Emily Faux: On nuclear weapons politics and contemporary popular culture

Emily is a PhD candidate at Newcastle University, UK, researching how nuclear weapons are represented in contemporary popular culture. Her work understands popular culture as a site of nuclear politics in the everyday. She has an MA in Political Communication and a BA in International Relations from the University of Leeds, UK. Emily is a mentee for the EU’s Next Generation Initiative: ‘Young Women in Non-proliferation and Disarmament’. She has presented her research at the European International Studies Association conference (EISA) and the Popular Culture and World Politics conference (PCWP), among others. For those attending the Political Studies Association Conference this April, you can hear Emily discuss her research on the Gendered Political Communication special panel.

To provide some background, we started off by asking Emily to tell us about the  research interests she is exploring at the moment

In terms of my own research, I am interested in the ways in which contemporary popular culture reflects, challenges, or produces knowledge about nuclear weapons politics. Overall, my thesis  illustrates how popular culture has a lot to tell us about the production and reception of ideas about nuclear politics, with profound political consequences. Doing so reveals political discourses that are so widely reproduced that their political (and often problematic) nature may no longer be easily recognisable. Underlying my project is an unapologetically activist voice – a voice highlighting the injustice and danger of nuclear weapons and calling for a world free of weapons of mass destruction. It is a call for fresh-thinking and creative approaches; only by stepping outside the mainstream can we expect to find new and revolutionary ideas. When popular culture is taken seriously as a site of power in world politics, the boundaries of what ‘counts’ as politics are rewritten. The expansion of these bounds creates room for alternative ideas, identities, and possibilities. Ultimately, this can redefine what knowledge, and whose knowledge, is prioritised in the nuclear realm.  

What issues have you been working on or teaching and what do you think are the most important questions these raise with regards to responsibility?

I am part of a team of four feminist scholars of nuclear weapons politics creating teaching resources for university level application. Our lesson plans, activities, resources, and interfaces will be open-access on HighlyNriched.com. All of us feel we have a responsibility to improve the information on nuclear weapons that exists, both in terms of teaching content and accessibility. Too often nuclear weapons are presented as outside the comprehension of ordinary people. Our goal is to help bring nuclear weapons politics closer to students’ interests and daily lives. 

Navigating questions of who is legitimised as a nuclear “expert” and who is denied a voice in this space, has led to important shifts in our sense of responsibility as both academics and teachers. The hope is to make accessible and engaging teaching materials about nuclear weapons politics that are free. Importantly, these resources will centre – not “add on” – antiracism, decolonialism, feminism, queer studies, disability studies and environmentalism, and how these perspectives change and enhance our understanding of the complexity of nuclear weapons politics. When we consider and incorporate these perspectives, we begin to question the centring of the state over the human, the prioritisation of deterrence over disarmament, and the endorsement of military-industrial logic over the science of global survival. Ultimately, this leads to a position of responsibility for the empowerment of diverse voices and cultivation of inclusive spaces.

What does responsibility mean to you as an individual researching nuclear weapons and popular culture?

For me and my research, ‘responsibility’ embodies a ‘process of questioning’. It means asking what is highlighted and what is backgrounded, who is heard and who is silenced, where is the centre of power and where are the margins. I feel a responsibility to not take anything for granted but instead to question the discourses that uphold and maintain nuclear weapons. I feel a responsibility to highlight the paradoxes, contradictions and inconsistencies that exist at all levels of a nuclear weapon’s ‘lifecycle’: mining, production, testing, storage, and retirement. 

For anyone who has studied nuclear weapons, or encountered them in practice, paradox shapes everything: they cannot be used but cannot be removed, they are safe in our hands but dangerous in theirs, they need to be hidden but they need to be found, they are God-given but they are a scientific revolution. Ultimately, these narratives remove responsibility for the invention and use of the bomb from the human realm and, in doing so, remove responsibility for its management and control. This is why I feel an urgency to highlight these dynamics, promote public articulation, democratic engagement, and social scrutiny.

As someone who attends multiple events and conferences in different countries, how do you think these have influenced your perceptions of the discipline?

  1. How often is  the question of responsibility raised in discussions surrounding nuclear weapons? 

The question of how to build a more responsible global nuclear order is, without a doubt,at the centre of nuclear weapons research. However, the ways in which ‘responsible’ is defined varies. For some, the US, UK and France are ‘responsible’ nuclear weapons states. For others, this framing is inherently based on the problematic, false binary of ‘’us vs. them’, ‘West vs. rest’ , known in our field as ‘nuclear orientalism’. More specifically, ‘Nuclear Responsibilities’ is a growing subfield of nuclear policy research. I would direct anyone interested to BASIC’s accessible research on this..  

