What is atrocity prevention?

“Atrocity crimes (…) are not spontaneous or isolated events; they are processes, with histories, precursors and triggering factors which, combined, enable their commission.”

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, July 2014

The term “atrocities” refers to genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. The first three are crimes under international law that emerged in the context of establishing individual criminal accountability for some of humanity’s worst crimes.


Genocide as a crime under international law is enshrined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948). The Convention defines genocide as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” through killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm, inflicting conditions of life on the group that could bring about its physical destruction, imposing measures to prevent births, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Crimes against humanity

Crimes against humanity developed under international customary law and were codified in the Statutes of the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, as well as in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998. A range of acts, including murder, enslavement, torture, enforced disappearances, rape and other sexual crimes may amount to crimes against humanity if they are committed in the context of “a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population”.

War crimes

War crimes, in the context of atrocities, are those grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions (1949) and its Additional Protocols (1977), as well as other serious violations of the laws and customs of armed conflict, that give rise to individual criminal responsibility. The Rome Statute of the ICC focuses on war crimes “when committed as part of a plan or policy or as part of a large-scale commission of such crimes”.

Ethnic cleansing

Ethnic cleansing is not defined as an independent crime under international law. However, it includes acts that are serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law that may amount to genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. Ethnic cleansing generally refers to the killing or dispelling of a group of people from a geographical area.

Genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing all have in common that they do not happen from one day to the next. As demonstrated by the United Nations Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes, they are often the result of an escalation and require time, preparation and premeditation.

What does GAAMAC do?

GAAMAC aims to turn the culture of reaction to atrocities into a culture of prevention as a permanent endeavour: building national atrocity prevention capacities through sharing experiences, training and institution-building as envisioned in its Founding Document.

While international institutions regularly mention the need for atrocity prevention, they often do so once situations have already escalated into violence. But GAAMAC believes it is not sufficient to reduce civil casualties: they can and should be avoided altogether. 

GAAMAC engages and supports States everywhere to protect their populations from atrocity crimes by addressing root causes of violence and early signs within their societies, in close collaboration between State actors and civil society.

Through its Chair and Steering Group, it encourages the political community to keep permanent atrocity prevention high on the agenda. GAAMAC’s fora, including Global Meetings, events and bilateral meetings, help securing sustainable political will and support worldwide.

Related content

Global Meetings

History of GAAMAC