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Video: What are Mass Atrocities?

Lessons in Leadership: Criminal Justice Approaches for Preventing Mass Atrocities

This video provides an introduction to the four types of mass atrocities – crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and ethnic cleansing – and discusses the importance of mass atrocity prevention.


- [Narrator] Mass atrocities is a general term that refers to widespread and often systematic acts of violence against civilians and other non-combatants.

- [Scott Straus] It can take different forms. It can be murder, it can be enslavement, it could be rape, it could be forced displacement on a large scale, and so when people talk about mass atrocities, they're talking about these four different crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing.

- [Narrator] The Holocaust, the systematic state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945, changed the way the world thought about large-scale systematic crimes committed against civilians. Combined with promises about freedom that the Allied Powers made during World War II, the lessons of the Holocaust catalyzed the international community to make human rights a pillar of the new rules-based international system. This commitment is reflected in the UN Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and international treaties.

In 2005, the UN General Assembly endorsed the concept of the Responsibility to Protect. This concept says that states have a responsibility to protect their populations from mass atrocities, and that if they fail to do so, the international community must be prepared to take appropriate and decisive collective action in accordance with the UN Charter to protect populations.

Four forms of violence are often associated with mass atrocities: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing.

- [Scott Straus] We know that this kind of violence creates trauma for generations, creates suffering, mental, physical suffering for large numbers of people, and that doesn't go away, and can often lead to future cycles of violence, and future cycles of displacement.

So once this violence occurs, it sort of creates a huge wound in societies, and that can take generations to overcome, and frequently leads to, sort of, future instability.

- [Narrator] The term "crimes against humanity" evolved through customary international law, and the first prosecution of this crime took place in 1945 at the Nuremberg Trials, where Nazi leaders were prosecuted at the end of World War II. Article VII of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which came into force in 2002, reflects the most current and common definition.

- [Scott Straus] Crimes against humanity is a term that essentially refers to systematic or widespread attacks against civilians. It's a set of rules to protect those who are not engaged in actual combat, from violence, from torture, from murder, from lack of medical attention.

- [Narrator] In November 2021, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum released a report documenting crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs, committed by the People's Republic of China's government. As of this production, experts continue to discuss whether crimes committed by the PRC against the Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups within the PRC constitute genocide.

- [Gulchehra Hoja] In the beginning, we Uyghur journalists was the first who opened up this issue to the world, and because of our language, and we all had grown up in the region, we know the situation there, and the politics there, so much easier for us to access what's going on in those camps, and approximately we seen 1.8 million people in those camps.

But it was 2018 we started using this number, but as we know, those camps are still, you know, expanding, and people still, you know, getting arrested. So we believe right now the number is much higher than that.

- [Narrator] War crimes, by definition, occur during armed conflict. They are violations of the law of war that incur individual criminal responsibility under international law, including, for example, willful killing of civilians, torture, unlawful transfer or deportation, willful killing of prisoners of war, wanton destruction of property not justified by military necessity, perfidy, or hostage taking.

Since the conflict in Syria broke out in 2011, the Assad regime has been responsible for innumerable atrocities, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. These atrocities include the use of chemical weapons, killings, torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, and other inhumane acts.

- [Dr. Mohammed Sahloul] Every few hours you have new victims of barrel bombing or air strikes, and you have to take care of them. I've seen children pointing to the sky, and then you see this dot, which is the helicopter, and you hear the sound, thrumming sound of the helicopter, and then this dot will throw another dot, and this is a barrel bomb. Barrel bomb is a big barrel that is stuffed with TNT, and shrapnels, and it's thrown on a neighborhood. It is a weapon of mass destruction. It can destroy the whole block, and the only thing that you can do if you are a civilian and you are seeing this, that you can pray and run, or hide.

- [Narrator] The term "genocide" was coined by Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who as early as 1933 sought a new term to ensure the legal protection of groups such as ethnic, religious, and social minorities.

On December 9th, 1948, the United Nations approved an international treaty known as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention established genocide as an international crime, and has been ratified or acceded to by 152 states.

- [Scott Straus] Genocide in international law are acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such. And typically, there are two especially important parts to that definition when thinking about genocide: the targeting of groups, and the targeting of groups for their destruction.

- [Narrator] On the evening of April 6th, 1994, a surface-to-air missile shot down the plane carrying Rwanda's president, Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, as it was landing in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. The president of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, also died in the crash. In the aftermath, extremist leaders of Rwanda's Hutu majority launched a campaign to wipe out the country's Tutsi minority, as well as moderate Hutu leaders who might oppose their actions. From April to July 1994, experts estimate between 500,000 and one million Tutsi were slaughtered in what became one of the most well-known cases of genocide since the Holocaust. Many moderate Hutus were also killed during this period.

- [Norah Bagarinka] The guy who was my gardener was heading the roadblock, and they were telling that, "Tutsi here, Hutu here, if you know you are Tutsi, this side, if you know you are Hutu, this side." Then I started to ask myself, "What do I count myself?" Do I go to my husband's side, since I'm married to a Hutu, maybe I have the right to stay on his side," but then immediately, one of the local people in the roadblock came and pulled me, and said, "Hey, you don't belong to that side, but if you're married to him, just here." So I was put to that side, and they started up with the machete, coming towards me.

- [Narrator] Ethnic cleansing has no definition in international law, and is not defined as an international crime, yet many legal practitioners consider ethnic cleansing as one of the types of mass atrocities. Ethnic cleansing generally refers to the forced removal of an ethnic group from a territory, for the purpose of changing that territory's ethnic composition. In the early 1990s, during the conflict that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing occurred. At the dedication ceremony for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel stood up and directed remarks toward President Bill Clinton, asking him to act to stop the bloodshed.

- [Elie Wiesel] Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something. I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country.

- [Narrator] However, just two years after Elie Wiesel's remarks, in the summer of 1995, Bosnian Serb forces systematically executed as many as 8,000 Bosnian Muslim males in Srebrenica, the largest single massacre in Europe since the Holocaust. The killings at Srebrenica were subsequently recognized by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as a genocide.

- [Dr. Eric Dachy] The Serbs were going to take the city. They were on the edge of entering the city, and doing what they were doing everywhere else, which meant killing all the men in age to fight, raping some women, and sending everybody else, I mean, old men, women, and children, to Bosnia territory. We understood that there was very little we could do as doctors. People in Bosnia didn't need assistance, they needed security, they needed protection, they needed to be saved from killers.

- [Narrator] Definitions matter, but we cannot allow debates about legal distinctions to distract from the urgent obligation to prevent - to take action when humanity is at risk of mass atrocities. 

This is the challenge for the international community, and for all of us: to recognize and act on risks and warning signs of mass atrocities so we can avoid or stop atrocities to avert large-scale suffering and its consequences.

- [Omer Ismail] When the issue of genocide came into existence, and people are debating it, and sometimes wrangling over it, I would say, "Look, guys, I'm a Darfurian, there is a real issue here. Please don't reduce the suffering of my people to a mere issue of semantics."

If you believe it is genocide, I urge everybody to act as if it's genocide, and do what people do when they are faced with genocide. If you believe it is a crime against humanity, act as if it's a crime against humanity. If you believe it is just a civil war, like some people would like to describe it, act as if it's - if somebody believes it's a street fight, call 9-1-1 and have the police deal with it, but don't just stand on the sidelines, arguing whether this is genocide or not genocide, and what we then do. You have to act within your belief today and now.