It is also worth noting that these discussions vary between academic and policy fields, as well as between stakeholders in nuclear armed states, nuclear umbrella states, or nuclear free zones. Drawing very generalised lines, one could argue that academics have more freedom to write normatively – about the way the world should be – whilst policy makers are often working within more defined pragmatic, institutional, and political boundaries. This can translate into differing notions of responsibility, for instance: ‘is one responsible for the security of their own state, or the security of the world?’. 

Have you seen any consensus on who and how international actors, state actors, non-state actors should take responsibility for the management of nuclear weapons, and what that looks like in practice?

The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) came into force in January 2021 when the majority of signatory states agreed to ban nuclear weapons. The TPNW prohibits nations from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, hosting, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons by international law. It is thus the most comprehensive nuclear ban treaty in existence. 

Signatories of the TPNW see it as their responsibility to aid all victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons, as well as the natural environment. Responsibility is thus holistically defined, accepting shared accountability even when not directly ‘responsible’ for the harms from nuclear weapons. This is the form of global stewardship and cooperation necessary when issues transcend borders. The TPNW grew out of an effort to stigmatise nuclear weapons and reframe them as contrary to humanitarian interests. In other words, public opinion really matters for states to abide by the TPNW in practice. People must be angry and they must be vocal if they want their government to become a signatory. For these reasons, the TPNW represents the most promising hope for the management of nuclear weapons ‘in practice’.

How has your perception of responsibility as an individual in research changed, having now taken on a role of seminar tutor at Newcastle University, if at all? What responsibilit(ies) do young people like you have in operating within the field of nuclear weapons? 

As a young woman in non-proliferation and disarmament, I feel a sense of responsibility to make sure I am heard within the field. Even the areas of non-proliferation and disarmament, traditionally seen as ‘feminine’ compared to other areas of military/strategic research, is very male dominated. According to a recent UNIDIR study,the average proportion of women in large meetings (over 100 participants) is 32 per cent, and only 20 per cent in smaller forums.

I am also a strong advocate for increasing young people’s engagement with nuclear weapons. My generation has grown up fearing terrorism and climate change, not nuclear war. With the only military use of nuclear weapons 55 years before I was born, it is easy to see how nukes have become forgotten artefacts of a bygone era. However, nuclear weapons are more a threat today than ever before. Every nuclear weapon state is expanding and/or modernising its nuclear capabilities. In beginning to teach at university level, I feel a sense of responsibility to encourage my students to engage with these issues. Too often nuclear politics is constructed as if it is reserved for experts. I try to break down these boundaries by finding an accessible ‘way in’ for students. If they are interested in democracy, I point them towards research on the incompatibility of nuclear weapons and democracy; if they are interested in climate change, I point them towards research on ‘nuclear winter’; if they are interested in colonialism, I point them towards the ongoing impacts of ‘nuclear colonialism’. I suppose I feel a responsibility to share my passion, but also to connect others with theirs, in order to empower students’ own curiosities. 

Have you learnt anything particularly useful that would help other researchers, students and/or young professionals in their academic/professional careers?

I think the main thing I have learnt is to do what excites you. It sounds cliché but that is what will lead you to a fulfilling career. If your drive is not your interests and passions, any career will be a slog. I can’t speak for industries outside of academia, but in conflict resolution there are no ‘easy’ career choices. Academia has many challenges, but it is a path that allows you to explore your own research interest and be surrounded by people who never want to stop learning. It is a route that will give you the time and resources to invest in those questions that you want answers to. If you find you have that passion to learn then follow it – it can be really fun!

Euan Raffle: On Responsibility in Academia and the War on Drugs

Dr Euan Raffle works at the University of Sheffield, UK. His research focuses on state violence in the context of drug policy, Southeast Asia, and critical security studies. His twitter handle is @Euan_Elffar.

In this interview, we discuss Euan’s academic interests, inspirations, research and what responsibility means to him on a personal and academic level.and what responsibility means to him on a personal and academic level.

You can listen to the episode below, or on Spotify or Anchor.

Euan Raffle: Academia and the War on Drugs Responsibility Collective Interview Series

Discussion around Euan’s research topics and journey in academia

Recent publications

Raffle, E. 2022. Bongbong Macros and the ICC: What of the Philippines and the ‘War on Drugs’? European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (ECR2P), University of Leeds.

