Candlelight vigil in Kosovo. UN Photo/Ky Chung

To prevent atrocity crimes, it is critically important to understand the root causes of these crimes. Atrocities crimes, particularly genocide and crimes against humanity, are not spontaneous acts. Instead, they develop as a process over time, as a result of which it is possible to identify warning signs that they may occur. The Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect has developed a Framework of Analysis to identify some of the main risk factors for atrocity crimes. Preventing atrocity crimes means being aware of these risks and taking action to address and reduce them, or ideally, eradicate them.

Preventing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity is an ongoing process that requires sustained effort over time to build the resilience of societies to atrocity crimes by ensuring that the rule of law is respected and that all human rights are protected, without discrimination; by establishing legitimate and accountable national institutions; by eliminating corruption; by managing diversity constructively; and by supporting a strong and diverse civil society and a pluralistic media.

According to international law, the primary obligation to prevent atrocity crimes lies with individual States. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and overall international human rights law treaties contain provisions that oblige Member States to prevent those crimes or violations, including by ensuring the respect for the norms in them contained.

In the 2005 World Summit, Member States adopted the principle of the Responsibility to Protect, which reaffirms the primary responsibility of the State to protect its population from atrocity crimes, as well as their incitement. However, that principle also underlines the responsibility of the international community to prevent atrocity crimes by helping States to build capacity to protect their populations and assisting States under stress “before crises and conflicts break out”.

Preventing atrocity crimes should be a priority for everyone. First and foremost, prevention is the only way to avoid the loss of human life, trauma and physical injury. However, there are also other significant reasons to focus on prevention. The United Nations Security Council has stated in several of its resolutions that serious and gross breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law constitute threats to international peace and security. Therefore, prevention not only contributes to national peace and stability, it also serves the broader regional and international peace and stability agenda. Prevention of atrocity crimes is also much less costly than intervening to halt these crimes, or dealing with their aftermath. Finally, by taking measures to prevent atrocity crimes and fulfilling their primary responsibility to protect, States reinforce their sovereignty and reduce the need for more intrusive forms of response from other States or international actors.

Reports by the Special Advisers

  • Joint study of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence and the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide on the contribution of transitional justice to the prevention of gross violations and abuses of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law, particularly to the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and their recurrence. A/HRC/37/65 (2018)

  • Check the Summary of discussions of the expert group meetings that contributed to the preparation of the joint study.

  • Report of the Secretary-General on the prevention of genocide (A/HRC/41/24)

Relevant thematic UN Resolutions