Early Warning

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Early Warning

The genocides in Rwanda (in 1994) and in Bosnia (during the period between 1992 and 1995) were alarming evidence of the failure of the United Nations (UN) Security Council and its member states to prevent genocides and other crimes against humanity. Studies by the UN Commissions of Inquiry concluded that reform in four areas is needed to prevent such crimes: institutions for early warning, programs for prevention, capacity for rapid response, and courts for punishment. Willingness to use these institutions on the part of political leaders is necessary to render reform measures effective. Public pressure is needed to motivate leaders to act.

One of the most common false assumptions about genocide is that it is the result of conflict—the resolution of which would be a preventive to genocide. Most genocide does not result from conflict. Genocide is one-sided mass murder. Empirical research by Helen Fein, Matthew Krain, Barbara Harff, Benjamin Valentino, and others has shown that genocide is most often committed by elites that are attempting to stay in power in the face of perceived threats to their dominance. Fein and Harff have found that six factors enhance the likelihood of genocide: prior genocide in the same polity, autocracy, ethnic minority rule, political upheaval during war or revolution, exclusionary ideology, and closure of borders to international trade.

Wishing to complement these statistical models, Gregory H. Stanton has devised a developmental model of the stages of genocide. The eight stages of genocide are classification ("us vs. them"), symbolization, dehumanization, organization (the formation of hate groups), polarization, preparation (the identification, expropriation, rounding up, and transportation of victims), extermination, and denial. Stanton's model is designed so that policy makers can recognize early warning signs and implement specific countermeasures to prevent genocide.

Who should be warned of the likelihood of impending genocide? Members of the victim group should surely come first, so that they can prepare to flee or defend themselves. Others who should receive this warning are political moderates, the members of religious and human rights groups, and the members of antigovernment opposition forces (who would be likely to oppose the impending genocide). If the government is not party to an impending genocide, it should be called upon to intervene and to protect its citizens. (This approach has halted ethnic and religious massacres in Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and the Moluccas [all part of Indonesia], and in Nigeria.) But because most genocides are committed by governments (either directly or indirectly through militias), regional and international leaders must be warned as well—with the idea that they will be able to bring pressure to bear on the government planning the genocide. In democracies, leaders seldom act without the stimulus of public pressure, so early warning must get through to the media and groups that can organize campaigns for action.

How early must warning come if it is to trigger action that will contribute to the prevention of genocide? The answer depends on the action that is being sought. In the context of long-term efforts to prevent genocide, the warning should be given as early as possible. Because structural factors such as totalitarian or autocratic government and minority rule correlate substantially with the incidence of genocide, long-term policies for genocide prevention should promote democracy, freedom, and pluralist tolerance. Rudy Rummel's meticulously documented conclusion that democracies do not commit genocide against their own enfranchised populations has often been challenged, but never refuted. The protection of democracies requires that, in the face of threats by extremist, military, or totalitarian movements to overthrow those democracies, the warning be communicated as early as possible.

Freedom House, which tracks information pertaining to the relative freedoms of many countries and publishes an annual report on the subject, in its 2003 report counted 121 electoral democracies out of the 192 countries it evaluated (leaving 71 nondemocracies). Ted Robert Gurr has pointed out that periods of transition (from autocratic governments to democratic ones) can be particularly dangerous periods—at which times minority elites attempt to hold onto their power and are sometimes willing to commit mass murder to do so. The foreign policies of other nations should promote the peaceful transition to democracy, but must avoid the enunciation of mortal threats that would set off the undertaking of genocide by elites determined to maintain their power.

