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Distilling the Atrocity Prevention Literature: A Guide for Policy Makers and Researchers

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.

By Daniel Solomon

Having reviewed nearly 400 research reports across 12 atrocity prevention tools for our Lessons Learned project, we know that it can be challenging to boil down this body of research to a few key substantive conclusions.

We designed the interactive “Tools for Atrocity Prevention” website to give people a flexible way to explore the results of our research review, including which factors are associated with a specific tool’s successful use.

To help policy makers and researchers seeking to understand our key findings at a glance, we created the following chart (to complement the project executive summary).

In essence, the chart shows which factors have been studied most extensively across all 12 atrocity prevention tools we reviewed, which factors are associated with greater success across multiple tools, and where research gaps exist.

Table: Number of studies associated with each contextual and design factor. View larger version.

The numbers reflect the total number of findings we recorded about the factor for a particular tool. The shading of each box indicates the strength of evidence that the factor is linked to effectiveness of the tool. The greater the number of positive findings and the lower the number of negative and null findings, the stronger we consider the research evidence that the factor is associated with success of the tool. We weigh evidence about effects on mass atrocities more highly than evidence about effects on related outcomes. The darker squares indicate findings supported by stronger evidence, while the lighter squares indicate weaker evidence. 

So, how should policy makers and researchers use this chart?

For policy makers, start by looking across the rows. Where you see darker boxes in several columns, it means that relatively strong evidence indicates that the factor in that row is associated with greater effectiveness of multiple atrocity prevention tools. This is the case for a few factors, especially (1) strong commitment, (2) international coordination, and (3) the use of multiple tools. As we wrote in the executive summary, “None of these factors should be read as a prerequisite for success, but the presumption should be that atrocity prevention tools are more likely to be effective when these factors are present.” Notably, these findings are consistent with other research on what makes atrocity prevention efforts more effective, such as recent case-study research by Alex Bellamy and Ivan Simonovic.

For researchers, the chart can be used as a kind of “evidence gap map.” Looking first down the columns, you can see there are large gaps in research about success factors associated with several of the atrocity prevention tools we reviewed. In particular, on comprehensive economic sanctions, targeted sanctions, support to non-state armed groups, security assistance, and naming and shaming, our review found little research evidence on which factors are associated with the tool’s effectiveness in addressing mass atrocities or closely related outcomes.

Researchers can also look across the rows to see which factors have been studied across multiple atrocity prevention tools. We recorded findings on only a few factors across more than three tools. To our surprise, the research gaps are especially large for factors related to the context or nature of atrocities, such as whether atrocities take place during an armed conflict or during peacetime and whether atrocities are committed by a government or by non-state groups. More research is clearly needed to aid policy makers in identifying the atrocity prevention tools more likely to be effective in a particular context.

As we wrote in the project executive summary, advancing future research about atrocity prevention will involve bringing researchers into conversation with policy makers. Ideally, researchers should be guided in significant part by policy makers' perspectives on what questions are most relevant to the choices they commonly face, and policy makers should understand the potential contributions and limits of research. We plan to use the conclusions of our research review as one basis for that conversation going forward. As different as the perspectives of policy makers and researchers are, they can make progress based on the common interest in improving atrocity prevention efforts by building a stronger evidence base.

Daniel Solomon is a researcher with the Simon-Skjodt Center.