Fundamentals of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention

Fundamentals of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention

Scott Straus

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C., 2016, 264 pages

Book Review published on: May 5, 2017

Scott Straus is a professor of political science and international studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The research was underwritten by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, noting the absence of literature on the subject of mass atrocities and genocide. With the growing public and policy interest in promoting prevention, the purpose of Fundamentals of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention is to provide an introductory understanding on how to prevent, and as necessary, how to respond to such acts of extreme violence.

By way of introduction, Straus provides a synopsis of the history, theoretical causes/scholarship, and a practitioner’s perspective of those involved in preventing or in responding to mass atrocities and genocide. As a point of departure, he presents the United Nations (UN) charter articles and the UN Genocide Convention articles that mandate the moral obligation of nations to protect the welfare of its people. State-perpetrated events are in decline; however, the trend may reverse with the primary instigators being nonstate actors. Emphasizing the U.S. commitment and resolve, he provides a precis of the U.S. Presidential Study Directive addressing the ethical obligation the United States has in preventing mass atrocities and genocide.

As a means of framing context, Straus makes necessary distinctions between the definition of terms such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, mass atrocities, and genocide, relying heavily on the recognized position of the International Criminal Court and the Geneva Convention. He is also quick to point out that these definitions and their differences are not widely embraced by the international community of nations, making it problematic to address such conditions/events.

Straus subsequently addresses the causes of genocide and mass atrocities, their commonalities (i.e., political instability, internal conflict, and differences in ideology), as well as the contested scholarly findings of causes (i.e., the role of economic conditions, government capacity, and numerous other risk components). He puts forward factors and conditions he considers as warning signs that may act as triggering mechanisms, such as environmental stressors (i.e., climatic, arid land, and scarcity of water). The intent in providing these characteristics and traits is to highlight why perpetrators are compelled to conduct such acts. In doing so, Straus hopes that where possible circumvention measures may be applied.

The author then speaks to an emerging policy framework on atrocity and genocide prevention. He proposes tools and approaches for at risk countries to employ for avoiding crisis, as well as measures that the international community of nations, institutions, and organizations can take to prevent or respond to mass atrocities and genocide. Additionally, Straus identifies variables that impact post-event recovery and rebuilding, justice and accountability measures, and strategies that may lead to enduring stability and prosperity.

The book is well-researched, objectively presented, and cleverly organized with the reader in mind. It has numerous supporting diagrams that act as great pictorial summaries of the subject matter that are easy to follow and grasp by even subject novices. This book is exactly what it claims to be, a smartly crafted, comprehensive (in breadth, not depth), introduction to the fundamentals of genocide and mass atrocities—from causal characteristics and post-event recovery approaches to preventative means. It is a great foundation for other scholars and practitioners to work from in advancing this neglected, yet critical body of literature. Subject-matter practitioners, conflict theory scholars, development economists, aid/development focused organizations and institutions, political leaders, and related government agencies, as well as military leaders and planners, best read this book.

Book Review written by: Dr. David A. Anderson, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas