by NP board member and senior advisor, Rolf Carriere

This week the world was invited to pause for the Day of Remembrance (on 7 April) to honor the more than 800,000 victims of the Rwanda Genocide who were killed, in a mere 100 days in 1994, under unspeakable and near-inexplicable circumstances. It offered an opportunity to reflect on the many millions of people, anywhere in the world, who today live under the threat of imminent physical violence or even in dread of looming mass atrocities—and who are in desperate need of protection now.

Looking back at recent history, those who, after the Holocaust, thought that their outcry, their plea "Never Again!" would finally be heeded, have been proven wrong many times since. How many times did we have to repeat that phrase? Again, and again and again! Some experts say there were as many as 37 genocides since World War II. Rwanda's genocide was one of them, but, again, not the last one.

We seem to be doomed to repeat genocides—to commit them, and to allow them to be committed! Despite its 146 state ratifications, the Genocide Convention of 1948 has not proven much of a deterrent. Is there some inevitability about mankind committing mass atrocity crimes? I don't believe so.

But then, is the world today in any better position to prevent or halt another genocide?

 (Published April 13, 2015)

There is no doubt that the global discourses on the Responsibility to Protect and on the Protection of Civilians, begun in the late 1990's, are a direct consequence of the Rwandan and other genocides of that decade. So are the creations of the International Criminal Court, and the UN Peacebuilding Fund. The UN's Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes allows the world to assess and monitor the risk of these crimes. We can no longer say: "Ichhabeesnichtgewusst!" The Framework shows the many pathways to genocide, but also the many ways in which each one of us can play a role, wherever we are, to act early, to nip genocidal tendencies in the bud, and to take a stand against genocide.

Most of these and other contemporary discourses stress the three parts of prevention: primary, to prevent a conflict from getting violent; secondary, to prevent violence from escalating into war and mass atrocity crimes, and also to shield vulnerable civilians; and tertiary, to prevent that perpetrators of mass atrocity crimes get away with impunity, and also to deter potential future perpetrators.

These discourses, and the institutions and actions associated with them, have reinforced the world's peace architecture. But, when all is said and done, the world still badly lacks the capacity and the collective will to decisively act against mass atrocity crimes.

You only have to look at the daily news. The reality on the ground remains dismal — 'horrific' may be a more accurate term. Let us remind ourselves that, in sheer numbers, civilians have never been under greater risk of violent conflict than today: 1.5 billion people live in countries affected by repeated violence (World Bank), and over 50 million are forcibly displaced due to conflict or persecution (UNHCR) — the largest number since WWII. Moreover, civilians, not combatants, are the vast majority of the casualties of violent conflict — evidence of how much the principle of civilian immunity in war has eroded. In fact, civilians are now often deliberately targeted. That said, accurate statistics are hard to come by, and the precise ratio of civilians to combatants killed in war should probably best be analyzed at on a war-by-war basis.

Amnesty International 2015 Annual Report states that: "This has been a devastating year for those seeking to stand up for human rights and for those caught up in the suffering of war zones... There has been a singular failure to find workable solutions to the most pressing needs of our time." Contrast that with UN S-G Ban Ki-moon's assertion that "human protection is a defining purpose of the United Nations in the twenty-first century".

Over the past 15 years, the UN has relied heavily on the use of armed Blue Helmets to protect civilians. And many of us have been conditioned to believe that military intervention and/or police action is the best response to protect civilians under threat of armed violence. But that may not always be so.

So, are there any other options?

Unarmed Civilian Protection, or UCP, is an approach that holds great promise to help interrupt, early on, violent conflicts from spiraling out of control and resulting in mass atrocity crimes.

UCP aims to do three things: to protect civilians directly, to help reduce violence locally, and to strengthen local peace infrastructures. It does so by employing a mix of ten specific methods, such as protective accompaniment, early warning/early response, ceasefire monitoring, proactive presence and facilitating local-level mediation. Prompt rumor control is also one of the methods, and would have been of particular importance in Rwanda.

UCP organizations deploy specially trained, unarmed civilians, recruited from many countries and cultures to live and work with local civil society in areas of violent conflict — without using weapons or resorting to armed force. Their ability to protect relies on building and maintaining relationships with all conflict parties, armed and civilian. And they must do so as an impartial third party. That is how the protectors protect and, in turn, receive protection themselves! UCP exerts influence through encouragement and deterrence, recognizing that almost all perpetrators have multiple sensitivities which may be activated by proactive presence.

UCP is particularly effective at an early stage of conflicts, to prevent or mitigate violence, but also after a ceasefire, to support peacebuilding, to prevent relapse back into violence, and to help the transition to a stable peace.

UCP can work in conflict areas where no UN peacekeepers are deployed, but also in areas where UN military or political missions are present.

The protection onionProtection of civilians is done by many different protection actors, like shown in this protection onion. UCP primarily works within the innermost circle, which traditionally has been the preserve of military and police. But we believe that Protection of Civilians is not first and foremost a military concept or practice. Civil society has its own contribution to make here. History shows that civilians can, and do, protect other civilians. As Mukesh Kapila describes it: "Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, who stayed all through the Rwanda genocide, saved hundreds of children who were thrust at them by Tutsi parents as they were about to be rushed to their own slaughter. When the Hutu militia demanded entry to take away the "children of the cockroaches", the diminutive Indian nuns, with nothing but their faith to protect them, barred the way." These 'ordinary people' became spontaneous protectors displaying extraordinary courage. Many more, and more professional protection mechanisms are now needed. UCP is one of them. Remember, the sum of all current peace operations, armed and unarmed, governmental and non-governmental, does not come close to meeting the needs of civilians under threat today.

In fact, I believe that effective, successful protection of civilians needs the relationship building of UCP just as much as the threat power of the armed force — and probably even more so!

You can protect civilians who are living in or fleeing violent conflict. Your contribution will transform the world's response to conflict.