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Video: Prevention: Identifying Risk Factors, Warning Signs, and Triggers

Lessons in Leadership: Criminal Justice Approaches for Preventing Mass Atrocities

This video introduces the early warning signs, risk factors, and triggers of mass atrocities.


- [Narrator] Mention of mass atrocities, including genocide, leads many to think about large-scale mass killings directed against ordinary people, which seemingly erupt out of nowhere. These events are often publicized after extreme violence and significant deaths have already occurred, leaving us to think that mass atrocities are inevitable.

Scholarship, however, has documented that mass atrocities rarely emerge without warning. They're the result of a culmination of identifiable and detectable macro-level risk factors, warning signs, and triggers.

- [Scott Straus] I think what our forecasting ability is really good at is the ability to look at, you know, 190 countries of the world, and isolate 10 that have the conditions that make it much more likely that there's gonna be a mass atrocity event in those places. This is violence that's intentional, deliberate, strategic violence. It takes commitment, it takes organization, it takes orchestration, and so that just doesn't happen overnight. That happens over time.

- [Narrator] An accumulation of risk factors, warning signs, and triggers can indicate a society is on a dangerous path. Moreover, the conditions we associate with risk and warning signs, such as tension and polarization, and impunity for past crimes, can also persist during and after mass atrocities.

One way to think about risk factors, warning signs, and triggers is as the ingredients for a fire. Risk factors are the underlying conditions: the wood. Warning signs, intensified conditions, are similar to gasoline. And triggers, events that lead to a sharp escalation in violence, are like the match that lights the fire.

It's important to note here that no perfect science exists for predicting mass atrocities, including genocide. Each case is different, and has a mix of causes and conditions at play. Some factors will matter more, or less, depending on the context, so it's important to have a deep understanding of the local environment. 

Still, patterns have emerged through research and studying past mass atrocity events.

- [Scott Straus] In retrospect, we can go back and find that a lot of these cases have common factors. I think what is striking to me is that many times, people who are in those environments, even if there are warning signs, don't recognize them. And one of the things that we observe in these circumstances, again, is a process of escalation, and that happens through condoning, encouragement, acceptance of violence.

- [Narrator] First, risk factors are the underlying fuel for the fire: the wood. These are macro-level conditions typically measured at the country level. Some conditions may persist or evolve slowly, such as population size or national income level, while others may involve change over a period of time, such as economic conditions or war.

The mass atrocities that took place in Darfur illustrate one example of how risk factors can intersect and lead to mass atrocities. Between 2003 and 2005, millions of Darfurians fled their homes, and at least 200,000 were killed or died as a result of attacks by Sudanese military forces and government-backed militias.

In this case, there was an ongoing civil war, and in Darfur, the exclusionary ideology of Sudan's ruling party plausibly shaped the willingness of state elites to pursue violence against non-Arabs, who were not seen as integral to the core national community of the state. There had also been violence previously committed in the southern area of the country, with no criminal accountability. 

Key risk factors played a role in the case of Darfur: large scale instability, exclusionary ideology, prior discrimination, and unpunished violence against a particular group.

Some macro-level risk factors spark scholarly debate, in part because these conditions can occur in places where mass atrocities do not occur. These include deep-seated hatreds, government capacity for violence, authoritarianism, and economic crises. 

Warning signs are those factors that appear just before the onset of mass atrocities. They can intensify the preexisting macro level risk factors. They can add fuel to a fire- they serve as accelerants. 

This list is a small subset of warning signs: tension and polarization among groups, apocalyptic public rhetoric by leaders, labeling civilian groups as the enemy, the development and deployment of irregular armed forces, stockpiling weapons, emergency or discriminatory legislation, removing moderates from leadership or public service, and lack of punishment for past crimes.

In the case of the Holocaust, many of these warning signs were present in the 1930s in Germany, and built on risk factors in place from the 1920s and before. Nazi propaganda amplified existing anti-Jewish attitudes, and advanced the persecution of the Jews by painting them as a threat to German society that needed to be destroyed. The Nazis passed hundreds of laws that stripped Jews of their basic human rights, including restricting their freedom of movement. 

The Nazis also established their own paramilitary groups that contributed to Hitler's rise to power and anti-Semitic violence during the Nazi period.

- [Scott Straus] You see a kind of pattern of escalation against the Jewish population that is not uncommon in other genocides as well. It didn't always take exactly that form, but you see this kind of group-targeted separation, polarization, discrimination, and violence prior to the large scale campaigns of violence that occur.

- [Narrator] Finally, triggers are events that can create a sharp escalation of violence. Triggers are like lighting a match. They include events such as a high-level assassination or an attempted coup, a change in conflict dynamics, severe crackdown on civilian protests, or a symbolically significant attack against an individual or physical site. These events alone do not automatically lead to violence, but in combination with risk factors and warning signs, the likelihood of violence increases. Perpetrators may use a trigger, whether real or fabricated, as a justification for violence in service of their strategic goals or ideologies.

One example of a trigger can be seen in the April 1994 case of Rwanda. On April 6th, the airplane carrying Rwanda's Hutu president, Juvénal Habyarimana, was shot down. The individual assassins are not known, but the interim government leaders who took control of the state following the assassination blamed the Tutsi rebels and began attacks on Tutsi civilians. In this case, the killing of the president escalated the ongoing crisis and weakened the tenuous ceasefire that had been in place since 1993. And the genocide against Tutsi civilians was launched.

- [Scott Straus] Rwanda had many of the risk factors that lead to genocide. It was in a civil war. There was a long history of nationalism that really considered the Tutsi population as second-class citizens. There were many warning signs. There was stockpiling of weapons, there was the formation of paramilitary groups, there was changes in rhetoric, and polarization. You had the killing of the president. It changed the dynamics of the conflict. It radicalized many people in Rwanda, and made them much more willing to either condone violence, orchestrate violence, or accept violence against the Tutsi population.

- [Narrator] A common myth is that mass atrocities happen suddenly and are beyond our control. In studying mass atrocities, including genocide, we have learned that they are never spontaneous. They are always preceded by a range of warning signs. Early action to minimize these risks can make prevention programs and policies more effective and less costly. For governments and societies at risk of mass atrocities, early action also increases the ability of leaders and communities to reduce risk. 

The more that we know about mass atrocity risk, the more likely that opportunities for prevention can be identified-and communities and lives can be saved.