Can a New Tool Help the U.S. Say (and Mean) ‘Never Again’ for Genocide?
Data made available by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum hopes to prevent genocide and other atrocities before they even begin.
Can genocide be predicted and stopped before it starts?
Can genocide be predicted and stopped before it starts?
Officials from the United States Holocaust Museum hope a new online tool will be able to do just that. If it works, policymakers may be able to determine which countries are at the greatest risk of descending into mass violence — and then decide how far they want to go to prevent it.
Cameron Hudson, who directs the museum’s genocide prevention center, told Foreign Policy that the goal of the Early Warning Project is to systematically track “all the things we know to be warning signs” and try to put them in front of experts and officials with the power to potentially intervene. The new system went into effect on Monday.
A country’s risk for mass atrocities — defined by Hudson as more than 1,000 targeted killings in one year — is determined by statistical models that weigh social, political, and economic factors that could contribute to state-led violence.
Compiled together on one site, the project will also allow experts from around the world to weigh in on whether they believe the project’s statistical analysis is accurate or to argue that a given country’s level of risk could change due to factors the computer may have missed. In Nigeria, for example, the 2015 statistics failed to take into account that a largely successful election in March will likely reverse some of the concerns that ranked it second on this year’s risk list. In some cases, countries already experiencing mass atrocities appear on the at-risk list. Hudson said those countries are potentially not only at risk for ongoing atrocities, but are also at risk for a brand new series of targeted killings. Syria, for example, did not make the top ten, largely because an entirely new conflict is not expected to erupt there in addition to the ongoing civil war.
The project’s inspiration traces back to 2008, when a genocide prevention task force co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen published a report outlining ways in which the U.S. government could work to mitigate mass atrocities.
Their overwhelming conclusion? With the right forecasting tools, genocide and other mass atrocities can be prevented before they even begin.
According to the data made available Monday, the following 10 countries are most at risk for state-led mass killings this year:
Myanmar — 13.2 percent
Although its numbers slipped slightly since 2014, Myanmar remains more vulnerable for state-led atrocities than any other country in the world. This is due largely to a history of state-led discrimination against the Rohingya, an ethnic and religious minority regularly targeted by the government through discriminatory policies. The Rohingya have been systematically stripped of their citizenship and thousands have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh and Malaysia, where they continue to face persecution. According to Hudson, the Burmese policies that target the Rohingya could also endanger smaller minority groups in Myanmar, including other Muslim minorities.
Nigeria — 12.3 percent
The African power’s statistical risk for state-led mass killings dramatically increased in the last year, from just 2.2 percent in 2014 to 12.3 percent in 2015. The risk factors are largely related to the rise of Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group that has killed tens of thousands in Nigeria’s northeast and has in turn sparked religious discrimination against Muslims. Poor governance has hindered an effective military response against the group, and the Nigerian military has itself been accused of atrocities by human rights groups, including Amnesty International. Hudson noted, however, that the statistics for any given year are really a reflection of what happened the year before. “I would fully anticipate that Nigeria’s ranking in 2016 will go down because it had a very orderly transition of power in the last presidential election which unfortunately wasn’t captured in the statistical analysis,” Hudson said.
Sudan — 8.5 percent
The risk for state-led mass killings in Sudan inched up from 8.3 to 8.5 percent in 2015. Decades of civil war killed more than 2.5 million Sudanese, and the government in Khartoum has been accused of overseeing systematic repression and attacks on minority groups and political dissenters. Despite South Sudan’s successful breakaway from the north in 2011, violence continues in both countries. The International Criminal Court in the Hague has issued multiple warrants for the arrest of the country’s president, Omar al-Bashir, who they have accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Egypt — 5.4 percent
In 2015, the statistical risk for Egypt rose from 1.8 to 5.4 percent. In 2013, Egyptian security forces killed as many as 900 protesters, the majority of whom were supporters and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. And since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s election in 2014, the former military leader has expanded the jurisdiction of military courts, targeted media organizations, and sentenced hundreds of his opponents to death or life in prison. A combination of these factors contribute to the country’s risk for a new mass killing.
Central African Republic — 5.3 percent
In 2015, the risk in the CAR increased from 5 to 5.3 percent. An ongoing civil war, motivated by religious, political, and social factors, means the CAR is still at risk for new outbreaks of mass killings. A report made public in January by the United Nations claimed Christian militias were already responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Muslims there, and ongoing tensions between rebel factions means there threats for continued violence remain.
South Sudan — 4.5 percent
For a conflict that began in 2013, the risk in South Sudan increased again from 3.4 to 4.5 percent between 2014 and 2015. Despite a recent peace deal signed between warring factions there, international observers have expressed concern that the deal will not be maintained. The United States helped lay the groundwork for the country’s 2011 split from Sudan, and provides significant humanitarian aid to those displaced by conflict that broke out there in 2013. Washington pressured President Salva Kiir to sign the peace deal with the rebels by threatening U.N. sanctions if he rejected the deal.
Democratic Republic of the Congo — 4.2 percent
The risk for mass slaughter increased from 3.0 to 4.2 percent this year. More than 5 million Congolese have been killed since civil war broke out there in the mid-1990s, and in recent years, various rebel groups have continued to disrupt civilian life in the country’s war-torn east. In 2012 and 2013, the Rwandan-backed M23 killed thousands and displaced close to one million. This year, a small Islamist-influenced group called the Allied Democratic Forces, along with other small militias, continue to threaten the country’s stability.
Afghanistan — 4.0 percent
In Afghanistan, the risk increased from 2.4 to 4 percent this year. Although the international community, and Washington in particular, touted President Ashraf Ghani’s election win as a step forward for Afghanistan, lingering political tensions and Taliban presence continue to threaten civilian safety. And Ghani has largely failed to improve the country’s flailing economy or hastily improve security, both of which risk his local popularity there.
Pakistan — 3.9 percent
Instability continues to reign in Pakistan, where Taliban insurgents maintain strongholds and regularly launch attacks on civilians as well as Pakistani security forces. In December 2014, more than 100 school children were killed by Taliban insurgents in a horrifically bloody attack on a military-run school in the city of Peshawar. In addition to disrupting civilian life with violence, the Taliban attacks have also impacted the economy, reportedly costing as much as $5 billion a year.
Yemen — 3.7 percent
In Yemen, a bloody civil war has killed more than 4,500 people in the last six months. Iranian-backed Houthi rebels currently control the capital of Sanaa, and a number of top officials, including the country’s nominal president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, remain exiled in Riyadh. In March, Saudi Arabia launched an airstrike campaign against the Houthis, which has since been blamed for a large number of civilian deaths. But Hudson said the Saudi campaign is too recent to have impacted the country’s numbers. The risk level is more likely related violence between Houthis and government forces last year.
Photo credit: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
Siobhán O'Grady was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2015-2016 and was previously an editorial fellow.
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