Interview with early warning forecasting expert Dr. Charles Butcher

Welcome to the first edition in a new podcast series from the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. My name is Samuel Gillespie and today I will be discussing early warning forecasting, a new strategy in the field of genocide prevention. Joining me today is Charles Butcher PhD, a lecturer at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies out of the University of Otago in New Zealand. As part of his focus on genocide forecasting and group participation in violent and nonviolent conflict, Dr. Butcher coauthored a report titled “Understanding and Forecasting Political Instability and Genocide for Early Warning” published in 2012. The report drew international attention after the forecasting model accurately predicted the mass atrocities in the Central African Republic. How are you today Charles?  

Well thanks, thank you for having me on.

Thank you for joining us. What sparked your interest in early warning forecasting?

Well I was very fortunate to have associate professor Ben Goldsmith as my doctoral supervisor at the University of Sydney. My PhD dissertation was on understanding the spatial dimensions of civil war violence, so in other words, why some places experience a lot of violence in civil wars, and others not so much. So I was familiar with the existing research on armed conflict and then at the end of my dissertation Ben brought me on board with the Atrocity Forecasting project with the University of Sydney, which also involved some colleagues at the University of New South Wales. At this point, the idea of even predicting mass atrocities was fairly new and interesting to me, so just the idea of prediction at that point brought me on board. The more I’ve worked on this over time, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the early warning of mass atrocities can have a real preventative impact and there have been a couple of recent studies that have solidified my opinion on this, by Matt Krain and Jacqueline Demara. They seem to show that naming and shaming of perpetrators and potential perpetrators can reduce the severity of civilian killings or prevent them from beginning. These might not be huge impacts, but small impacts really matter in these situations where we’re talking about thousands and thousands of people being killed and even a greater magnitude being displaced. So I thought that knowing where to look for instances of mass killing before they occur is a pretty obvious public good in this regard and given our tools, forecasting tools can be constructed with data that’s already publicly available and demonstrate a relatively high degree of accuracy, say in comparison to forecasting civil wars, makes early warning and public dissemination of those warnings a fairly low cost policy option with the potential to save lives. And there of course many other benefits. Continue reading

The Early Warning Project: Can Expert Crowd-Sourcing Spot the Next Atrocity on the Horizon?

Today on the AIPR Blog, Daniel Solomon, an independent researcher on mass atrocity issues who blogs at Securing Rights, discusses The Early Warning Project, a new mass atrocity forecasting program that combines statistical forecasting with crowd-sourced intelligence from a pool of invited experts, of which Solomon is among.


In December 2008, the final report of the Genocide Prevention Task Force (GPTF), a high-profile convening of U.S. officials and policy experts, described “early warning” as a prerequisite of effective mass atrocity response. Early warning, which the group defined too-narrowly as “getting critical information [about mass atrocities] to policymakers,” has since emerged as a keystone of local, national, and international mass atrocity prevention agendas. The first adage of mass atrocity prevention, that it is possible, is closely followed by a second: mass atrocities can be known, far in advance of their onset.

ew1Early warning, defined more broadly, far predates the GPTF report; since 2008, however, policy-oriented warning programs have proliferated widely. Recent innovations in statistical forecasting have borne fruit in parallel models of mass atrocity risk. Among several programs, one stands out: the Early Warning Project, a partnership between the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide and Dartmouth’s Dickey Center for International Understanding. Unlike similar programs, which rest on the predictive grist of specific models, the Early Warning Project creates an interaction between statistical forecasting and the “wisdom of the [expert] crowd.” In the project’s expert opinion pool, of which I am a member, area scholars and mass atrocity specialists fill the blind spots of quantitative indicators. At the same time, the project’s quantitative side informs the specialists. If we can anticipate mass atrocities before they occur, it is only through the pluralism of knowledge, which the Early Warning Project advances. Continue reading

Can It Happen Here? Early Warning Forecasting in Cameroon

In today’s guest post, Dickinson College student and AIPR Communications Intern Sam Gillespie applies an early warning systems (EWS) lens to Cameroon, where he is currently studying.


“It could never happen to me.” Whether our nature or just a common sense of denial, most would agree that humans rarely think they will become the victim of an unfortunate event. This spans from third graders thinking they won’t be picked last for the team, to a homeowner opting out of flood insurance, to states refusing to admit they are at risk of a humanitarian crisis. In sub-Saharan Africa, this impulse to deny an imminent crisis is particularly pronounced—especially among unstable states at risk of mass atrocities.

Enter early warning systems (EWS). Early warning forecasting seeks to monitor certain factors that determine a states’ likeliness to commit atrocities. Early warning is cost effective since the costs to monitor certain factors are less expensive than intervening after crises take place. Some of these risk factors include official discrimination against a group within the state, political instability, increased military activity, and conflicts with neighboring states. Unfortunately, analysis of these factors is difficult to accomplish without resources, technology and funding. Continue reading

R2P Response to Crisis in CAR: Too Little Too Late?

After more than one year of worsening religious and ethnic-strife in the Central African Republic, recent months have seen wider international attention to the conflict and authorization of a United Nations peacekeeping operation. In this month’s guest post, Dominique Fraser analyzes the latest developments in CAR, including application of the R2P norm to this troubled landlocked state. Ms. Fraser received her Bachelor of Arts with a major in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Queensland in 2013. She was president of the R2P Student Coalition at her university in 2012 and upon graduating undertook an internship at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, where she worked in the areas of research, advocacy and country monitoring.


car2The crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR) has now entered its second year and while it is becoming more sectarian in nature, the international community is finally starting to take not only notice, but action as well. A coup in March 2013 saw a group of mainly Muslim ‘Séléka’ rebels take control of the country and commit atrocities against communities; in turn some Christian communities formed so-called self-defence groups, the “anti-balaka” (anti-machete). Since September 2013, the anti-balaka have been engaged in a program of ethnic cleansing, which many fear may develop into a full-fledged genocide. African Union troops, as well as France and now the EU, have been in the country for months trying to establish stable conditions, but due to a lack of troops and resources, many have called for the establishment of a UN peacekeeping operation (PKO) which was only recently approved.

Over its more than two-year course, the conflict in CAR has displaced over one million people (almost a quarter of its population) and has killed over 2,000. In February this year, reputable human rights organizations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have stated that the atrocities committed against the Muslim population in the west of the country amount to ethnic cleansing. Several UN officials have adopted this language, with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon calling the conflict “ethno-religious cleansing” and has warned against the dangers of a de-facto partition of the country, which is increasingly being discussed by CAR residents. Virtually all Muslims have been driven from the capital Bangui, as well as the western city of Bossangoa, and others from all over the country are seeking shelter in the northern parts of CAR or trying to cross the border into Chad and Cameroon. Along the way, refugees have been attacked with machetes and firearms. Additionally, over half the country’s 4.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, but the international community is slow in providing much-needed financial aid. Continue reading

Rwanda in 2014: A Lesson in the Prevention of Forgetting

In the second of two AIPR blog posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Michelle Eberhard shares insights drawn from a recent University of Minnesota conference on this tragedy’s lessons. Ms. Eberhard is a former AIPR intern who completed in December 2013 a M.A. in Human Rights Studies, with a concentration in genocide, from Columbia University. You can read her previous AIPR blog posts by clicking here.


rwanda-conference1Commemorations, Voices of Rwanda founder Taylor Krauss explained, represent a “deliberate confrontation with history.” They are an opportunity to experience an event through the eyes of the victim, to enable the voiceless to speak, and to stop the completion of the cycle of genocide by refusing to allow the present to “erase the trace of the past.”

Speaking at a University of Minnesota Institute for Global Studies conference, “Genocide and its Aftermaths: Lessons from Rwanda,” Krauss accompanied his opening address with excerpts from filmed interviews with three Rwandan rescapés who survived the genocide in 1994. Each of these individuals shared stories of fear, the loss of loved ones, and a personal journey of how they, as Krauss put it, “prevent forgetting.”

