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Conflict Resolution & Atrocity Prevention in International Relations

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

One of the major goals in modern international relations is the prevention of large-scale violence. In this lesson, we're going to look at the history of this and see what it means to the world today.

A World Without Violence

There have been a surprising number of theories throughout the years designed to justify war. For much of human history, war was seen as necessary, something that made the strong stronger and eliminated the weak. Even into modern times, some argued that war was a biological imperative to prevent our species from overwhelming the planet.

Then World War I happened. And then World War II happened. These combined conflicts introduced the world to atrocities and destruction never before seen. After 1945, the world finally stopped looking at war purely in terms of national strength, and it took a hard look at the human cost of war. Was war really the only way to resolve conflicts or was there a better way? It's a question that's still being debated today, but one the international community is determined to resolve.

Conflict Resolution

The second half of the 20th century was dominated by changes to international relations and at the center of that was the United Nations. Formed in 1945 at the end of WWII, the UN was created to be an international peacekeeping body, dedicated to the prospect of collective and lasting security.

The UN was founded in the name of collective security and lasting peace
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Now, the UN could have been created as an international army that resolved conflicts through force, but that was never the goal. The goal was to resolve conflicts nonviolently. By agreeing to give the UN authority to mediate disputes, member states are encouraged through international political and economic pressure to find diplomatic solutions to internal and international conflicts. The UN has maintained this role into the 21st century, notably intervening in the 2008 crisis in Kenya, when a civil war nearly emerged amid massive violence following a disputed election. UN officials managed to mediate a resolution where the opposing parties shared power and ruled jointly in a coalition government.

Atrocity Prevention

One important component of conflict resolution is atrocity prevention. After WWII, the Nuremberg Trials against Nazi officials revealed the depths of genocidal violence and resulted in a number of convictions. The United Nations and individual states all worked to prevent this kind of violence from happening again, and it was going well…or so they thought.

In 1994, Rwanda was entering the fourth year of its civil war. Tensions escalated and snapped, and the government issued a program of state violence responsible for killing around 800,000 ethnic Tutsis. Known as the Rwandan Genocide, this event shocked the international community. How did no one see this coming? Why was the world unprepared to stop it once it began? And why did efforts at nonviolent conflict resolution fail?

The Rwandan Genocide shocked the world
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The Rwandan Genocide made it clear that atrocities like this still could happen, and the UN launched a series of studies to improve atrocity prevention measures. Since then, a number of red-flags have been identified, especially in cases of decolonization and civil war, that can help the global community identify places where atrocities are at risk of occurring before they actually do.

Since the 1990s, there has been a notable decrease in civil wars and atrocities like the Rwandan Genocide, and there are a few factors responsible for this. For one, digital communications technology has made it much harder for governments to suppress images or information about internal conflict, so the international community can be made aware of issues earlier.

There has also been a renewed focus on using international courts to punish those who are responsible for human rights violations. The International Criminal Court, which began operating in 2002, is an example of a new institution committed to this cause. Indictments were issued for the arrest of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir in 2009 and Congolese leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, accused of using child soldiers in 2012.

The International Criminal Court is one attempt at limiting violence
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