Raffle, E. 2021. The war on drugs in Southeast Asia as ‘state vigilantism’. International Journal of Drug Policy, 92, pp. 1-8. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2021.103114

Gallagher, A., Raffle, E. and Maulana, Z. 2020. Failing to fulfil the responsibility to protect: the war on drugs as crimes against humanity in the Philippines. The Pacific Review, 33(2), pp. 247-277. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/09512748.2019.1567575

Dangerous Speech Amplified: How ‘Big Tech’ can be a responsible stakeholder in mass atrocity prevention

By Emma Milner

Emma completed her BA in History, International and Political Studies (IPS) in 2018 at the University of New South Wales, Australia, where she is currently pursuing a Masters in Cyber Security Operations. @EmmaMilner_

In the United States and across Europe, ‘Big Tech’1 – specifically social media companies – have engaged in conversations with governments, lawmakers, and their users regarding their role in moderating hate speech and/or speech that could incite violence. In May 2020, Twitter made the unprecedented decision to ‘hide’ one of former US President Donald Trump’s tweets on the grounds that it “glorif[ied] violence” (Yglesias, 2020). This decision sparked significant debate on the power of Big Tech over online speech yet was not the first conversation of this nature. In 2018, Facebook was under a similar spotlight for its role in waves of violence in Myanmar in 2016/17. The UNHRC Fact Finding Mission specifically called out the Big Tech company for hosting hate speech which “constitutes incitement to […] violence” (UNHRC, 2019, p. 130). In light of these two cases, it can be argued that social media platforms are not neutral parties in instances of violence. For this reason, the conversation centred on Big Tech’s power over speech should be extended to include the role of social media in instances of grave violence, specifically mass atrocities. Further, it should discuss what responsibility Big Tech holds in the prediction and prevention of mass atrocities in an increasingly digitalised world.

This paper will seek to demonstrate how such a conversation can be shaped. First, the paper will interrogate current methods for prevention, with an emphasis on early prevention and the role of ideology and speech in such prevention. Second, the role of mass media will be briefly discussed within the context of a changing media landscape. The paper will conclude with a discussion on the role of Big Tech in mass atrocity prevention, using Myanmar and Kenya as distinct case studies. These two examples demonstrate both the consequences of Big Tech failing to sufficiently acknowledge – and act upon – its role in mass atrocities, as well as the opportunities that exist for Big Tech to have a meaningful role in mass atrocity prevention. Where early prevention can be described as a toolbox of methods in an increasingly digitalised world, Big Tech holds a spot within this toolbox as a responsible stakeholder.

The case for early warning models as part of a prevention ‘toolbox’

Failure is often discussed in mass atrocity prevention literature. This is in part due to the difficulty in recognising and appreciating successful prevention (Paris, 2014, pp. 574-5), but also to a myriad of challenges. Some commonly cited failures include the United Nations failing to prioritise prevention (Bellamy and Lupel, 2015, p. 19) or generate sufficient political will to intervene (MIGS, 2009, p. 2), a lack of agreement within the UN Security Council (Morris and Wheeler, 2016, pp. 227-47), as well as intervention being deemed too risky (or costly). This is especially the case in instances where the determination to commit mass atrocities is too high for anything short of full-scale war to successfully intervene (Bellamy and Lupel, 2015, p. 18). Many of these issues stem from not taking action early enough. The longer a situation is left without action, the more likely it is that prevention will become intervention, increasing risk (Bellamy, 2015, p. 64). As a consequence of this increased risk, the will to act decreases (Staub, 2010, p. 290).

Based on this logic, early prevention can be seen as the best way of addressing mass atrocities. The use of risk-assessment models and early warning (EW) systems constitute one tool within the prevention ‘toolbox’ that enables such prevention. These can be described as “complex mode[s] of ascertainment” based on “shifts in social, political, and economic dynamics that might signal the likelihood of a situation escalating into mass atrocities” (Leaning, 2015, p. 353). Prominent examples include the model proposed by Harff (2003), as well as the model used by the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect (UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, 2014; Maynard, 2015b, p. 67). Among the many early warning models and systems, all employ a variety of inputs to generate their respective evaluations. Those of concern in this paper are those which use either speech or ideology as the key component of their monitoring criteria, as for example Benesch’s (2014) ‘dangerous speech’ framework and Maynard’s (2015b) ‘justificatory mechanisms’. These frameworks only address one element of EW and risk assessment models yet require further attention since they are, arguably, overlooked in prevention literature (Maynard and Benesch, 2016, p. 70). Further, these are not given due consideration for their utility in both the early identification of potential mass atrocities and subsequently their role in formulating methods for early prevention.

Ideology as a warning sign

Exploring the ideological roots of mass atrocities can explain why civilians are targeted en masse in some situations and not others (Straus, 2012, p. 549). Straus argues that it is “the ideological vision of the leadership [that] will shape how a state defines strategic enemies and strategic objectives, thus indicating which states are likely to respond […] with mass violence and which [will] not” (Straus, 2012, p. 549). Specifically, theories of ideology discuss ideologies that justify mass-violence against civilians (Maynard, 2015b, p. 67-84) in spite of widely agreed norms of civilian immunity (Bellamy, 2012b, pp. 935-6). These justifications are employed by individuals (usually elites) to make mass-violence in pursuit of their motives appear legitimate, which in turn can catalyse such violence (Maynard, 2015b, pp. 70-71).2 Maynard’s (2015a; 2015b) framework lists six ‘justificatory mechanisms’, the first of which is dehumanising potential victims. This mechanism involves a psychological process of moral evasion (Maynard, 2015a, pp. 189-99), meaning victims are stripped of moral protection so that persons who partake in (or stand by) mass atrocities can persecute without guilt (Maynard, 2015a, pp. 198-200; Bellamy, 2012a, p. 180).

