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Rethinking Approaches to Prevention under the Responsibility to Protect

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Agency and Empowerment within Vulnerable Populations

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Within the responsibility to protect (R2P) principle, there is an assumption that is rarely questioned. Beneath the statement that states and the international community are charged with the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, lies the implication that vulnerable populations cannot protect themselves. In periods of crisis, when the international community might consider mobilising a response under pillar three, this is often the case. Yet outside of such crises, when pillar one – the enduring responsibility of the state to protect its own populations – and pillar two – assistance from the international community to meet this responsibility – might be invoked in a preventive capacity, vulnerable populations may not be wholly reliant upon protection from external actors. In these circumstances, persecuted groups may actively seek to protect themselves, and may be successfully able to do so. In this paper, I challenge the current understanding of prevention within R2P as an externally imposed process, by considering how persecuted groups have themselves acted in ways that mitigate their vulnerability to mass atrocities. The paper considers a number of historical case studies in which targeted groups were able to leverage their own agency, often with assistance from others, to reduce this vulnerability. These include cases that culminated in genocide, namely the experiences of German and Austrian Jews under Nazi rule, and negative cases studies in which a demonstrable risk of mass atrocities was not realised, such as the experiences of Yemenite Jews in the first half of the twentieth century and those of the Bahá’í community in Iran since the 1979 Iranian revolution. These cases suggest that assisting persecuted populations to empower themselves can be an effective way to promote resilience to mass atrocities. In the final section of the paper, I explore why this approach is often overlooked, despite its capacity for some success. I consider the potential benefits and costs of a greater focus on utilising the agency of vulnerable groups in endeavours to prevent mass atrocities.

Affiliations: 1: University of Wollongong,


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