What the U.S. Intelligence Community Says About Mass Atrocities in 2014

Here’s what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said about the risk of mass atrocities this year in the Worldwide Threat Assessment he delivered today to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence:

The overall risk of mass atrocities worldwide will probably increase in 2014 and beyond. Trends driving this increase include more social mobilization, violent conflict, including communal violence, and other forms of instability that spill over borders and exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions; diminished or stagnant quality of governance; and widespread impunity for past abuses. Many countries at risk of mass atrocities will likely be open to influence to prevent or mitigate them. This is because they are dependent on Western assistance or multilateral missions in their countries, have the political will to prevent mass atrocities, or would be responsive to international scrutiny. Overall international will and capability to prevent or mitigate mass atrocities will likely diminish in 2014 and beyond, although support for human rights norms to prevent atrocities will almost certainly deepen among some non-government organizations. Much of the world will almost certainly turn to the United States for leadership to prevent and respond to mass atrocities.

That’s a ton of analysis crammed into a single paragraph, and I suspect a lot of person-hours went into the construction of those six sentences.

However many hours it was, I think the results are largely correct. After two decades of relative quiescence, we’ve seen a troubling rebound in the occurrence of mass atrocities in the past few years, and the systemic forces that seem to be driving that rebound don’t yet show signs of abating.

One point on which I disagree with the IC’s analysis, though, is the claim that “widespread impunity for past abuses” is helping to fuel the upward trend in mass atrocities. I don’t think this assertion is flat-out false; I just think it’s overblown and over-confident. As Mark Kersten argued last week in a blog post on the debate over whether or not the situation in Syria should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC),

Any suggestion that international criminal justice should be pursued in the context of ongoing hostilities in Syria leads us to the familiar “peace versus justice” debate. Within this debate, there are broadly two camps: one which views international criminal justice as a necessary and useful tool which can deter crimes, marginalize perpetrators and even be conducive to peace negotiations; and a second camp which sees judicial interventions as deleterious to peace talks and claims that it creates disincentives for warring parties to negotiate and leads to increased levels of violence.

So who’s right? I think Kersten is when he says this:

It remains too rarely conceded that the Courts effects are mixed and, even more rarely, that they might be negligible.This points to the ongoing need to reimagine how we study and assess the effects of the ICC on ongoing and active conflicts. There is little doubt that the Court can have negative and positive effects on the ability of warring parties and interested actors to transform conflicts and establish peace. But this shouldn’t lead to a belief that the ICC must have these effects across cases. In some instances, the Court may actually have minimal or even inconsequential effects. As importantly, in many if not most cases, the ICC won’t be the be-all and end-all of peace processes. Even when the Court has palpable effects, peace processes aren’t likely to flourish or perish on the hill of international criminal justice.

Finally, I’m not sure what the Threat Assessment‘s drafters had in mind when they wrote that “overall international will and capability to prevent or mitigate mass atrocities will likely diminish in 2014 and beyond.” I suspect that statement is a nod in the direction of declinists who worry that a recalcitrant Russia and rising China spell trouble for the supposed Pax Americana, but that’s just a guess.

In any case, I think the assertion is wrong. Syria is the horror that seems to lurk behind this point, and there’s no question that the escalation and spread of that war represents one of the greatest failures of global governance in modern times. Even as the war in Syria continues, though, international forces have mobilized to stem fighting in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, two conflicts that are already terrible but could also get much, much worse. Although the long-term effects of those mobilizations remain unclear, the very fact of their occurrence undercuts the claim that international will and capability to respond to mass atrocities are flagging.

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