Legislators Must Do More For Atrocity Prevention

War and Peace

European Parliament in Strausburg Credit: Photo by DAVID ILIFF



The level of violence and disregard for international humanitarian law and basic human rights currently ravaging the world is terrifying. Mass atrocities are committed against civilians in conflicts tormenting Syria, Somalia and South Sudan, just to mention a few.


Elsewhere, we are seeing a rise in nationalism and isolationism. In countries such as Turkey and Hungary, formerly seen as democracies, leaders are becoming increasingly authoritarian, oppressing the opposition and silencing the press.


In times like these, it is more important than ever that all actors who strive to protect vulnerable populations around the world join forces. We should not only rely on NGOs and activists but also on our legislators. Given that the legislative branch is the only state institution representing the people and through which government policy happens, legislators (Parliamentarians, Congressmen, etc.) are in a unique position to make informed decisions about national and international affairs. This includes mass atrocity prevention. Indeed, as the Secretary-General of Parliamentarians for Global Action David Donat Cattin told me, “effective national strategies for atrocity-prevention require adequate legislative oversight and advocacy of Legislators, who can inform the politics of the Executive and can support the interventions of the Judiciary.” In other words, mass atrocity prevention begins at home.



Legislate, Educate, Advocate.

It is the role and duty of legislators to codify, enact, educate and advocate. Although it has been shown that mass atrocities are often committed in the aftermath of a crisis, there is no precise way to predict when a crisis will escalate into mass atrocities. This means that the best chance of preventing mass atrocities from happening is to be aware of the risks present in specific states or communities and to build, maintain, and support mechanisms and laws that guarantee resilience and stability. A nation’s system of laws must be based on principles of equality, inclusion, diversity and protection of all members of society, and legislators have an essential role in establishing laws that fosters an environment that promotes these principles.


Education and advocacy are just as important. As public figures with a privileged access to the electorate, elected officials can raise awareness in their constituencies and among their colleagues in the legislative branch. They can advocate for a prevention agenda and gather political support for atrocity prevention. While education serves as a means to spread knowledge, advocacy has the additional purpose of seeking to create political will and a sense of responsibility among parliamentarians, politicians, civil society groups, and citizens to protect the basic rights of populations at home and abroad.


Legislate, educate, advocate. These are our elected officials’ responsibilities. We should hold them accountable for it.



Joining Forces Internationally

In April, lawmakers from around the world gathered at The Hague to discuss the role of parliamentarians in atrocity prevention. The two-day event co-organized by the Stanley Foundation, the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, the Hague Institute for Global Justice, and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), brought together MPs, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General on R2P Ivan Šimonović, his predecessor Jennifer Welsh and other various experts. The purpose of the gathering was for parliamentarians discuss best practices and gain awareness about the various ways the legislative branch can contribute to mass atrocity prevention.


As the meeting made clear, there is, of course, no one-size-fits all mechanism. One of the most important lessons of The Hague is that the approach to mass atrocity prevention varies (and must vary) depending on the national context: where some countries may need to focus on reconciliation and commemoration of atrocities committed in the past decades, as is the case in several South American countries, states currently affected by tensions and conflicts need to act swiftly to prevent atrocity crimes.  


Nonetheless, as legislators agreed at The Hague, whether a country is experiencing a crisis or not, one of the most effective tools for atrocity prevention are R2P Focal Points, which consist of senior level government officials appointed to promote the Responsibility to Protect within their national context. So far, 56 states have appointed such Focal Points. Variants of focal point include Canada’s the Canadian All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide and other Crimes against Humanity, a non-partisan group made up of Canadian MPs working to further the mass atrocity prevention agenda.


Other countries have established similar bodies including national committees. The Kenyan National Committee for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, War Crimes, Crimes Against Humanity and All Forms of Discrimination’s activities include establishing memorials commemorating past massacres, assessing early warning and response mechanisms, and spearheading genocide prevention policies and legislation. Similar committees have been established in Tanzania, Uganda, Paraguay, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – with varying degrees of institutionalization and success.


On an international level, Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA) is a network comprised of 1,300 members from 142 different countries, actively involved in ratifying and implementing the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). Global networks of parliamentarians not only provide a platform for discussions on political and legal topics but can contribute to improving domestic legislative standards through peer-to-peer networking. Indeed, as Canadian MP Paul Dewar, an active member of the Canadian All-Party prevention group says “a global network of MPs needs to be created and supported by experts to propose practical solutions.” Similarly, speaking with David Donat Cattin after the conference, he told me that the main take away from the conference is that “there is no sustainability of atrocity-prevention without proper legislative frameworks, parliamentary scrutiny of government, and parliamentary support (e.g. budgetary support) for justice, prosecutorial and law-enforcement agencies that must effectively control any criminogenic trend in society.” This is one of the keys to go from words to action.



The Rhetoric-to-Action Gap

The prevention policy agenda is difficult to push – not just when it comes to mass atrocity prevention. Although there is general agreement on the benefits of preventive policies, there is a serious gap between rhetoric and action. One of the reasons is the difficulty to measure the success of prevention, that is, to show the causal link between any given preventive initiative and the problem that it has prevented. How do you prove that the problem would have materialised without the preventive policy?


At the same time, the case of Syria is teaching us a lesson. After the failure of Libya, the argument of those who refused to intervene in Syria at the outset of the crisis was that any form of intervention, soft or hard, would lead to an escalation of the crisis and violations of human rights. But look at Syria now. Every single crime mentioned by those who promote early intervention also occurred because we did not intervene. The truth is, there is a large a range of actions we could have taken early on to prevent the catastrophe that Syria is today.


This is a challenge faced by legislators who strive for atrocity prevention. They must have the courage to ask difficult questions and foster discussions on issues that many people do not necessarily see as a priority. Mass atrocities can happen anywhere and even if it is happening in a faraway country, the case Syria shows that the U.S. or Europe will, without a doubt, experience the consequences. Only with real political will can policymakers live up to their responsibilities and close the gap between rhetoric and action currently affecting mass atrocity prevention. And it is our duty as voters and citizens to also hold them accountable.



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Atrocity Prevention, South Sudan, Syria, Governance