The importance of remembering was a reoccurring theme at the conference, which was held on April 16, 2014, and included panels on representation and long-term implications of the genocide in Rwanda that left upwards of 800,000 individuals dead in the span of roughly 100 days. The conference also provided an opportunity to consider not only the ramifications of this crisis in the context of contemporary conflicts like Syria and the Central African Republic, but also what the true legacy of Rwanda’s story might be. Continue reading

Corruption and Genocide: Lessons from Rwanda

This month, we’re featuring a post by university student Sam Gillespie, a junior at Dickinson College majoring in International Studies and French. Currently studying abroad in Cameroon, Mr. Gillespie was introduced to concepts related to genocide and mass atrocity prevention last summer while working at the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Institute with Colonel Dwight Raymond, an alumnus of our Raphael Lemkin Seminar. Gillespie told AIPR that taking classes on humanitarian issues and learning on the ground in Cameroon has heightened his passion for human rights and mass atrocity prevention, and that after college he plans to return to Africa to work in the development sector.


cc2“Would you mind hurrying up? We have somewhere to be,” my professor said to the Cameroonian National Gendarmerie officer circling our bus. He was exasperated. The official was closely examining all of our passports, the bus’ registration papers, and my professor’s itinerary for our trip.

“I’m doing my job! Would you mind letting me do it? If you didn’t interrupt me, I’d probably be done by now!” barked the officer, his words slurred by anger, and likely alcohol. From our seats in the bus, we could see his bloodshot eyes and uneven footing, plus empty beer cans on the ground.

After his inspection of the bus, the unsteady gendarmerie claimed “discrepancies” existed with our registration papers and unspecified “problems” with our first aid kit. He also demanded a fee. Asked if we’d get a receipt for our payment, the man said he was out of paper. At this, my professor laughed and handed him a notarized letter from his friend who holds a high position in government. Upon reading it, the officer returned all our paperwork and let our bus drive away without paying our fine. This was my first day in Cameroon and my introduction to endemic corruption. Continue reading

Memory at Albertinaplatz

Today’s guest blog post on the intersection of genocide prevention and memorialization was written by Michael A. Morris, a graduate student at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. Mr Morris completed an internship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum last summer and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He has previously written about The Jewish Museum in Berlin, a site he called “a perfect marriage between theory, content, and context.”

“…Without commemorative vigilance, history would soon sweep them away.”

memoryThese are the words of Pierre Nora in his Introduction, titled “Between Memory and History,” in Volume I of Realms of Memory (Nora 7).  Nora is referring to the fact that in modern society we need mechanisms such as anniversaries, celebrations, eulogies, etc. to recall the past – remembrance is not a spontaneous action.  Another way of explaining historical memory is articulated by Lewis A. Coser in the Introduction of On Collective Memory by Maurice Halbwachs. Coser writes that a “…person does not remember events directly; it can only be stimulated in indirect ways through reading or listening or in commemoration and festive occasions when people gather together to remember in common the deeds and accomplishments of long-departed members of the group.  In this case, the past is stored and interpreted by social institutions” (Halbwachs 24).

This paints with a broader brush a concept that Maurice Halbwachs wrote about decades earlier – that is, collective memory.  Of course, we as individuals have our own personal memories; however, we have a collective memory as well.  It is affected by how we identify with a group or groups – whether with a national group, a political group, a religious group, etc.  Halbwachs theorized that “…the individual remembers by placing himself in the perspective of the group, but one may also affirm that the memory of the group realizes and manifests itself in individual memories” (Halbwachs 40).  In this regard, being a citizen of a country means that not only will the historical events be laid out on a mental timeline, but the narrative of those events also becomes part of the individual mindset.  Thus, it is very important to consider how our society frames memory in museums, monuments, etc. Continue reading

Policy for GenPrev [28 January 2014]

Deepening Divides and Unmitigated Suffering in the World’s Newest CountrySONY DSC


On July 30th, 2013, the AIPR Blog described a deepening ethnic conflict in South Sudan’s Jonglei state fueled by cattle-raids and retaliatory attacks. South Sudan’s micro-level conflicts were worrisome for a new country seeking to reconcile and move forward from decades of war, but far more worrisome– and–dangerous was the larger militia-based violence between the SPLA and Yau Yau rebels that was driving the country into ruin from the top down. Since July South Sudan has experienced a sharp escalation in the severity and scale of its internal conflicts, but in a different way. An attempted coup d’état last month has ignited an internal power struggle, which has galvanized the formation of military/political factions along religious lines.

