How Can We Prevent the Next Genocide?

More time should be spent working to stop potential mass atrocities instead of waiting to deal with the aftermath

An early morning search for firewood with women of the Kalma internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in South Darfur. / Nicole Widdersheim, USAID

At the height of the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, I met many women in hot and dusty camps for internally displaced people who told me horrific stories of how they had lost their husbands, sons and brothers.

Entire villages were systematically burned, land was seized, and rape was widespread. For two and a half years, I worked there with USAID, channeling funding and in-kind support to local women’s groups, human rights organizations and lawyers to mitigate the effects of mass rape, killing and displacement.

The Darfur crisis began in 2003 when two armed groups rebelled against the government. The government retaliated by arming militias; up to 300,000 people were killed in the first five years, according to some estimates. It was eventually classified as a genocide by the U.S. Government based on the deliberate, large-scale targeting of non-Arab villagers.

Unfortunately, little has changed in Darfur since then. Atrocities against civilians there have once again become widespread, and displacement from one’s home remains so common that numbers have lost meaning.

A teenage girl from Mukjar, Darfur in 2005. / Nicole Widdersheim, USAID

An Unanswered Question

On more than one occasion — in the midst of endless meetings, assessments, reports, security briefings, camp visits and women’s focus group discussions — I found myself asking how these atrocities could have been prevented.

How could this have happened to this community, these women, that village, and this ethnic group?

While a definitive answer never emerged, my Darfur experience did make one thing clear — the international community needs to put more time and effort into understanding how to prevent a future genocide, instead of waiting until mass atrocities start and dealing with the aftermath.

Eleven years after my time in Darfur, I am now part of such an effort.

Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick (right) and Nicole Widdersheim (second from right) meet women leaders in Kalma Camp in South Darfur in 2005.

The U.S. Government is leading this charge; USAID is the first large development cooperation agency to produce a field guide for helping to prevent mass atrocities for development officers. By identifying indicators and risks warning of a potential genocide, we may be able to stop one before it occurs.

Together with dedicated individuals, governments and civil society organizations around the world, we aim to prevent large-scale and deliberate attacks on civilians by tracking these indicators, focusing on diplomatic engagement, and strengthening development and human rights programming.

A Clear Link to Development

We have found there is a connection between international development work and the prevention of mass atrocities.

In late March, USAID and the Danish government came together in Kampala, Uganda and investigated these links with African government officials, civil society and other development actors.

We determined that successful, sustainable and equitable development can in fact guard countries against a genocide. Mass atrocities against civilians are unlikely to occur in countries with legitimate and effective governments, healthy economies, and strong and free civil societies.

Studies show that countries with dismal development indicators such as high infant mortality rates and weak and unaccountable governments are more likely to experience mass atrocities — particularly if they are already experiencing violent conflict.

A Darfuri woman gathers with others to learn about skills training at a community center promoting economic opportunities in South Darfur. / Nicole Widdersheim, USAID

A Directive from the President

In 2011, President Barack Obama declared that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”

This statement, part of the Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities, made clear that threats of mass atrocities are sufficient to justify U.S. Government action, even in the absence of other national interests. The directive also established the Atrocities Prevention Board, which coordinates the U.S. Government’s approach.

As the international community continues to increase its understanding of what causes mass atrocities, development practitioners, donors, civil society and other governments must use this knowledge to take steps to recognize and prevent the next genocide from occurring.

The author joins women who gather at dawn each day to leave the IDP camp in search of firewood. This patrol was the first of many guarded by the African Union to prevent attacks on women. / S. Mann

It is hard to work on this issue in the face of the horrible tragedy in Syria or the repeated failures in Sudan and South Sudan and not be reminded of our limitations.

On the other hand, I think back to the internally displaced people in Darfur that we tried to help in the mid-2000s, and I remember their stories so vividly. For their sake, I focus on what we can do, however modest.

Though we might not be able to stop all mass atrocities in the world, any endeavor to improve our collective efforts to prevent and respond to this evil is a cause I’ll proudly and humbly continue to support.

About the Author

Nicole Widdersheim is a Human Rights Advisor and Atrocity Prevention POC in USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance. Nicole has been with USAID in Sudan, Haiti, Mali and Cote d’Ivoire.