.
Despite repeated claims that the ICC is anti-African, many African countries continue to stand strongly behind the court. And the ICC continues to be evoked to address the most prominent atrocity cases today, including a recent vote by the UN General Assembly in favor of referring North Korea to the court.
The successes of the ICC in 2014 are relative but real. Even the dismissal of the Kenyatta case has been argued by some as strategically good for the ICC and atrocities prevention more generally. As Karen Alter, a Northwestern University Professor, argues, the fact that the ICC challenged Kenyatta in the first place may have had a strong mitigating effect on further violence.
Similarly, the recent decision of ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to suspend the Darfur investigation does not take Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir off the hook and is far from the victory that he would have you believe. Bashir still faces charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The case, the evidence, and the arrest warrants all remain. What the Prosecutor’s bold move does is put the onus back on the UN Security Council for failing to the support the ICC in the work that the Council itself referred to the court.
Rather than a case of the ICC giving up, it is a strong case of speaking truth to power. How that ultimately plays out is yet to be seen, but the ICC is not going away. Let would-be war criminals be put on notice. The ICC may have taken its lumps but it is still here, still relevant, and still making would-be human rights abusers take an extra look over their shoulders.
As 2014 draws to a close, it is imperative to reflect upon and learn lessons from prevention failures. But it is equally important to take note of the successes that have taken place.
The four successes outlined above, the maneuverings of the ICC, the establishment of “Rights up Front”, and the actions taken to avert famine and genocide in South Sudan and on Mt. Sinjar herald the start of a greater understanding by the UN and global institutions about the importance of atrocity prevention. None of the successes are unqualified and clearly there is much work to be done. But it is certainly a trend worth building on in 2015 and beyond.