Rwanda was a case in which early warning failed. In 1992 the Belgian Ambassador to Rwanda warned the Belgian government that Hutu Power advocates were "planning the extermination of the Tutsi of Rwanda." In April 1993 the UN Special Rapporteur on Summary, Arbitrary, and Extrajudicial Executions issued a statement that the massacres of Tutsi in Rwanda already constituted genocide. General Roméo Dallaire, Commander of the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda, in a cable sent on January 11, 1994, warned the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, headed by Kofi Annan, of the plan of extremist Hutu to exterminate Tutsis. The UN denied Dallaire permission to confiscate the cache of 500,000 machetes that had been shipped to Rwanda for the Hutu militias (the existence of which had come to his attention). Both early and late warnings of the Rwandan genocide were ignored by UN and other policy makers who denied the facts, who resisted calling the genocide by its proper name, and who refused to consider options for intervention—and who refused to risk the lives of any of their own soldiers. Instead they withdrew 2,000 UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) troops and sacrificed the lives of over 500,000 defenseless Rwandans.

There had been a similar failure of early warning in Cambodia in 1975, at which time reporters and diplomats were predicting a Khmer Rouge bloodbath. Political leftists in other countries refused to believe the warnings, and denied the mass killing while it was underway. Worn out by the wars in Indochina, the United States and western European nations were unwilling to intervene to overthrow the murderous Khmer Rouge. The UN General Assembly even condemned Vietnam for its intervention.

Instances of early warning that were successful in generating courses of action to prevent or frustrate genocidal massacres and the commission of crimes against humanity include Macedonia (in 1992 and 2001, when several hundred UN peacekeepers prevented the Balkan wars from widening); East Timor (in 1999, when, after East Timor had voted for independence, coordinated warnings coming from human rights groups and the intervention of Australian troops brought to a halt the massacre of East Timorese by Indonesian troops and militias); and Côte d'Ivoire (in 2002, when warnings by the Belgian organization Prévention Génocides, followed by French military and diplomatic intervention, helped to avert massacres).

What steps have been taken to develop early warning systems? The early warning of threats to national interests has long been a job of the intelligence agencies that inform government policy makers. Threats of genocide were added to that task by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1994, when that organization inaugurated its "State Failure Task Force," whose mission includes the analysis of factors that predispose states to genocide. Efforts to develop systems of early warning on the part of think tanks and university officers have also been funded by governments—in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany.

At the UN, the Framework for Coordination was established within the Department of Political Affairs to convene high-level planners from UN departments and agencies to discuss and plan responses to crises that are judged to be capable of generating genocical aggression. On April 7, 2004, Annan announced that he would appoint a Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. In July Juan Mendez was named to the post.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and university-based organizations in Europe and the United States have also focused on early warning—notably the International Crisis Group, the Forum on Early Warning and Early Response (FEWER), Genocide Watch, and the International Campaign to End Genocide (a global coalition of organizations dedicated to preventing genocide).

Early warning is meaningless without early response. But early warning is the necessary first step toward prevention.

SEE ALSO Prevention; Rwanda


Fein, Helen (1993). "Accounting for Genocide after 1945: Theories and Some Findings." International Journal on Group Rights 1(1):79–106.

Gurr, Ted Robert (2000). Peoples Versus States: Minorities at Risk in the New Century. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace Press.

Harff, Barbara (1998). "Early Warning of Humanitarian Crises: Sequential Models and the Role of Accelerators." In Preventive Measures: Building Risk Assessment and Crisis Early Warning Systems, ed. L. Davies and Ted Robert Gurr. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.

Harff, Barbara (2003). "No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust? Assessing Risks of Genocide and Political Mass Murder since 1955." American Political Science Review (February) 97(1):57–73.

Krain, Matthew (1997). "State-Sponsored Mass Murder: The Onset and Severity of Genocides and Politicides." Journal of Conflict Resolution 41:331–360.

Rummel, Rudolph J. (1995). "Democracy, Power, Genocide, and Mass Murder." Journal of Conflict Resolution 39:3–26.

Stanton, Gregory H. (2004). "Could the Rwandan Genocide Have Been Prevented?" Journal of Genocide Research 6(2):211–228.

Valentino, Benjamin A. (2004). Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Gregory H. Stanton

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