A Blueprint for Local, Nonviolent Responses to Mass Atrocities (Part I)

8 Aug

*This post originally appeared on the Sentinel Project blog.

The task of preventing and responding to mass atrocities mostly falls to international organizations.  While the UN and other regional organizations often develop approaches to mass atrocities and political violence, bureaucracy and competing political interests inhibit timely and effective mitigation efforts.  In light of this response gap, the persistently common occurrence of intrastate wars, and a peacebuilding culture that disproportionately focuses on the national level, prevention and response strategies must further examine how communities can protect themselves from the specter of mass killing.

To understand how nonviolent, local responses to mass atrocities can be effective, a brief typology of mass atrocities is helpful.  According to Harff (2003) and Valentino (2004), mass atrocities almost always occur during war.  In these moments of upheaval, extremists have a better chance of seizing power and the pursuing their radical goals.  While such agendas certainly do not always lead to mass killing, if perpetrators do not see another way to achieve their goal mass atrocities often result.  However, since perpetrator groups aren’t unitary, strategic choice theories that focus on groups on the whole aren’t fully explanatory.  Other conditions that have been demonstrated to be conducive to mass atrocities are: authoritarian regimes, group-based inequality, political polarization, and the existence of two main ethnic groups in which one is much smaller than the other.  Many scholars have emphasized the importance of political polarization and ethnic cleavages in predicting mass atrocities but, as Valentino writes, these are actually ineffective indicators.  As Kalyvas (2006) writes, wars may in fact be the main bases for ideologies and not vice versa.  So while ethnic cleavages are certainly a cause of mass atrocities, they themselves are largely shaped by conflict.

While scholars such as Daniel Goldhagen have argued that mass atrocities occur because of widespread hate and complicity among the perpetrator group, the reality is more complex.  Valentino argues that for mass atrocities to occur, it really only takes a small group of perpetrators in power and the complicity of society, which is uncomfortably often quite forthcoming.  Even in historical mass atrocities such as Rwanda, a relatively small number of individuals actually participated in the killing.  Killers are almost always part of military or paramilitary organizations, though civilians do play a large role in obtaining information and giving denunciations to armed actors.  In that sense are mass atrocities often quite personal.  As Kalyvas points out, these micro-level interactions help explain the often vast variation in violence levels by area in civil wars.

Responding nonviolently to mass atrocities on the local level is often a necessity as communities rarely have the military might to take on armed actors (though vigilante groups in Mexico and village defense forces in Colombia and Liberia are examples).  These strategies are surely not comprehensive for atrocity prevention on the whole as some scenarios make civilian actions futile.  Therefore, more comprehensive strategies must focus on vertical integration of prevention strategies.  However, scholarship on atrocity prevention and response has historically neglected the role that civilians play in their own defense (that fact was a main motivator for conducting this research).  Scholars frequently and erroneously charge that once violence in a mass atrocity situation has begun, there is little civilians can do to stop it.  This statement relies on two false assumptions.  First, it sees violence as dichotomous: either there is a mass atrocity or there isn’t.  Mass atrocities are a process in which violence builds and self-reinforces.  Certainly it becomes harder for civilians to intervene further along in the process, but that does not mean there is a point at which they immediately lose all effectiveness.  Second, it ignores the role civilians play in encouraging or slowing violence.  Numerous historical examples, from Colombia to Greece to the Philippines (Kaplan, Kalyvas, and Hancock and Mitchell respectively) demonstrate how civilians are able to decrease violence through strategic interactions with armed forces.  Finally, an emerging theme in conflict scholarship (Autesserre, Kalyvas, Kaplan) is attempting to understand the micro-dynamics of violence.  While more scholarship is certainly needed on the subject, the influence of individual civilians and communities on the course of armed conflict is likely larger than scholars previously believed.

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