This question, let alone the equally, if not more complicated, question of how such violence ends has been caught up in normative assumption about how they ought to end: international armed interventions that rescue the innocent from certain annihilation.
The historical record reveals a potentially surprising and insightful array of forces that impact when and how mass atrocities end. The significance of these insights becomes clearer when one recognizes that:
1) Armed interventions are not always possible; 2) Nor are they always desirable; 3) Nor can they deliver on all the promises ascribed to them. 4) Further, we must note two significant trends in the broadly-defined field concerned with studying and engaging with large-scale violence against civilians. The first is a shift from response to prevention that results in engagement with unfolding situations at lower levels of violence, while retaining the language of exceptional crisis. Second, a shift from a vocabulary of “genocide” to that of “mass atrocities,” thereby also increasing the number of cases that might be considered within the response rubric. Defining and developing strong policies for successful prevention or response will rely on greater clarity in understanding what constitutes an ending to mass atrocities and how this has and might come about.
To address such questions, the authors have chosen to use the framing contexts of Sudan, Guatemala, and DRC. Sudan has experienced episodic mass atrocities since 1955, four instances of which are “arguably genocidal.” According to Alex de Waal, mass atrocity has not ended in Sudan; rather, the conclusion of each occurrence is just respite. And the reason for these temporary pauses is a combination of the following factors:
Violent conflict and atrocity in Sudan occurs in the context of a turbulent political system, characterized by a combination of extreme disparity between center and periphery, and instability at the center. [. . .] In summary, most of the time, everything in Sudanese political life, including the lives of ordinary people, is subordinate to tactical political calculus. When that political calculus changes, which may happen for diverse reasons, the rationale for inflicting atrocity also changes. It may lessen or disappear, and may then reappear, probably in a different form.
Given the current political climate in Sudan, especially due to tensions with South Sudan, de Waal concludes that further violence is likely in the region.
In Guatemala, genocide took place during the early 1980s, under both the military government of General Lucas García (1978-82) and the subsequent dictatorship of General Ríos Montt (1982-83). Roddy Brett, of the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, writes:
State institutions and institutional arrangements during this five year period were controlled and held ransom by the military; after 1980 no space existed for civil society mobilization or for organised opposition to the successive regimes and the justice system was effectively shut down, the legal system such as it was neutered, and subordinated to the violent and arbitrary procedures of military justice. Consequently, organised civil society did not present a collective front against counterinsurgent operations of the mass atrocities that accompanied them. [. . .] the Guatemalan State facilitated the stigmatization of the indigenous Maya and the subsequent perpetration of systematic massacres against them through the intentional generation and operationalization of the belief in their natural and immutable inferiority and the creation of an ethnic hierarchy based upon invented criteria of biological, cultural and moral differences.
Ultimately, though defeated militarily, with the support of the international community and the emergent victims’ movement, still active guerrilla cells took advantage of the Central American peace process and pushed for a negotiated settlement overseen, influenced, and financed by the international community, including the United Nations. Though 17 accords were signed during the peace process, Brett asserts that neither the process nor the accords responded “directly or adequately to the underlying structural causes of armed conflict, including of historically embedded horizontal inequalities.”
As such, 30 years later, “a genocide ending remains at best intangible, at worst incomplete. [. . .] indigenous peoples continue to suffer the systematic violation of their right to autonomy in a nominally functioning political democracy, dying of preventable and curable diseases and being displaced from their lands to permit internationally supported extraction projects. [. . .] The question remains then as to what analytical and normative instruments are adequate in this context and what the role of the international community should be.”
Tatiana Carayannis describes the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo as three interlocking wars, which first began in 1996:
While mass atrocities in the first war ended through a decisive military victory and the second war ended through stalemate and international pressure, why does the third Congo war persist? Over near one-and-a half decade into this war, one can point to many reasons. Here are a few:
Genuine grassroots mobilization against “foreigners”
The harsher the repression, the greater the violence
No denouncement of Lusaka cease-fire violations
Emphasis on implementing the agreement that ended the Second Congo War at the expense of efforts to end the (ongoing) Third Congo War
Efforts to end third war began in earnest only after a decade of anarchic violence, making a complicated job that much more complex
A continued legitimacy gap for Congolese leadership
Despite the expense and effort that went into organizing the first post-transition elections in the DRC in 2006, Kinshasa increasingly relies on strong-handedness because its authority rests on weak national and local institutions—a crisis of governance and legitimacy that neither the 2006 elections, nor the flawed and contested 2011 elections have solved.