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The Relationship between Atrocity crimes and violation of Human Rights

 The Relationship between Atrocity crimes and violation of Human Rights

The Responsibility to Protect is a political commitment made by heads of state and government at the 2005 UN World Summit aimed at preventing and halting four mass atrocity crimes, namely genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. In doing so, states agreed that governments have the primary responsibility to protect populations within their borders from atrocity crimes, that the international community should help states in building the capacity to uphold this responsibility, and that when a state is unwilling or manifestly failing to do so, the international community must be prepared to take timely and decisive collective action in accordance with the UN Charter.

Atrocity crimes do not occur in a vacuum, nor are they isolated or random incidents. Rather, they are typically the consequence of a broader process. In order to adequately prevent and respond to the threat of atrocity crimes, there is a need to understand the early warning signs, risk factors and aggravating conditions that may culminate in the perpetration of such grave crimes.

In their Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes, the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect identifies a “record of serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law [IHRL and IHL, respectively]” as one of the common risk factors for atrocity crimes.

The Framework of Analysis highlights eight indicators to examine when reflecting on a record of serious violations of IHRL and IHL:


  • Past or present serious restrictions to or violations of IHRL and IHL, particularly if assuming an early pattern of conduct and if targeting protected groups, populations or individuals.

  • Past acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or their incitement.

  • Policy or practice of impunity for or tolerance of serious violations of IHRL and IHL, of atrocity crimes, or of their incitement.

  • Inaction, reluctance or refusal to use all possible means to stop planned, predictable or ongoing serious violations of IHRL and IHL or likely atrocity crimes, or their incitement.

  • Continuation of support to groups accused of involvement in serious violations of IHRL and IHL, including atrocity crimes, or failure to condemn their actions.

  • Justification, biased accounts or denial of serious violations of IHRL and IHL or atrocity crimes.

  • Politicization or absence of reconciliation or transitional justice processes following conflict.

  • Widespread mistrust in state institutions or among different groups as a result of impunity.

Human rights violations and abuses occurring in a context with inadequate human rights protection can also elevate atrocity risks. Perpetrators of atrocity crimes require an environment that enables them to mobilize and commit violations without consequence.

Several indicators cited in the Framework of Analysis show how the inability or unwillingness of a state to adhere to international rules and norms surrounding human rights protection may increase the risk of atrocities. This includes:


  • National legal framework that does not offer ample and effective protection, including through ratification and domestication of relevant IHRL and IHL treaties.

  • National institutions, particularly judicial, law enforcement and human rights institutions that lack sufficient resources, adequate representation or training.

  • Lack of awareness of and training on IHRL and IHL to military forces, irregular forces and non-state armed groups, or other relevant actors.

  • Limited cooperation of the state with international and regional human rights mechanisms.

However, while these indicators are crucial in identifying potential emerging or escalating atrocity risks, they do not necessarily always lead to the commission of atrocities or a significantly elevated risk. Often it is when human rights violations and abuses are paired with other risk factors, such as armed conflicts, limited civic space and high levels of political, social or economic instability that we observe an escalation to atrocity crimes. In recent years, amidst rising nationalism and xenophobia, we have witnessed a simultaneous increase in provocative hate speech and attacks on minorities. In countries that fail to protect the human rights of minorities – either through actively persecuting and discriminating against them or through failing to provide adequate legal protection to all groups within society – the combination of these factors creates an environment conducive to the commission of atrocity crimes.

In Myanmar, for example, decades of structural human rights violations preceded the so-called “clearance operations” of 2017 during which approximately 745,000 Rohingya were forced to flee. Since the 1980s, the Rohingya minority in Myanmar have been systematically stripped of their basic human rights, citizenship and essential services such as health care, education and employment through national laws, including a 1982 citizenship law and the so-called “Protection of Race and Religion” laws adopted in 2015. Such laws created a permissive environment for widespread discrimination, rampant hate speech by prominent religious actors, inter-communal violence and targeting by the security forces. The clearance operations themselves were characterized by brutal acts that amount to genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, including indiscriminate killings, rape and sexual violence, arbitrary detention and torture.

By contrast to the Myanmar case, the infringement on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is institutional and pervasive, including through male guardianship laws, restrictions on freedom of movement and detention for peaceful advocacy. The government of Saudi Arabia consistently represses dissidents, human rights activists and independent clerics, regularly violating the right to freedom of expression, association and belief. Though these clearly constitute serious human rights violations, in the absence of aggravating circumstances or other risk factors such violations have not contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes.

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