Promoting human rights mechanisms to prevent mass atrocities: reflections, challenges, and ways forward

13 January 2021
Mass atrocities rarely happen suddenly: they evolve and develop over time. What are some of the good practices and experiences from national human rights commissions or mechanisms that can strengthen the national capacity to prevent the commission or recurrence of mass atrocities?

To address this question, the Permanent Mission of Costa Rica, the Permanent Mission of Denmark, and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, as GAAMAC Steering Group members, convened on 20 October 2020 experts and representatives of national mechanisms for the virtual panel discussion: “Promoting human rights mechanisms to prevent mass atrocities: reflections, challenges, and ways forward”.

“Prevention starts at home, that is, in each of our countries. Each of us is responsible to prevent these human rights violations.” – Mô Bleeker

“Prevention starts at home, that is, in each of our countries, each of us is responsible to prevent these human rights violations”, said Ms. Mô Bleeker, Chair of GAAMAC and Special Envoy for Dealing with the Past and Prevention of Atrocities at the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), as she kicked off the event. She was highlighting a point made in the recently adopted Human Rights Council Resolution (A/HRC/45/L.32) on the contribution of the human rights council to the prevention of human rights violations.

“Everything we do is minded at creating change for the better.” – Nanna Krusaa

Focusing more specifically on the prevention of hate crimes, Ms. Nanna Krusaa, Senior Consultant and team leader, ethnicity, equal treatment, the Danish Institute for Human Rights, explained that the occurrence of hate crimes in Denmark, and especially the huge dark number of crimes committed, show that no society is immune from such human rights violations. She highlighted good practices such as the Danish Institute for Human Rights’ reports on hate crimes and their consequences, published recommendations and lobbying work, meetings with government officials, campaigns directed at the public, training for the police as well as round tables with civil society and the police to bridge the gap between people who experience hate crimes and the police. Creating a common dialogue is key “to achieve a change for the better”, Ms. Krusaa emphasized.

“We need to operate with one voice when addressing the issues that call for conflict resolution.” – Reverend Asante

Election-based violence is an important risk factor in Ghana. Since the establishment of the Ghana National Peace Council which aims to facilitate and develop mechanisms of conflict prevention and the resolution of conflict to build sustainable peace in the country, seven elections have taken place. Its former chairman, Most Reverend Professor Emmanuel Asante highlighted the good practices that mitigate the outbreak of violent conflicts in the context of an election.

The Council has repeatedly brought together all political countries and presidential candidates to have them all commit officially to peace. Special attention is paid to how the parties and candidates conduct their political campaigns as well as the process of voters’ registrations. Reverend Asante also emphasized the importance of working together with other institutions, such as the UNDP, in order to ensure peaceful elections in Ghana.

“Coalition-thinking is crucial in the prevention of mass atrocity crimes.” – Victor Madrigal-Borloz

Mr. Victor Madrigal-Borloz, Senior Visiting Researcher, Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program and Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, highlighted the importance of coalition-thinking and an interdisciplinary approach in atrocity prevention. According to Mr. Madrígal-Borloz, anthropological, sociological, psychological and of course legal and political aspects need to be considered when studying the concept of mass atrocities.

“The victims are not quite human in the view of the perpetrating agent and this is an enabling mechanism of mass atrocities usually and everywhere” – Victor Madrigal-Borloz

Mr. Madrigal-Borloz also stressed that in his experience mass atrocity and violations of human rights are triggered by very similar mechanisms, the main mechanism being otherization. As a result, the victim belongs to a category based for example on political beliefs, race, ethnic origins or gender identity that makes the perpetrator regard it as “other”. Different drivers, such as demonization or criminalization, serve to legitimize and enable criminal discrimination and violence. Mr. Madrigal-Borloz offered two recommendations for the prevention of such human rights violations: The role of regional and special procedures needs to be strengthened and acknowledged by states, and a universal inter-connectedness is required across borders, institutions and disciplines.

“In a so-called globalized world, we also need to be united in the defence of human rights” – Mô Bleeker

Ms. Savita Pawnday, Deputy Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, focused on how Geneva-based human rights mechanisms highlight national capacities to promote human rights and prevent atrocities in four specific ways: the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) which serves to mainstream and institutionalize the prevention of mass atrocity crimes by encouraging states to assess and strengthen their national capacities; Special Procedures which serve as early warning mechanisms and are a key component of building capacity at the national level; the human rights system which through technical assistance and capacity-building is crucial for creating an understanding of methods on how to prevent mass atrocities; and investigative mechanisms that establish an accurate and unbiased historical record of grave violations of international human rights and atrocity crimes.

“It’s not just one part of the system or one mechanism that can prevent mass atrocities, but it’s about creating a coalition and that’s what we do at GAAMAC. It’s not about one actor, it’s many actors coming together.” – Savita Pawnday

However, Ms. Pawnday also stressed that the challenge is to implement the recommendations provided by all these mechanisms. The reporting obligation of investigative mechanisms, special rapporteurs, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights needs to be expanded to include other UN bodies and the UN Security Council. A true coalition of actors and mechanisms is needed in atrocity prevention, similar to what GAAMAC has established, she concluded.

The importance of a common dialogue, ensuring the inclusion of minorities in political processes, education for the youth in order to promote tolerance, the protection of vulnerable groups and evidence-based approaches were some of the key recommendations for making atrocity prevention a reality stressed by the panellists. “We urgently need a culture of prevention. We need to understand what mass atrocities are, but we also need to know how to make these recommendations part of our everyday life”, concluded Ms. Bleeker.

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