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Trivia and Discussion: Early Warning for Genocide Prevention

This week’s topic is the importance of early warning in genocide prevention. To learn more, read the second chapter of the Genocide Prevention Task Force Report.


Email with the answer to the trivia question. Congratulations to Lyssa Wilson for being the first to respond with the correct answer last week!


Trivia: What are at least two warning signs for assessing risk of genocide?


Discussion: The Genocide Prevention Task Force Report outlines the challenges of and recommendations for the inclusion of early warning of genocide and mass atrocities into US foreign policy. While the report analyzes these recommendations on a general level, it does not specifically apply them to current conflicts or troublesome areas which threaten to become conflict zones.


How would the GPTF recommendations on early warning impact the conflicts in Sudan, Congo, Burma and other areas of concern if they were implemented into government policy?


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GPTF Report Chapter 2:

Early Warning: Assessing Risks and Triggering Action



  • Early warning: getting critical information to policymakers in time for them to take effective preventive action


  • Some preventive strategies can be employed without respect to when and where risks are greatest, but most will need to be targeted to specific situations at specific points in time; there are few one-size-fits-all solutions.


  • Early warning procedures should begin with global scanning and assessment of short- and long-term risks ("watch list"), then move to detailed monitoring and analysis of high-risk situations, and end with reliable mechanisms for communicating results to policymakers in a way that will promote sound preventive action


  • Weakest link of early warning: communication of warning analysis to decision makers and a mechanism for using this analysis to support appropriate policy action


  • Challenges:
    • Tendency of US embassies to report only from capitals more than remote rural areas; insufficient practice for assessing risks of potential violence
    • While scholars have identified some long-term risk factors, it is difficult to find generalizable near-term indicators, "accelerators," or triggers of genocide and mass atrocities.
    • Earlier warning typically means lower confidence that the apparent trends toward mass atrocities are real and significant; they are easier to dismiss as being alarmist


  • Empirical analysis by the US government-sponsored Political Instability Task Force (PITF) and others indicates that the existence of armed conflict or a change in regime character are the strongest and most reliable factors in assessing risks of genocide.


  • Other risk factors:
    • Armed Conflict
    • State-led discrimination
    • History of genocide/mass atrocities
    • Exclusionary ideology
    • autocratic regime
    • Leadership instability
    • Nonviolent protest
    • High infant mortality
    • Ethnically polarized elite
    • Low trade openness/non-member of GATT/WTO
    • (from Barbara Harff)








  • Recommendation 2-1: The director of national intelligence should initiate the preparation of a national intelligence estimate (NIE) on worldwide risks of genocide and mass atrocities.
    •  This would engage policy analysts and policy-makers in posing relevant questions, considering evidence, and making judgments.
    •  NIEs are typically briefed to the President, members of Congress and other senior officials, therefore raising the profile of certain issues and highlighting areas of poor knowledge


  • Recommendation 2-2: The national security advisor and the director of national intelligence should establish genocide early warning as a formal priority for the intelligence community as a means to improve reporting and assessments on the potential for genocide and mass atrocities.
    • Genocide and mass atrocities should be explicitly mentioned as a priority in the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF).


  • Recommendation 2-3: The State Department and the intelligence community should incorporate training on early warning of genocide and mass atrocities into programs for foreign service and intelligence officers and analysts.
    • It is imperative that individuals in the US foreign policy apparatus understand genocide and mass atrocities and recognize warning signs.


  • Recommendation 2-4: The national security advisor should create a "mass atrocities alert channel" for reporting on acute warning of genocide or mass atrocities akin to the State Department’s "dissent channel."
    • This channel would be a seldom used fail-safe mechanism, reserved for significant risk situations, to ensure that critical information reaches high-level policymakers.
    • A message would be sent directly to co-chairs of Atrocities Prevention Committee (APC [a new institutional structure recommended by the GPTF]) requiring prompt response from Washington and immediate discussion by the APC.


  • Recommendation 2-5: The national security advisor should make warning of genocide or mass atrocities an "automatic trigger" of policy review.
    • There is a need for balance; the trigger should not be too sensitive nor should there be too high of a bar for its use. Rather, response should be tiered:
    • Most acute level of warning should trigger a discussion of options at NSC Deputies meeting; less acute but still serious warnings should trigger deeper analysis and preparation of crisis response by the APC; appearance or reappearance of a country on the Atrocities Watch List should trigger further information collection, consultation, and preparation of crisis response.


  • Recommendation 2-6: The State Department and USAID should expand ongoing cooperation with other governments, the United Nations, regional organizations, NGOs, and other civil society actors on early warning of genocide and mass atrocities.
    • The State Department should initiate a permanent network of international actors committed to sharing information on risks of genocide and mass atrocities.
    • The US should support information-sharing at the UN.
    • The US should support development of early warning in the African Union, African regional organizations, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and other regional organizations.
    • NGOs and civil society (including religious leaders and institutions) are critical partners for information collection and analysis





  • How might these recommendations have improved US government response to rising levels of violence in Southern Sudan?


  • Would warnings of a return to violence from NGOs in Sudan have been received and addressed by the US government if these recommendations were in place?


  • How would information gathering have been more effective in reporting an escalation of attacks on ethnic minorities on Burma?


  • Which risk factors of genocide and mass atrocities were present in Burma that may have triggered further attention and potential crisis response?


  • What risk factors were present in the Democratic Republic of Congo?


  • If early warning were implemented, how might we have been forewarned of recent clashes in Western Equateur province in Congo?


  • Given the importance of early warning, should activists and policymakers be more informed about Areas of Concern, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Sri Lanka?


To read more about Sudan, Congo, Burma and other areas of concern, check out the STAND Learn site. To read about recent developments, check the STAND Blog for past weekly news briefs. These resources may be useful in considering the implication of early warning on current conflicts of interest.



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