By Isabel Tamoj
Isabel holds a Bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science from Free University Berlin and a Master’s degree in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action from Sciences Po Paris. She has a special interest in the role of education and civic engagement in the prevention of mass atrocities and other forms of group-targeted discrimination.
The Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court and is signed by all European States, distinguishes four different crimes under the category of mass atrocities: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression. The scope of the crimes as well as the destruction and trauma they cause within affected populations have long pushed the international community to demand mechanisms to prevent these crimes. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the principle of the Responsibility to Protect uphold States´ responsibilities to prevent mass atrocities, underlining the absolute necessity of action towards the prevention of mass atrocities.
In Europe, however, the general public is not aware of this need. When, for example, in 2017, the German Foreign Office officially included “mass atrocity prevention” in their New Guidelines for Crisis Prevention, Crisis Response and Peacekeeping, this rather significant step forward went widely unnoticed by the general German public and was barely covered by the German press. Indeed, in Germany, mass atrocity prevention is generally perceived as a historical responsibility rather than a political field of action. Even in the context of the increased influx of refugees, of whom a significant number have fled from countries directly affected by mass atrocities, the topic has not been raised within the public or political discourse. On the contrary, the far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), has requested in a six-point plan that the government push for an agreement with the Assad government to return refugees to Syria. Not trusting German media coverage, the party has sent representatives to Syria to meet with regime allies to establish whether Syria can be considered a “safe country” for the repatriation of refugees.
Germany, however, is not unique in this sense. Most European countries are faced with similar situations; governments have not (yet) established centralised mechanisms to prevent mass atrocities nor does the topic represent an essential component of public concern. This common pattern is problematic as civil society involvement and, more generally, civic attitudes matter deeply for an effective prevention of mass atrocities.
To effectively prevent mass atrocities, genocide scholars have to go outside their “like-minded bubble”. There is a need for effectively presenting the urgency and benefits of mass atrocity prevention to the general public while at the same time making room for public opinion to be heard and civic attitudes to be taken seriously.
Why does civil society matter?
An active and empowered civil society has proven to be crucial in order to fuel state action towards mass atrocity prevention. Civil society engagement has a significant impact on state action, illustrated by various examples of successful protest movements and civil society campaigns. The field of mass atrocity prevention is no exception.