Polarization, Social Cohesion, and Atrocities: Approaches for a Safer World

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July 12, 2023

The prevention of mass atrocities remains a critical global challenge for governments and citizens alike. Despite renewed commitments to prevention, atrocities are underway in thirteen countries in 2023 with millions of lives at risk. Violent conflicts are at a 30-year high. The UNHCR estimated more than 100 million people will be forcibly displaced before the end of the year. Protecting civilians from atrocities requires ongoing attention, collaboration, and action from governments, civil society, and international organizations.

There are both long-term structural conditions that create situations of atrocity vulnerability, as well as triggering events that accelerate violence. Early action is crucial to the prevention agenda. There is an inertia to violent conflict. Atrocities rarely begin with the killing of a thousand or more people, the number of fatalities generally used to characterize “atrocities.”4 Yet, a history of violence against a particular group is one of the largest predictors of future violence. Acting early is crucial to prevent the accumulation of atrocity risk factors and the escalation of violence. It requires a dual commitment to reduce the enabling environment for violence and the creation of rapid de-escalation response capacities. Yet, atrocity “prevention” programming often starts after atrocities have already begun. True prevention requires early action and dedication to reducing the factors that lead to atrocities.

Search for Common Ground explored the question of how to improve early action to prevent atrocities through a review of its programs implemented in ten countries at high-risk of atrocity over the past decade: Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Civilians in these contexts face similar long-term challenges that contribute to the risk for atrocities: (i) ongoing security situations characterized by widespread social divisions; (ii) history of lapsed promises and fractured relationships between government and citizens and/or between communities; (iii) exclusion of particular groups from political representation and/or access to resources; (iv) deficient communal capacities to identify, prevent, or respond to violent conflicts; and (v) complex, highly-sensitive, or shrinking space for civil society.

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This report was authored by Katie Smith is Global Policy Specialist at Search for Common Ground. Amanda Feldman, Global Policy Fellow, and Sara Hagos, Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow, with Search’s Global Affairs and Partnerships Team assisted the design, research, and authorship of this report.

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