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Assessing COVID-19’s effects on mass atrocities and atrocity prevention

By Lawrence Woocher, Research Director

The Simon-Skjodt Center is beginning to assess the consequences of COVID-19 for genocide and related crimes against humanity and for global efforts to prevent, respond to, and advance justice for these crimes. Given the scale and scope of the pandemic and the potential for wide-ranging knock-on effects, it is critical to grapple with the changes that the virus could cause for the Center’s work and for others working to prevent mass atrocities. This is the first of a series of posts on this topic.

Numerous individuals and organizations have commented on how the pandemic might be affecting domains outside of the public health sphere. A few organizations—including the Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and Protection Approaches—have offered thoughts specifically on COVID-19 and atrocity prevention. Several other early assessments have examined COVID-19’s effects on closely related topics, such as violent conflict (International Crisis Group), governance (Carnegie), and human rights (Columbia University and partners).  Common themes across assessments to date include concerns that COVID-19 is enabling opportunistic authoritarian moves, leading to growing xenophobia, intensifying resource competition, and taking a severe toll on the most vulnerable populations. These analyses represent an important foundation for better understanding the specific impact of COVID-19 on populations affected by genocide or related crimes against humanity.

Evidence is mounting that the pandemic is having direct, immediate, and deleterious effects on populations that have already suffered mass atrocities. Large portions of these populations, such as the Rohingya from Burma and Syrian civilians in Idlib province, live in displaced persons camps or informal settings, having been forced from their homes by systematic attacks. As others have documented (Refugees International), displaced persons are uniquely susceptible to COVID-19, almost always lacking the ability to follow “physical distancing” guidelines or even wash hands with soap. Health services for displaced persons are now even more strained than usual because of supply shortages and the departure of many qualified personnel, owing to fears about COVID-19. 

Responding to requests from policy officials, the Center has begun analyzing COVID’s immediate effects on populations from our focus countries—Burma, Syria, China’s Xinjiang region, Côte d’Ivoire, South Sudan and Cameroon—and how the pandemic interacts with the risk of further atrocities in these contexts.

Characterizing the broader, longer-term implications of COVID-19 for mass atrocities and atrocity prevention is considerably more difficult. We don’t expect many clear answers, but will strive to raise important questions, offer initial assessments, identify trends to watch, and update judgments as new information comes to light. Sweeping, precise predictions without a strong basis and vague assertions about how “everything will be different” in the wake of the pandemic are equally unhelpful.

What makes assessing COVID’s effects on mass atrocities and atrocity prevention so challenging?

Uncertainty: The global pandemic itself is nearly unprecedented in modern times, so we have few insights from comparable historical events to draw on. In addition, COVID-19’s effects on mass atrocities and other non-health domains will depend partly on how severe and widespread the health impacts of the virus are. Epidemiologists have struggled to accurately forecast the virus’s immediate progression, such as the number of infected persons or fatalities, let alone the longer term course of the pandemic. Finally, we are concerned with genocide and other mass atrocities--phenomena on which we have limited understanding in “normal” times. As Scott Straus wrote in Fundamentals of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, “It is important to recognize that explaining genocide and mass atrocity is an imperfect science and an emerging field” (p. 54).

Variability: Mass atrocities themselves vary tremendously. They occur in war and peacetime; are perpetrated by governments and non-state groups; are targeted against groups based on ethnic or religious identities and perceived political affiliation; and are motivated by extreme ideological projects and a desire to hold political and economic power. At the same time, the pandemic is affecting different parts of the world and even different regions within countries quite differently--for example, based on the density of the population and how quickly public health measures are taken. Thus, understanding COVID-19’s effects on mass atrocities requires analyzing the particular manifestations of the pandemic in a specific context and how they interact with the particular nature of atrocity risks in that context.

Based on consultations with experts and review of relevant scholarship, we plan to explore questions firstly about COVID’s potential effects on mass atrocities--the risk that they occur, their severity, duration, and other characteristics. For example, should we expect that COVID-19 will help give rise to the types of scenarios in which mass atrocities most frequently occur, including civil wars and repression of non-violent challengers by authoritarian governments? If so, which specific type of high-risk scenarios?

Separately, we plan to explore questions about the pandemic’s potential effects on global efforts to help prevent and respond to mass atrocities. (The distinction is imperfect--for example, the risk of mass atrocities occurring undoubtedly depends on potential perpetrators’ expectations of what outside actors will do.) For instance, should we expect that COVID-19 will lead the U.S. government to take actions from the atrocity prevention “toolbox,” such as mediation, peacekeeping, or targeted financial sanctions, more or less frequently? Should we expect that these kinds of actions will be more or less effective in the wake of COVID-19?

The Simon-Skjodt Center is committed to serving as a resource for policymakers and civil society on the most pressing challenges in preventing genocide and mass atrocities. Understanding the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly among the most important questions for the field today. As the Center pursues this work, we welcome your input and ideas. Watch out for future posts tagged #Coronavirus and share your thoughts on twitter @CPG_USHMM.