Atrocity Prevention: The Role of International Law and Justice


“Atrocity Prevention” is a broad and somewhat amorphous field. It is not the purpose of this Signature Topic Initiative to re-canvass all the work that has been and is being undertaken on atrocity prevention, but rather to concentrate on the international legal issues that this work implicates. The range of international legal issues is itself quite broad, including issues related to international humanitarian and human rights law; international criminal law and accountability; transitional justice; use of force and humanitarian intervention; the role of the UN Security Council and the use of the veto; efforts to limit civilian casualties in armed conflict; the law governing dangerous speech, incitement, and protected free speech; economic and other sanctions; immunities; the role of peacekeepers; refugee and migration law; and state responsibility.

The intent of this project is to foster discussion and greater interest in the relevant international legal issues, to help concentrate attention, and to do all this in a collaborative, discursive, and non-partisan manner. There is of course much on-going work on the legal issues associated with Atrocity Prevention. It is our hope to draw upon these ongoing efforts and to stimulate further contributions from Society members and Interest Groups, NGO partners, policy-makers, practitioners, scholars, and students. This would include projects related to Atrocity Prevention in symposia, panels, podcasts and written submissions -- including for AJIL, ASIL Insights, AJIL Unbound, and abstracts for the Research Forum – and any other activities that may shed important light on these issues.

While this Landing Page is in the early stages of construction, our goal is to develop it to serve as a convenient, one-stop portal to these activities – a gateway through which the public can find out about activities taking place and work being done in the many different parts of the Society. It is our plan to make all these works accessible from this page, with the hope of making it a valuable resource for those interested in the topic.

We are excited about this initiative, hope that you are too, and thank you for your patience as we construct this Landing Page and your interest in this important topic.

A blueprint for U.S. Government efforts to prevent atrocities was set out in the landmark report of the bipartisan Genocide Prevention Task Force, co-chaired by former Secretary of State Albright and former Secretary of Defense Cohen that was launched in November 2007. The report concluded that, beyond the moral imperative, preventing atrocities is imperative both for our national in¬terests and for our leadership position in the world, that it was an achievable goal, but that the United States needed to develop a comprehensive policy for prevention as a mainstream objective of U.S. foreign policy in order to achieve that goal. The report set out practical policy recommendations to enhance the capacity of the U.S. government to respond to emerging threats. A key underlying idea was that -- by engaging early, improving analytical capabilities, building the knowledge of staff and partners, developing our understanding of the most effective diplomatic and programming responses, and demonstrating leadership – the United States could improve its ability to identify in advance situations that posed the greatest risks of spawning atrocities and its capacities to deal with such situations when they arose.

For its part, the Obama Administration implemented one of the key recommendations of the Albright-Cohen report by establishing an interagency Atrocities Prevention Board (APB). The APB was primarily intended to strengthen U.S. atrocity prevention and response tools and to co-ordinate a whole-of-government approach to at-risk situations. The APB was also mandated to encourage multilateral activity around the atrocities prevention imperative. The issue resonated with many in the international community, and the United Nations, other states, and of course numerous NGO’s and others played important roles, both operationally and in terms of bringing attention to the issues.

This topic is particularly timely. We now stand ten years after the release of the Albright-Cohen report, twenty years after drafting the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, and we will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Genocide Convention in December 2018. While much has been done, crisis situations abound, with horrific tragedies continuing to unfold from Syria to Myanmar to South Sudan to the Central African Republic and elsewhere. Past efforts undertaken by the Obama Administration are being assessed, and it appears inevitable that the present and future Administrations will need to face the underlying and recurring issues of how to prioritize and deal with situations presenting the risk of mass atrocities for the foreseeable future.