The second mechanism, guilt-attribution, produces a similar effect by asserting victims “have committed moral or legal crimes” (Maynard, 2015a, p. 199). This “criminal” association moves victims “towards the periphery of the universe of obligations” where normal moral obligations do not apply (Maynard, 2015a, pp. 199-200). Together, guilt-attribution and threat construction – the third mechanism – generate fear, i.e. the fear that “guilty criminals may commit crimes again if they go unpunished” (Maynard, 2015a, p. 201). This is particularly potent since it enforces the consequentialist calculus of future-bias (the sixth mechanism). Here, future goods are privileged over other moral arguments (i.e. civilian immunity) (Maynard, 2015a, p. 212). Under this logic, “guilty criminals” must be “dealt with” so that the utopic future presented by influential elites can be brought to reality. On the other hand, deagentification – the fourth mechanism – aims to eliminate alternatives to mass-violence. It portrays perpetrators as “lacking meaningful agency” and, consequently, any responsibility for partaking in mass atrocities (Maynard, 2015a, p. 205). Here, primordial conceptualisations of ethnicity or ethnic grievances become understandably problematic, since the argument could be presented that violence is ‘inevitable’ as it is grounded in ‘ancient hatreds’ (and consequently not worth trying to prevent).3 

The last justification, “virtuetalk”, frames mass-violence as “demonstrating praiseworthy character traits [such as] duty, toughness, loyalty, patriotism” (Maynard, 2015b, p. 71). In a sense, this is a form of social learning whereby a society internalises virtuetalk related to mass-violence (Bellamy, 2012b, pp. 935-6; Maynard, 2015a, p. 209). This is particularly potent when embedded in existing socio-cultural norms, such as when virtuetalk “target[s] the insecurities prominent amongst the young men” who seek gendered praiseworthy traits such as toughness (Maynard and Benesch, 2016, p. 84). Bellamy (2012b) interprets these justificatory mechanisms as “anti-civilian ideologies” whereby these provide the normative grounds for the en masse killing of civilians inconsistent with the norm of civilian immunity. The justifications Maynard presents (2015a; 2015b) can therefore be seen as a contest between existing and constructed norms. The strength of some norms over others results in behaviours, including whether the members of one “in-group” resorts to mass atrocities to achieve its elite’s strategic objectives.4 When this ideology is then incorporated into hate speech (which in itself cannot incite mass atrocities) it becomes dangerous speech.5 The existence of this kind of speech in a state at-risk of mass atrocities can be interpreted as an increase in risk, or an indicator that a mass atrocity event is either occurring or about to occur.

Speech as a warning sign

Benesch’s (2014) framework offers a means of differentiating hate speech and dangerous speech based on intent, capacity and “rhetorical patterns”, or justifications (Davis and Raymond, 2014, p. 11). Combining Benesch’s framework with Maynard’s offers a valuable contribution to an often underdeveloped component of mass atrocity prevention: combining ideology and speech literature (Maynard and Benesch, 2016, p. 70). As both have acknowledged, neither ideology nor hate speech are dangerous alone (Ibid). Further, Maynard’s justificatory mechanisms cannot address how successful an elite using these justifications will be in inciting violence. To incite violence, as Benesch explains, “a speaker must [also] have authority or influence over the audience, and the audience must already be primed, or conditioned, to respond to the speaker’s words” (Benesch, 2008, p. 8). This “dangerousness” can be assessed using five factors: the speaker (whether they have power or influence), the audience (whether there are existing grievances or fears that the speaker can cultivate), the “speech act” (whether it be understood as “a call to violence”), the historical and/or cultural context (i.e. economic or political competition, or previous instances of violence), and finally the means of dissemination (including the diversity of dissemination types) (Benesch, 2014, p. 8).

The second aspect of Benesch’s framework focuses on “rhetorical patterns” (Benesch, 2014, p. 8). These align closely with Maynard’s justificatory mechanisms. Compared to Maynard’s framework, Benesch’s is more interpretative however it greatly assists in the practical application of Maynard’s (2015a; 2015b) justificatory mechanisms in identifying risks of mass atrocities within the speech of ‘in-group’ elites. If incitement, and dangerous speech as an extension, is considered to be a sine qua non in many instances of mass atrocities (Benesch, 2008, p. 498; Adams, 2020), early identification of these should, in theory, be invaluable for prevention. Furthermore, if this type of speech is such an essential ingredient in mass atrocities, it would be fair to argue that tackling the proliferation of dangerous speech in at-risk states provides an opportunity to address mass atrocities ‘at the roots’ (Bellamy, 2015, p. 64).

