The working sessions of the conference discussed how to address three stages of mass atrocities: before, during and after. I attended an off-the-record discussion of the "before" stage, when the participants talked about the warning signs, or signals, that indicate a country may be heading toward human rights violations. The conference has now released a document on this topic that I can use to determine what is on the record.
There are signs that a society is heading in a very wrong direction, and I would like to emphasize a few of them here. One of the strongest common factors discussed was that the media – information channels – begin to act in collusion with the leadership, with a goal of inflaming and polarizing public opinion. What we would call "hate speech" becomes common. Another signal is when leaders begin encouraging a mentality of victimhood in a target population. "Those xxx’s are getting the best food, taking our jobs … whatever." At some point the dissenters and human rights defenders become identified as "the enemy" for pointing out abuses as they start to occur.
These things are not necessarily done with a goal of human rights violations in mind, but rather to gain or consolidate political or economic power. The trouble is, these things can rapidly escalate and become a norm, and then an expectation. A polarized, inflamed population can begin to demand ever-harsher solutions to the perceived threat.
We have even seen it happen in modern, civilized societies. Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen here.
From the document:
Prevention of Mass Atrocities
The media can play a negative role in inflaming ethnic, religious, or nationalist tensions to create a sense of siege and victimization. In Serbia, for example, intellectual, cultural, and religious elites played a role in producing a mentality of victimhood. When atrocities then break out against minorities, the majority community has no empathy or sympathy.
Weak political leadership is unwilling to challenge extremist voices, and even seeks to tap in to chauvinistic sentiment to their own advantage. That obstacle is often compounded by a weak civil society, especially in post-authoritarian societies, which cannot counter intolerant, supremacist ideas. As polarization increases, human rights defenders frequently experience extreme insecurity that impairs their ability to function.
Faith-based and religious institutions, while potentially a voice of reason and compassion in an escalating conflict, can became equally culpable in creating the victim mentality and inflaming public opinion. With sufficient leadership and commitment, however, religious institutions can overcome a crisis of values and answer the call to justice inherent in many faiths to stand with the oppressed.
The failure or corruption of state institutions, including the police, military, intelligence services, judiciary, and legislature, is frequently responsible for the outbreak of conflict, as is the failure to take action by the international and regional agencies and states.
[. . .] RECOMMENDATIONS
Prevention of Mass Atrocities
1. Monitor media output and challenge hate speech and incitement when they occur. Promote an independent and diverse free press. Build community radio and other alternative media as one way to communicate with people despite media control. Train journalists in human rights and defenders in media skills.
2. Encourage religious leaders to have a moderating influence on their own faith communities in areas of conflict.
3. Build the capacity of NGOs at the local level to monitor violations by the judiciary, parliament, police, military, intelligence services, and non-state actors. Train NGOs to enable them to lobby for implementation of and compliance with existing laws that protect human rights.
4. Make full use of all diplomatic pressures and sanctions to deter states and individual officials from actions that exacerbate conflict or that constitute violations. Such measures include targeted sanctions, diplomatic isolation, arms embargoes, naming and shaming, trade embargoes, and boycotts of industries that benefit authoritarian elites, such as tourism. However, sanctions should primarily focus on political rather than economic levers to avoid harming disadvantaged groups.
5. Provide incentives for states to uphold human rights and take other measures to step back from the brink of inter-communal conflict. Such incentives, as found in the E.U. accession criteria, reward respect for civil liberties, equality of women, non-discrimination, and good governance.
That ends my postings on the Carter Center Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum. In a couple of weeks I will be blogging from the 2007 Clinton Global Initiative. Please visit, leave comments and join the discussion.