What initially began as a struggle for power between President Salva Kiir and his former Vice-President Riek Machar has now resulted in a situation where civilians, including women and children, are attacked simply because they belong to the other ethnic group. The intimacy between political and ethnic identities in South Sudan has allowed the situation to escalate beyond a political rivalry in Juba into towns and villages across the country, forcing seemingly amicable Nuer and Dinka neighbors to fear for their lives. For the mass atrocity/ genocide prevention community, South Sudan represents a nightmarish confluence of ethnic, political and identity-based factors so reminiscent of past conflicts in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, and Burma. Continue reading

Policy for GenPrev [13 December 2013]


Are We Finally Getting it Right in the Central African Republic?


On August 25th, 2013, I wrote about the slowly disintegrating situation in the Central African Republic in an attempt to join a growing chorus of voices seeking to sound the alarms that apparently weren’t being heard by the international community. Since then, as the crisis has grown more desperate, the world has started to take notice.

In November, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that “this cycle, if not addressed now, threatens to degenerate into a country-wide religious and ethnic divide, with the potential to spiral into an uncontrollable situation, including atrocity crimes, with serious national and regional implications.” Adama Dieng, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, added:

“We are seeing armed groups killing people under the guise of their religion. My feeling is that this will end with Christian communities, Muslim communities killing each other which means that if we don’t act now and decisively I will not exclude the possibility of a genocide occurring.” Continue reading

Technology for GenPrev [14 November 2013]

Satellites, Mass Media and Genocide Prevention: Are Tech Advances Leading to Preventative Results on the Ground?


AIThe proliferation of satellite imaging technology within the field of genocide and mass atrocity prevention in recent years has been a game changer by expanding the toolkit used for raising awareness and bolstering advocacy efforts. Never before have NGOs, governments and advocates been able to access previously inaccessible areas (Darfur, Syria) in order to establish visual certainty of crimes against humanity and mass atrocities. More specifically, these gains in technological capacity to monitor hot spots have resulted in the reduced ability of governments to operate in shadows and darkness that so often enable mass atrocity crimes. Many see the growth of this technology as a means of leveling the playing field between the victims and perpetrators of atrocity crimes. Given the fact that the use of geo-spatial technology to monitor atrocities is rather inchoate, how much leveling occurs is yet to be seen. Nonetheless, the growth of such technology represents a hopeful addition to the variety of options that the international community can explore to prevent or at least mitigate conflicts, mass atrocities and genocide.

One of the first initiatives of this kind was spearheaded by the United States Holocaust Museum and Google, who partnered together using Google Earth, to create the USHM’s Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative. Through utilizing the revolutionary visual capabilities of Google Earth, the USHM saw an unprecedented opportunity to help the international community better view the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Along with on the ground data and photographs from local advocates, the UN and the U.S. Department of State, Google and the USHM were able to offer a harrowing picture of the extent of destruction and loss that had occurred in Darfur. The impact of this initiative was profound, and at the time, helped ordinary citizens envision what a genocide looks like. Many also hoped it would create an accessible record of abuses that may support accountability and dissuade potential crimes (not only in Darfur but other situations). But USHM’s datasets and maps are currently outdated and do not reflect present-day Sudanese military movements that may indicate a potential for mass atrocities. While USHM’s mapping initiative is useful in demonstrating what genocide looks like, its current operational utility and power to influence is hampered from the lack of a sustained mapping program (as its data is current to only 2009). Continue reading