The role of modern media in mass atrocities

When discussing dangerous speech, it is important to appreciate the role of the media in disseminating or hosting said speech, particularly how the media landscape has changed in recent years.6 There is no shortage of literature pertaining to the role of traditional media in mass atrocities (e.g. Wolfsfeld, 2004; Thompson, 2007; Clarke 2017). In some instances, the media “reflect[s] elite consensus” or indeed “augment[s] it” (Wolfsfeld, 2004, p. 227). In such instances where local media is in effect controlled by ‘in-group’ elites, the usual journalistic principle of “do no harm” is no longer applied, since as a norm it has been deprioritized in the process of norm construction and prioritization described by Bellamy (2012b). The exploitation of traditional media in both the Rwanda genocide (1994) and the election violence seen in Kenya (2007 & 2013) – radio in this case –, are good examples of this. Kenya, however, is also a good example of how this issue is further complicated by the emergence of a new (increasingly digital) media landscape. Indeed, whilst radio still played a key role in inciting violence, so too did SMS messages, emails and “online bulletin boards” or blogs (Bellamy et al., 2016, p. 751-8; Goldstein and Rotich, 2008, p. 5). 

It is fair to point out that in many states where there is a risk of mass atrocities, the internet is not yet wide-spread and consequently cannot play a significant role. Kenya is such a state, with only 18% of the population ‘online’, as of 2017 (World Bank Group). But the accessibility of mobile phones and cheap SIM cards is an important shift that cannot be underestimated. This is the case in Kenya, as with most of Africa, where SMS messaging has been the most widely used digital application (Goldstein and Rotich, 2008, p. 5). A similar shift can be observed in Myanmar; due to a sudden increase in accessibility to cheap SIM cards, the population of Myanmar went from having less than 1% of people ‘online’ in 2010, to over 30% in 2017 (World Bank Group). It should be noted that ‘online’ in Myanmar commonly refers to Facebook usage (UNHRC, 2018, p. 14).

The advent of SMS messaging and social media in states at-risk of mass atrocities changes the role of media quite significantly. For example, social media is largely made up of ‘influential figures’, ‘citizen-journalists’ as well as the plethora of individuals who can either amplify or suppress a given message. Consequently, the new media landscape has some particularly dangerous characteristics, including, but not limited to, the creation of “ideological monopolies” that replicate ‘in-groups’ online, the facilitation of “radicalisation” within ideological “echo chambers” (Maynard, 2015b, p. 77) and the proliferation of dis- and misinformation. The murder of a Muslim tea-shop owner in Myanmar which, following the false accusation of raping a Buddhist employee, was widely shared on Facebook, is a good example of the very real consequences of these new characteristics (Callahan and Zaw Oo, 2019, pp. 9-10).

Myanmar: dangerous speech amplified

Myanmar is plagued with failure in the mass atrocity literature; neither early prevention nor any real intervention was achieved. The case of Myanmar clearly demonstrates the dangers of the new media landscape developing in a state at-risk of mass atrocities. In particular, a number of UN and non-governmental organisation reports have highlighted the role of Facebook in the persecution of the Rohingya minority. Several of their key observations will be discussed here.7 It is worth noting that neither Maynard nor Benesch’s frameworks were utilised in any of these reports to identify dangerous speech8 despite the large amount of open-source data available to do so.9 It could be argued this is because it is simply ‘too late’ to do so in Myanmar, or that even without these frameworks, it is already clear which speech by in-group elites is inciting violence. However, failing to anticipate further waves of violence in Myanmar is somewhat optimistic.10 In order to best identify an increased risk of a recurrence of mass atrocities, a nuanced appreciation for how dangerous speech is both constructed and disseminated on Facebook would be of great utility.

In their analysis of narratives in Myanmar, Matt Schissler et al. (2017) have identified several “contradictions” that could be categorised using the two aforementioned frameworks, such as “antagonism as primordial fact” (the diminishing of alternative narratives) and existing dissatisfaction with Myanmar’s democratic transition (Schissler et al., 2017, p. 390-1), which under Benesch’s framework would prime audiences to be more receptive to justifications. A further application of these frameworks using the data collected and archived by Facebook could prove invaluable to formulating an EW model specific to dangerous speech found in Myanmar. This could assist international humanitarian organisations in identifying heightened risk in Myanmar (BSR, 2018, p. 49) as well as assist Facebook in better monitoring and moderating content on its platform (BSR, 2018, p. 21). Lastly, this application could demonstrate the crime of incitement using data from Facebook (BSR, 2018, p. 47; Hamza, 2015, p. 190) that could be used in any future legal cases against Myanmar (BSR, 2018, p. 49).

