Start of Main Content

Atrocity Prevention Lessons Learned: Common Theme in New US Strategy and Simon-Skjodt Center Project

The UN Verification Mission in Colombia (UNVMC), with security and logistical support from the Colombian Armed Forces and help from some members of the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army), cleared 750 of 998 FARC-EP arms caches. The operation required major logistical planning and effort, involving more than 40,000 kilometers travelled by helicopter, boat, land vehicles and horses. July 24, 2017. Bojayá, Colombia. UN Photo/Hector Latorre.

One strong theme in the new US government’s United States Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities is the importance of evaluation, learning, and adaptation. Several of the strategy’s “priority actions” relate to this theme, including the following commitments:

  • “Utilize reflective learning and conduct evaluations of atrocity prevention initiatives to build the atrocity prevention body of knowledge, identify effective tactics, and adapt interventions, as needed.”

  • “Promote data collection and information sharing on…lessons learned and best practices, including on atrocity prevention tools.”

  • “Incorporate lessons learned and best practices and will continuously adapt its approach and recommendations when new information and lessons become known.”

These elements of the strategy reflect the same basic tenets that motivated the Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center to conduct the project, “Lessons Learned in Preventing and Responding to Mass Atrocities” —namely, that atrocity prevention efforts should be informed by what has been learned about how to accomplish this goal, and that continued learning is crucial to help address gaps in our current knowledge.

The Center’s “lessons learned” project is one way the Museum seeks to carry out the charge to identify lessons from history that can potentially contribute to saving lives by preventing future genocides and related crimes against humanity.

The main goal of the project is to understand better how policy makers, across all levels of government, can take effective action to prevent mass atrocity crimes and protect civilian populations in situations where they face serious threats of group-targeted, systematic violence. To identify these insights, we reviewed academic articles and think tank reports, and interviewed experts. We then distilled this body of policy-relevant knowledge into an accessible, practical web resource. We hope that the project results will be useful for policy makers, researchers, and atrocity prevention advocates. 

Another commonality between the new US government strategy and the Center’s Lessons Learned project is the emphasis on the availability of a diverse set of tools that can be employed to help prevent and respond to mass atrocities. The strategy includes a “non-exhaustive list of illustrative tools,” including diplomacy, foreign assistance/programming; defense support and security cooperation; sanctions and visa restrictions; justice and accountability; and strategic communications. The Center’s new “Tools for Atrocity Prevention” website brings together information on several of these tools and a number of others, addressing four key questions:

  • What can be done to help prevent mass atrocities? The website highlights nearly two dozen different tools (or types of action) that external actors can use to help prevent mass atrocities;

  • What does research say about when and how to use atrocity prevention tools most effectively? It summarizes findings based on systematic reviews of research on atrocity prevention tools to help inform discussions about which tools are most likely to be effective in different situations and how they can be implemented to greatest effect;

  • Where is more research on atrocity prevention tools most needed? It helps identify policy-relevant gaps in research, thereby encouraging scholars to focus new research on topics where it will make the greatest policy impact;

  • What informational resources exist regarding US government use of these tools? It complements the research summaries with brief illustrations of cases in which the tools have been used to help prevent or respond to mass atrocities and a set of links to external resources, such as reports on relevant US laws, government websites, and examples of relevant UN Security Council resolutions.

It is no accident that “Tools for Atrocity Prevention” is meant to help people think through how to help prevent mass atrocities. Focusing squarely on the how would actually represent an important shift in mindset. Too many people continue to question whether mass atrocities matter to the United States and whether there is anything that can be done to prevent them.

The new strategy is admirably clear on these points, reiterating that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States,” and declaring “timely and effective action to anticipate, prevent, and respond to atrocities” as the strategy’s “envisioned end state.”

The more important challenge will be to see how these commitments on paper translate into real world action. Policy makers must act as wisely as they can, while continuing to learn from experience.