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December 22, 2020

Rule of Law Approaches to Preventing Atrocities: Learning from ABA ROLI’s Past Programming

By Jamie Wise, ABA ROLI Intern for Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Division

Establishing and strengthening the rule of law is critical to preventing mass atrocities, including genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. This is perhaps most evident in transitional justice measures that have been implemented following violent conflicts and the fall of oppressive regimes, such as international tribunals prosecuting atrocity crimes and truth commissions documenting past human rights abuses. However, other rule of law approaches to mitigate the risk factors of mass atrocities before they occur have also emerged as an important aspect of peace consolidation programming, including institutional reform and crisis early warning.

ABA ROLI’s Learning Brief Project

Drawing from 30 years of experience at the end of 2020, ABA ROLI undertook an internal learning project to inform practitioners on programmatic approaches linking rule of law interventions to atrocity prevention. Under the umbrella of transitional justice, these approaches include: 1) prosecuting atrocity crimes, 2) documenting evidence of atrocity crimes, and 3) implementing truth and reconciliation initiatives. Other approaches, concerned not so much with reckoning with past atrocities as mitigating contemporary risks, include: 4) creating inclusive governance, 5) detecting and responding to human rights violations (i.e. early warning and response), and 6) strengthening respect for human rights across the justice sector (including trainings for judges, prosecutors, investigators, and police officers).

Relying on a review of program design, monitoring, and evaluation documents archived from 50 different projects, we documented insights for program designers aiming to incorporate evidence-based theories of change into their atrocity prevention programming. This learning process resulted in a learning brief summarizing the state of empirical evidence underpinning each approach from external scholarship. This tool enables program designers to examine assumptions tied to each approach and identify gaps in knowledge that future program evaluations can help fill. As such, this learning project both looks back at ABA ROLI’s historical work and highlights new directions for the future.

ABA ROLI’s Expertise in Atrocity Prevention

ABA ROLI has substantial experience designing and implementing atrocity prevention programming in every region of the world. ABA ROLI staff have developed especially deep expertise in documenting past atrocity crimes and creating inclusive governance. Since 1999, ABA ROLI (then CEELI) has played a key role in documenting atrocity crimes to support prosecutions, including providing support to early investigations by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. More recently, as a part of the Global Initiative for Justice, Truth, and Reconciliation, ABA ROLI has been a thought-leader in designing and implementing processes to engage local communities in transitional justice, producing a guide for practitioners on “Strengthening Participation in Local-Level and National Transitional Justice Processes” and an assessment tool for “Understanding and Addressing Violations of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Transitional Justice” to assist practitioners in the field.

Other notable ABA ROLI programs on atrocity prevention include: providing legal assistance to victims of sexual and gender-based violence in the Central African Republic (Approach 1), building forensic capacity to address forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Nepal and the Philippines (Approaches 2 and 6), supporting civil society actors in advocating for transitional justice in Mali (Approach 3), strengthening the justice sector to combat violence against LGBT persons in El Salvador (Approach 4), and creating an early warning system to enhance civilian protection in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Approach 5).

Across these approaches, ABA ROLI’s programming predominantly takes the form of capacity building. Although the targets of these interventions range from the general public to victims’ groups, civil society actors, human rights defenders, justice sector actors, and government officials, ABA ROLI works primarily with and through local partners, enhancing their capacity to continue atrocity prevention activities even after program completion. This method not only helps to ensure the sustainability of development programs, but also dovetails with a turn in transitional justice and atrocity prevention scholarship and practice toward centering survivors and promoting community-based efforts.

Insights from Scholarship

Atrocity prevention efforts, including those undertaken by ABA ROLI, are generally aimed at responding to or mitigating the risk factors of atrocity crimes present within a given context. Research on the precipitating conditions of genocide and other mass atrocities is extensive and identifies a variety of relevant factors. However, consensus has formed around the importance of political instability (ex. armed conflict, regime changes, coups, or revolutions), transformative or exclusionary ideologies (ex. revolutionary or ethno-nationalist), and histories of discrimination and identity-based violence in laying the foundations for atrocity crimes. While these risk factors can help predict the onset of mass atrocities, they are not necessarily causal factors. Nevertheless, practitioners and policymakers have sought to address these preconditions in at-risk contexts in order to reduce the likelihood of future mass atrocities. 

Scholars have also devoted considerable attention to studying the impact of specific interventions on atrocity prevention, although critical gaps remain in this literature. Much research centers on the (in)effectiveness of national-level human rights trials or truth commissions and is yet inconclusive. However, recent literature has highlighted the importance of memorialization and local-level reconciliation initiatives in changing attitudes and perceptions, with the potential to peacefully transform divided societies. Others have explored the effects of--for example--democracypower-sharing arrangements, and judicial independence on state-sanctioned violence and conflict recurrence, again with mixed (though occasionally promising) results depending on various models, datasets, and definitions. This literature shows that researchers continue to grapple with the impact of transitional justice and other rule of law approaches on atrocity prevention. As such, ABA ROLI’s historical programming review should be viewed as part of a larger learning process that engages scholars and practitioners across diverse conflict contexts.


Recommendations for the Field

Two key recommendations came out of ABA ROLI’s review of atrocity prevention programing that are relevant to other implementers in this field of work:

  1. Design to the Local Context - Many of the risks and challenges associated with theories of change aimed at atrocity prevention emerge from misunderstandings of the needs, interests, and resources within a given country context. Program designers should thus carefully assess the baseline conditions before devising theories of change in this area, to ensure that they adequately address local opportunities and constraints. Grassroots, bottom-up efforts at transitional justice and atrocity prevention are the new norm, and development organizations working with local partners should focus on building capacity among competent local actors to engage in this work.
  2. Fill Gaps in Knowledge through Evaluation and Research - Critical evidence gaps exist across every rule of law approach to achieving atrocity prevention. Implementers thus have a unique opportunity to build the knowledge base and thereby enhance the effectiveness of atrocity prevention programming. Program staff should clearly articulate the theories of change they employ toward atrocity prevention at the program design stage, ensuring that rigorous evaluation plans and learning questions are incorporated early on to help gather data and test these theories in the field. Program staff should also continue to document challenges in the field that highlight critical assumptions, as well as share knowledge about adaptations to successfully overcome them.

Meet the Author

Jamie Wise graduated with her B.A. in International Studies and Sociology from the Ohio State University. Her research focuses on transitional justice and atrocity prevention, and she has conducted qualitative fieldwork on the legacies of mass violence in Rwanda, Syria, and Cambodia. Previously, Jamie has interned at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. She is passionate about producing policy-relevant research to help address the aftermath of mass atrocities, which is the subject of her TEDx talk, Our search for justice in a violent world. At ABA ROLI, Jamie worked with the the MEL team.

The materials contained herein represent the opinions of the authors and editors and should not be construed to be those of either the American Bar Association unless adopted pursuant to the bylaws of the Association. Nothing contained herein is to be considered as the rendering of legal advice for specific cases, and readers are responsible for obtaining such advice from their own legal counsel. These materials and any forms and agreements herein are intended for educational and informational purposes only.