In summary, Facebook could play a role in bridging the gap between warning and response (Mancini and O’Reilly, 2013, p. 92) by tackling dangerous speech “at the roots” through moderation in line with human rights law (Irving, 2019, p. 256; BSR, 2018, p. 42), informed by the two frameworks. This is an example of a targeted coercive “ideological intervention” (Maynard, 2015b, p. 77). There are also systemic persuasive methods that could be employed in Myanmar such as digital literacy campaigns (BSR, 2018, p. 13; Warofka, 2018), however for the purposes of this paper this type of “ideological intervention” is best exemplified by the case of Kenya.

Kenya: digital counterspeech

In the case of Kenya, unlike Myanmar, there existed a relatively early intervention to avoid potential mass atrocities. While the role of digital media in bringing relative peace to Kenya can be overstated, its role is nonetheless an important one. The catalyst for peace in Kenya was largely an array of domestic reforms that addressed many of the grievances which fuelled violence during and after the 2007 elections (Halakhe, 2013, pp. 8-9). Part of this legislation included laws prohibiting hate speech (Halakhe, 2013, p. 9), a systemic coercive “intervention” which played a significant role in combating dangerous speech. However, the action highlighted here is that undertaken and observed by Benesch’s ‘dangerous speech project’ and the ‘Umati project’, a local speech monitoring project, during the 2013 elections (Maynard and Benesch, 2016, p. 86). In her project’s final report, Benesch reflected on the success in identifying, reporting and blocking dangerous speech, but also on the effectiveness of “counterspeech” (Benesch, 2014). This can best be described as a combination of “peace propaganda” (Benesch, 2014, p. 21) (e.g. peace SMS messages produced by NGO Sisi ni Amani Kenya) (Davis and Raymond, 2014, p. 4), social cohesion projects on social media (e.g. such as the efforts of ‘I Have No Tribe’ and ‘I am Kenyan’) (Trujillo et al., 2014, p. 122), and more creative pursuits such as the popular television drama Vioja Mahakamani which aired four episodes on dangerous speech “designed to inoculate audiences against such speech” (Maynard and Benesch, 2016, p. 87).

Due to the variety and multitude of largely local as well as international speech and ideology related projects operating in Kenya, it is hard to identify which were more successful than others. However, these highlight some key elements for success that should be noted for future projects. First, there must be an appreciation for the “socioeconomic setting” of a given population (Mancini and O’Reilly, 2013, p. 89). For example, many projects in Kenya would likely not work in Myanmar due to the difference in digital literacy levels. Second, the best projects are run at the local level but assisted by the technical expertise of larger international organisations (Mancini and O’Reilly, 2013, p. 91), especially in the use of digital technologies such as artificial intelligence.11 Lastly, best results are achieved through the diversity of mediums used, including both new and old technology, (Mancini and O’Reilly, 2013, p. 90) and demographics – as exemplified by the range of differing voices using digital media for counternarratives in Kenya. “Ideological interventions” or “strategies”, as Maynard describes, are highlighted in the literature of both frameworks as the ‘solutions’ to the ‘problems’ which the frameworks highlight (Benesch, 2014, p. 10; Maynard, 2015b, p. 80; Maynard and Benesch, 2016, p. 87).

As demonstrated by Kenya, there is a role for Big Tech in supporting such strategies, albeit with caution not to infringe on the agency of locally-run projects and organisations. Discussions as to how to achieve this should be topics of priority in places such as the UNHRC’s open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights, UN Global Pulse, and NGOs such as Search for Common Ground. Through the correct organisations and institutions, Big Tech can be an active and responsible stakeholder in states at-risk of mass atrocities. Without this engagement, it may prove to be part of the problem more so than part of the solution.


There is very little compelling Big Tech to assume responsibility for the role it has in mass atrocities. However, if difficult conversations such as those which followed Trump’s ‘tweets’ continue, these organisations will eventually have to grapple with the uncomfortable reality that is their role in inciting violence. When this time comes, it would serve those who work in mass atrocity prevention well to have a plan for including Big Tech in a meaningful and considered way. This paper offers some analytical and, to a limited extent, practical considerations for such cooperation.

It should be noted that speech and ideology are both underdeveloped and underappreciated components of mass atrocity prevention – even more so how these intersect with the new media landscape. In acknowledging the increasing digitalisation of states at-risk of mass atrocities, it would be wrong not to amend this gap in the literature and, furthermore, not to include Big Tech in this interdisciplinary pursuit. The number of tools that could be added to the prevention toolbox in doing so is only limited by the creativity of the multitude of new stakeholders (local and international) who have joined the field of mass atrocity prevention. Arguably, with a greater number of tools to choose from, more tailored and effective approaches to mass atrocity prevention can be implemented.


1. ‘Big Tech’ colloquially refers to large and influential technology companies, namely the ‘big five’: Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Apple and Amazon. In this paper, ‘Big Tech’ is expanded to include the owners of major social media platforms (e.g. Twitter and TikTok) not included in the ‘big five’.

2. For more on how individuals such as elite decision-makers are influenced by ideology to form anti-civilian motives, see: Maynard, 2025b.

