The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

What it takes to prevent genocide: Early warning

In a post earlier this month, we discussed the importance of leadership in preventing genocide. The Genocide Prevention Task Force (GPTF) Report specifically calls upon the American president, Congress, and people to lead and support genocide prevention initiatives. But what exactly does the GPTF suggest as methods of preventing genocide? This week’s trivia and discussion and the second chapter of the GPTF report highlight early warning as the first step in a successful genocide prevention strategy. Early warning, on a most basic level, consists of getting critical information to policymakers in time for them to take effective preventive action.

Early warning ought to begin by scanning and assessing short- and long-term risks; this "watch list" would be important for determining which situations merit further monitoring, analysis, and communication to policy makers concerning preventive action. A notable challenge of early warning is that the earlier the warning, the lower the confidence that the trends reported are significant; early warnings are easy to dismiss as alarmist.

This week’s trivia question asked you to name at least two warning signs for assessing risk of genocide. The GPTF Report says that the two strongest indicators of potential genocide and mass atrocities are the existence of armed conflict or a change in regime character. Other factors include: state-led discrimination; history of genocide and mass atrocities; exclusionary ideology; autocratic regime; leadership instability; nonviolent protest; high infant mortality; ethnically polarized elite; low trade openness/non-member of GATT/WTO (Barbara Harff).

This week’s discussion asked what the impact of these recommendations would have on Sudan, Burma, and Congo. Below, the STAND E-team provides their analysis.


Attacks against ethnic minorities in Burma have been taking place since the 1970s, though they have increased in the past decade.  GPTF recommendation 2-2, suggesting that genocide early warning be established as a priority of the intelligence community “as a means to improve reporting and assessments on the potential for genocide and mass atrocities,” would have been a useful measure to monitor the escalation of these attacks.  Burma is isolated and its media is repressed, and thus the military regime’s attacks went on for some time without notice or comment from the international community.  By making early warning a clear priority, situations like that in Burma, where the warning signs such as armed conflict and autocratic regime as stated in the report clearly exist, would receive greater attention.  With early warning institutionalized as a priority, the conditions in Burma leading to genocide could not be overlooked.


With the flurry of recent reports on rising levels of violence in Southern Sudan, an early warning system run by the national security advisor may have already by this point triggered a policy review to respond to the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Sudan. Aid groups have long been warning of a return to violence; more serious networking and collaboration with actors on the ground could give the US government critical information earlier and help it paint a more complete picture.

The GPTF recommends a Risk Assessment Department to be put in place to assess situations and watch for common risk factors which have historically led to clashes. In DRC’s case, the war is ongoing and some risk factors are obvious while others are subtle. Beyond the obvious existence of violent Hutu rebels, the Lord’s Resistance Army, local war lords and the ethnic tensions that the world has taken for granted and yet claims to understand, other factors that put DRC at risk of fresh violence include chaos in neighboring countries like Sudan and Somalia and lucrative trade of minerals like smuggled gold in Uganda and Rwanda; this trend should spell impending clashes because Congolese obviously feel cheated. But above all, whoever deals with risk assessment in DRC needs to give a voice to on the ground sources like Human Rights Watch, NGOs, and especially Congolese themselves; the current practice is to look for western defined signs of violence. When we miss warning signs, preventable clashes arise and resources are wasted on irrelevant goals like multiparty elections in Kinshasa; these are not nearly as necessary as ousting Ugandan and Rwandese forces or enabling redistribution of mineral trade proceeds to benefit DRC’s citizens.


Read the second chapter of the GPTF report here.
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