How to stop a massacre

How to stop a massacre


It’s not complicated to stop a massacre.  You need to do the following:

  1. Have good policing in place
  2. Deter potential killers
  3. If possible, have overwhelming force available to interpose between the threatening and the threatened.  With rules of engagement which allow them to use lethal force, if necessary, in defence of civilians.
  4. Use the media to publicise the threat of killing, and the consequences for anyone who kills
Not complicated - but in many cases not easy.
For the above to be feasible, someone needs to be clearly in charge of ensuring safety for the civilian population.  Normally that is the national government.
Where the government is incapable or unwilling – or indeed is threatening to do the killing – someone else needs to be responsible for ensuring civilian safety, and equipped with the necessary authority and resources.  This could be the head of a UN-mandated peacekeeping force or policing mission, or the head of another international force, appropriately mandated.
It is, unfortunately, easy to think of examples where the above four points were not in place, and where a massacre took place as a result.  Where the government is unable or unwilling to prevent a massacre, it is relatively rare for there to be an international force present with the mandate and resources and willpower to prevent a massacre.
I was present in a country where about 5,000 people were killed in a single day.  We don’t know if it was premeditated.  If it wasn’t, the reason the massacre took place may - just possibly - have been that troops were untrained to cope with crowds, and massively over-reacted when a situation got out of control.  Then they kept firing.  For a long time.
If good policing had been in place the situation would probably not have got out of control in the first place.  If it had, the police and/or troops, if properly trained, would have been able to calm it down.  Even if all that failed, but there had been a credible deterrent in place incentivising the military commanders to protect civilians and prevent violence, that would probably have reduced the death toll massively.
The sad fact is there was a UN military force present.  It found out that it was not a credible deterrent, indeed its posture was not designed to deter government troops.  As a result many people died.
We should do two things:
  • Incentivise governments, with a mixture of political and economic carrots and sticks, to put good policing in place and to deter potential killers
  • With UN Security Council authority, be quick to deploy a credible international force when the large-scale killing of civilians is threatened and where the government is unable or unwilling to act.  The force should have a mandate to protect civilians and the resources to carry that out.
We could be much tougher about the first.  With better relationships in the Security Council and with a stronger UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, or nations willing to form rapid reaction forces mandated by the Security Council, we could achieve the second more often.
A concerted effort is required on both fronts.  Which implies the need for a strong team dedicated to working on them.  At present, most countries have an ad-hoc approach, with overstretched officials combining many other responsibilities with these.  Not surprising, then, if progress is slow. 
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