3. As discussed in ethnic conflict literature and theories of ethnicity, for more see: Kaufman, 2016, p. 92.

4. For more on the construction of “in-groups” and “out-groups”, see: Waltman and Mattheis, 2017.

5. For more on the definitional differences between hate speech, dangerous speech and incitement, see: Davis and Raymond, 2014, p. 2-9, and how these are interpreted by Facebook and Twitter, see: VanLandingham, 2019/20.

6. For the purposes of this paper, ‘new media landscape’ is an adaptation (a greater mention of digital media) of that described in Hamilton (2019).

7. Such as A/HRC/39/64; A/HRC/42/CRP; Callahan and Zaw Oo, 2019; Taylor O’Connor, 2018; Adams, 2019.

8. The one notable exception to this is Benesch’s ‘Dangerous Speech Project’ which has been operating within Myanmar for several years, running workshops on dangerous speech and conducting research.

9. As indicated by the extent to which public Facebook posts were utilised as evidence in A/HRC/42/CRP.

10. Since this paper, violence “on a massive scale” has occurred in Myanmar, following the 2020 elections and subsequent Tatmadaw coup (A/HRC/49/72).

11. For more on the use of AI in early warning systems, see: Yankoski, Weninger and Scheirer, 2020 and Paula Hidalgo-Sanchis, 2018.


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Laura Collins: On entering academia, responsibility and the Central African Republic

The Responsibility Collective reached out to Laura Collins to chat about her journey through academia so far, her thoughts on responsibility and her key interest in the Central African Republic.

Laura Collins is a PhD candidate at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in the United States and was a 2019-2020 USIP-Minerva Peace and Security Scholar. Her dissertation, “Guns and Prayers: Religious Organisations and Wartime Violence in the Central African Republic,” uses data gathered across the CAR to examine how religious organisations operate during wartime to shape non-state armed violence against civilians. In addition to her dissertation, Laura works as a Research Assistant at the University of Leeds for the Explaining Non-State Perpetration of Mass Atrocity Crimes project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). She is also an Editor for Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal.

Entering Academia

What led you to your current role/and or field of work?

I’ve long been interested in global politics and international affairs. I studied International Relations and French at undergraduate level where I developed a keen interest in different forms of political violence, in understanding why states and armed groups target civilians, and how different actors, specifically those that operate internationally respond (or do not respond, as is often the case, or only in a narrow military sense). For my undergraduate thesis, I studied the cases of Rwanda and Kosovo, and started to more fully appreciate that the category of “civilian,” as it relates to violence, peace, and conflict, is much broader, complex, and diverse.

As I read the works of anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists on different cases and forms of political violence, I noticed that religion was either not discussed in detail or viewed as largely irrelevant and not worth examination. Yet it became clear that the various dimensions of any one religion could manifest in really interesting ways during a conflict, even in cases that were not perceived to be religious. I read what I could find, which – at that time – centred around the role of religion in facilitating democratisation movements around the globe as well as religion and peacebuilding. Much of this early work focused on religion and reconciliation, including the role of religion in reconciling warring parties/states and even whole societies following mass atrocities. Given the emphasis that seemed to be placed on involving these actors as a society began to emerge from conflict, I was keen to know more about what they were actually doing during conflict – during wartime. For my PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution, I wanted to understand how religious organisations and their leaders (from priests, imams, and pastors) operate in war, their relationships with armed groups, as well as how and why these actors varyingly aid, constrain, contain, or even redirect violence through their actions. My research in the Central African Republic has underscored that visible interfaith conflict mitigation and peace-orientated actions by national level leaders during wartime can operate in tandem with the more obscure, subnational actions of local leaders.

What are some of the challenges that you have had in your academic career, and how have you tackled them? 

Embarking on a PhD and continuing with academia, doing policy-related work, or trying to do a combination of both carries with it various personal and professional challenges. Even prior to the pandemic, research-oriented work always came with a degree of uncertainty, especially in conflict settings. Like most PhD candidates, all the more as an international student studying in the US, I faced funding challenges for my field research. I was ultimately successful at securing funding from my university and from an external institute but that was after several funding proposals had been rejected. When you spend a lot of time developing a research project and a funding proposal or a research article is rejected, that experience can make you question your work or even question if you are good enough to succeed. Sharing rejections with friends and colleagues is just as important as sharing the high of winning a research grant. Doing so normalises rejection and reminds us that every research proposal or article started with a terrible first draft!

Grant writing takes a lot of time, so I find it helpful to be as strategic as possible regarding the grants I apply for. I look at the work of past grant recipients to have a better idea of the projects and general focus of the particular institute. This helps you know how good a fit your research is for the funding organisation. We are all – to an extent – at the mercy of what these institutes view as priority topics. There’s no easy way to change that. Nevertheless, writing research funding proposals is a skill that only improves with practice. I have definitely gained a lot from writing them even when the proposal was unsuccessful, particularly when grant reviewers provide feedback which you can then integrate into your work going forward.

