On August 4, 2011, President Obama launched the Presidential Studies Directive on Mass Atrocities, or PSD-10, a ground-breaking call for all major U.S. government agencies to engage on the issue of preventing mass atrocities and genocide worldwide. Through this initiative the White House called for action “early, proactively and decisively to prevent threats from evolving into large scale civilian atrocities.”
USAID’s plan to implement of PSD-10 includes launching the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention – a contest to identify new ideas for applying innovations and technology to atrocity prevention efforts; leading listening sessions – an effort to capture the individual voices and perspectives of those who have firsthand experience with atrocity prevention and response in the field; and developing a toolkit describing programming approaches, available resources and operational guidance for strengthening prevention efforts, as well as expanding training options for personnel deploying to high-risk mission countries.
The ideas behind PSD-10 are echoed in what the academic community has researched about mass violence. We know that these activities occur while other forms of violence are ongoing. For example, the genocide in Rwanda took place under the guise of a civil war between the Rwandan Patriotic Front and the Rwandan government, and the current insurgency in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a cover for countless human rights violations on a massive scale. We also know that mass atrocities are much more likely in countries that have experienced violence in the past. This phenomenon has come up so often, academics have given it a name: the “conflict trap.”
The questions now are: What tools do we have available to accomplish the goals of PSD-10? What can we do to prevent mass violence in the future?
One option, which has been shown to be effective, is the use of transitional justice. Transitional justice is defined as any institution put in place following armed conflict to address the grievances and wrongdoings of the past. In practice, this has meant a wide variety of different processes: tribunals, truth commissions, reparations programs and lustration processes as well as less formal approaches such as memorialization efforts. The specific process used in each case has to be appropriate to the cultural and political realities, but the overall goal behind the transitional justice approach is to address grievances that have developed through the conflict among both the general population and former combatants. Governments that implement these processes, as well as the international organizations which support them, use transitional justice as a means of reducing the causes of conflict decreasing the likelihood that violence will occur again.
The use of transitional justice is already prevalent. The Post-Conflict Justice Dataset, which records transitional justice put in place following armed conflict, found 272 processes related to 173 different conflicts between 1946 and 2006. Fifty-three percent of post-conflict countries implemented at least one transitional justice process and 22 percent implemented two or more processes. Transitional justice is increasingly commonplace as a means of reducing the motives for future violence.
New research on transitional justice has turned our attention to the possibility of using transitional justice while conflict is ongoing in an attempt to resolve disputes and grievances sooner, thus bringing the conflict to an end more quickly. Other efforts have focused on the relationship between transitional justice and conflict to isolate the direct effects of transitional justice in order to design more useful strategies to prevent conflict reoccurrence.
We’re still unclear on the long-term effect of transitional justice, whether attempted during the conflict or after violence has ended. However, transitional justice can be a powerful tool for achieving the ends sought in PSD-10. No one claims transitional justice is the only or best approach, but it is one tool that should not be neglected when considering how best to respond to mass violence.