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Atrocities Early Warning Q&A: Christopher Tuckwood

One of the first things I did as part of my work on the Early Warning Project was to scan the field and see who else around the world was doing what to assess risks of mass atrocities. That research led me to the Sentinel Project and its executive director, Christopher Tuckwood, whose work I continue to follow and admire. I recently emailed a few questions to Chris; here are his replies. -JU

What is the Sentinel Project?

We're an NGO dedicated to actively assisting communities threatened by mass atrocities. There are two really essential elements underlying that mission. First is our focus on making use of the best technologies available to facilitate our work. Second is cooperation with threatened communities since they have the most to lose and know a given situation best.

On what issues or areas is the Sentinel Project working most intensively right now?

Our work started off very broadly at first, trying to monitor a variety of situations of concern, or SOCs, as we call them. One of the lessons we've learned though is the need to focus on a few things and do them well, especially since we prioritize places where we can do fieldwork. That's why our main efforts right now are in Kenya and Burma (Myanmar) with the potential to expand to a couple of other places over the next few years.

In Kenya, our flagship project is the Una Hakika information service, which uses mobile phones to monitor and counter atrocity-linked misinformation in the Tana Delta. Over about six months starting in August 2012, Tana experienced a series of interethnic massacres. We visited the area shortly after the violence ended and discovered that misinformation—whether "organic" rumors or intentional disinformation—were very influential in such a low-information environment. The Pokomo community might hear that the Orma had obtained thousands of guns with which to attack them or the Orma might hear about a Pokomo health worker replacing vaccines with poison intended for Orma children. Such rumors are probably untrue but the important thing is whether or not people believe them. Within the local dynamics they strongly contribute to fear, mistrust, hatred, and sometimes violence. Now people can report rumors they hear to Una Hakika, our staff will verify whether or not they are true, and then we report back to the community with neutral, accurate information. Our immediate goal, together with iHub Research in Nairobi and the International Development Research Centre, is to learn how best to contain and counter incendiary rumors while in the long run we want to foster attitudinal change in the area so that people don't just take rumors at face value. Una Hakika is Swahili for "Are you sure?" and that is exactly what we want them to ask of both themselves and other people whenever they hear doubtful information.

Burma is a very different case from Kenya since elements within the government itself (at both the state and national levels) have been implicated in atrocities, so we have to be a lot more careful as we proceed. At the same time, the technological landscape of Burma is significantly behind neighboring countries and even most of Sub-Saharan Africa. Mobile phone penetration is likely still below 10% at the moment—compared to about 80% in even the very underdeveloped Tana Delta—and internet usage is even lower. And that's just for the country as a whole; we are primarily interested in assisting persecuted Muslim groups such as the Rohingya but when you look at some of these minorities and displaced populations, things get even worse. There are lots of challenges there, but the technological options are expected to improve dramatically in the next few years thanks to foreign investment in telecommunications, and we're committed to proceeding.

From the occasional conversations we've had, I gather that the Sentinel Project's mission has evolved a bit from your initial plans. Is that right? If so, why?

That's definitely right and we've evolved in a few ways. First, we started off being very focused on creating an early warning system but as we learned more about the field and faced our own serious resources constraints, we realized that other people people and organizations out there are already doing this kind of work effectively. It makes more sense to use and build upon what others are already doing well rather than to duplicate it ourselves.

Second, we have also broadened our mandate by turning our early focus on genocide specifically into one on mass atrocities more generally while also broadening from strictly prevention-focused activities to other forms of assistance to threatened communities. Of course, genocide is still important and prevention is still the ideal, but this newer mandate gives us a lot more options in terms of what we can do. Now there is no need to debate whether or not something is—or is likely to become—genocide since other types of mass atrocities deserve just as much attention. We also have the ability to look at options after the onset of mass atrocities rather than just before them.

Third, the geographical and chronological parameters of the work we're doing are becoming more granular. What I mean by that is that we're shifting to the local level with an emphasis on what is going to happen—and what can be done about it—in the near term. For example, to the extent that we still do some form of early warning, rather than trying to predict what country is likely to experience mass atrocities in three to five years (for which we can rely on others) we want to predicting which cities, towns, and villages are at risk within the next month, week, or day. Then our responses to those threats will similarly be localized and focused on the near future. Basically, you can think of it as us shifting from the strategic level to the tactical level of operations.

How did you get interested in working on this particular problem?

It's a bit of a story but if I had to trace my interest in atrocity prevention back to a single time or event, I'd say that I was pretty young—around 16—at the time that I learned about the Rwandan genocide. This was several years after it had actually happened but when I stumbled across a documentary about Romeo Dallaire on television one day it really struck a chord with me for some reason and I wanted to do something with my life that addressed the problem. Of course, I was 16 at the time and had pretty limited options, so I spent the next few years educating myself about genocide and then in university I led a lot of student work focused on Darfur. Afterwards, I realized that beyond activism and advocacy a more direct approach was needed to really help the people in harm's way, which is where the concept for the Sentinel Project came from.