The Evolution of Mass Atrocity Early Warning in the UN Secretariat: Fit for Purpose?

Stephen McLoughlin, Gifkins Jess, Alex J. Bellamy

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A lack of early warning by the United Nations Secretariat of the Rwandan genocide contributed, in part, to the failure of the international community to respond in a timely manner to this crisis. In the intervening decades, alongside the strengthening of the norm of civilian protection, the UN has enhanced its capacity for early warning through greater personnel numbers, as well as the refining of risk analysis through the development of frameworks of analysis for atrocity crimes. However, to date, there has been no systematic study of the evolution and practice of mass atrocity early warning within the United Nations Secretariat, and the impact this has had on UN-led responses to impending and unfolding cases of mass atrocity crimes. In this article, we analyse the evolution of early warning within the UN Secretariat and how the Secretariat responded (or failed to respond) to escalating violence in Rwanda, Darfur, Côte d’Ivoire and Ethiopia. This analysis finds that despite incremental improvements in mass atrocity early warning in the UN Secretariat (which contributed to more timely responses in Côte d’Ivoire), more recent cases demonstrate that failure is no longer due to lack of early warning, but a result of lack of political will.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)477-505
Number of pages29
JournalInternational Peacekeeping
Issue number4
Early online date24 Jul 2023
Publication statusPublished - 8 Aug 2023

Bibliographical note

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License (, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way. The terms on which this article has been published allow the posting of the Accepted Manuscript in a repository by the author(s) or with their consent.


This work was supported by British Academy: [grant no SRG21\210051].


  • Early warning
  • mass atrocities
  • prevention
  • United Nations
  • UN Secretariat


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