Before, During and After Mass Atrocities
Yesterday the attendees broke into three groups to discuss three states of mass atrocity: before, during and after. I mostly observed the "before" discussion but I will summarize all three. Later I will summarize suggested strategies for dealing with these.
Before – what are the signals and early warning signs that a society is moving toward a mass atrocity and how can you prevent this?
Attendees who witnessed the Serbian atrocities, the post-invasion deterioration of Iraq and other events discussed what they saw.
Some of the major points discussed included: In common preceding atrocities is the development of a sense of victimhood. When there is a victim mentality, the populace feels justified in acting against an Other, with little empathy. The Other is demonized.
There is participation of the media in inflaming tensions and reinforcing victimhood. Cultural, religious and/or political elites played a role in producing this mentality, and colluded with the media. Hate speech and inflaming polarizing speech is spread.
Faith-based institutions become equally culpable in creating victim mentality and inflaming the public. Police and other state institutions become complicit with the culprits. An intellectual construct is created that makes any criticism irrelevant, even a sign of the enemy. Political elite taps into the polarization to their own advantage.
In Iraq the breakdown of security and other institutions of civil society led to identity groups developing their own protective services – militias. This forced a rise of ethnic and religious identity over common identity. Once this had occurred it became nearly impossible to break down. The results included ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods, death squads, militias battling.
During – When a mass atrocity is occurring the challenges include risks to human rights defenders themselves. They face personal risk, threats to themselves and their families. There are restrictions on the freedom of movement, and they are exposed to arbitrary arrest and detention, like what is happening in Sudan.
Durng the fog of war it is hard to obtain detail s with precision. Defenders are reacting in real time, trying to alert the world and need to worry about being discredited if information is incomplete or inaccurate.
Working in these areas means wirking with very polarized communities. Weak local capacity means that testimony and other evidence goes uncollected, abandoned or lost. Victims have no protection and may be reluctant to testify.
At an international level there are obstacles. There are double standards – some countries enjoy impunity and others come under pressure. National and international media might not report or is government controlled.
Rebuilding after mass crime – public institutions including legal systems are frequently destroyed during periods of mass violations. Weak post-conflict institutions make it difficult for human rights defenders to work. Frequently have to build from scratch, not rebuild public institutions. Women are frequently marginalized during rebuilding efforts.
I will write about strategies for confronting these problems as they are presented.