Another challenge I have faced is knowing how to clearly frame the implications and overall importance of my research on religion to policy audiences. I want the research I do to inform policy, but learning how to speak in a language that is accessible to policy makers takes time and practice. Transforming the complexity of your research into digestible information points or even recommendations, as is often requested, is not only difficult but can make junior academics nervous perhaps for fear of being misunderstood or being accused of lacking nuance. I have benefitted from attending workshops on how to write policy pieces and op-eds as well as learning from the experiences of other researchers and academics.

Importantly, any challenges I face are done so as a white scholar from the Global North studying at a university in the Global North. I am in the privileged position of having access to numerous resources including events and workshops held to discuss challenges in academia and those specifically facing PhD candidates. My presence as a researcher at these events and elsewhere in academia is not questioned. While female PhD candidates and more established academics face unique challenges, I nevertheless navigate academic, research and writing, and policy spaces as a white PhD candidate whose first language, English, is the dominant language in many of these settings.

What do you consider to be the most pressing questions related to your discipline and academic interests today? Why?

As we emerge from the darkest moments of the COVID-19 pandemic, an immediate question for peace and conflict studies revolves around how to resume fieldwork and what fieldwork will look like for qualitative research questions on political violence in conflict-affected, fragile, and violent contexts. Global COVID vaccine inequality has further compounded the power and access disparities that already existed between researchers like me and any future interlocutors such as the many Central Africans who gave their time to speak to me as I travelled the country. Variation in how different governments define “fully vaccinated” will likely create further obstacles for academics and researchers, specifically those from the Global South, to attend in-person only events in Europe and North America. I think hybrid ways of working that combine in-person and remote access should be maintained (and improved) to mitigate their associated challenges.

During the pandemic, many researchers reworked their research designs in creative and innovative ways, doing what they could remotely. In some cases, people had to change their focus entirely. In conflict-affected, fragile, and violent contexts, online interviews are impractical if not impossible. This all raises broader issues around how we do research and who does the research and where. None of these questions have an immediate answer.


What is the most important moral and/or societal responsibility in your career/research going forward?

I think one of my most important responsibilities is to be an ethical researcher. Part of that obligation entails engaging in and promoting responsible fieldwork practices. As a qualitative researcher who examines the dynamics of political violence in a conflict-affected, fragile, and oftentimes violent context, I had and continue to have a responsibility to actively work to dismantle both overt and implicit exploitative and extractive research practices. Although more reflection is occurring on these issues in articles as well as in conversations between researchers, more is needed.

Being more attuned to how I was positioned during field research, as a Global North researcher, and how I positioned myself relative to the diverse array of actors operating in the CAR was essential. Many local Central Africans assumed I had links to or, at a minimum, had easy access to international government/non-governmental organisations linked to humanitarian and development assistance. Within this environment, there was a high chance people would agree to talk to me because of this perceived association and the belief that assistance might follow any meeting with me. We therefore have a responsibility to learn how to clearly explain who we are and why we are in a specific country to potential interviewees, and manage our associations with different actors carefully.

I was genuinely interested in listening to those I spoke to, but also understood that no one was obliged to speak to me (there were people who refused, and some made that very clear!). Fleeting encounters with researchers and journalists can leave people with feelings of being used. I tried to create connections with people I spoke to where appropriate and in a way that was not an added burden to them – we already ask a lot of people we interview, requesting they give up a few hours of their time sometimes on multiple occasions.

Lastly, how we compensate research assistants is a significant issue. I asked many people about this prior to travelling and once in the CAR. I heard examples that not only bordered on exploitation, but that were overtly exploitative. Though budgetary constraints will always be an issue, a small research budget cannot be used as an excuse to exploit those whose assistance helps us reach overall career goals. We have a responsibility to reflect profoundly on how we allocate research funds to ensure we can compensate research assistants appropriately. 

What do you consider the most important question related to human responsibility in the world today?

An important (overarching) question for me would be our responsibility to think about how we can more accurately and effectively reflect, acknowledge, and confront disparities around power and access to create more ethical spaces and relationships. These dynamics structure anything from interpersonal relations to the unequal effects some experience from global climatic changes. The burden of this responsibility to reflect, acknowledge, and confront these disparities is not carried equally by everyone. Some of those who have profited from these disparities continue to contribute to their maintenance.

Academic Interests

What is your view on the role of religious leaders in peacemaking and why?To what extent does this differ across regions within CAR and why?

The role of religious leaders and their organisations in peacemaking is complex and varied. The same can be said of the role they play with regards to the outbreak of conflict and the escalation of violence. Much of the earlier work on religion and peacemaking from the mid-1990s / early 2000s was a direct response to scholarship at the time that subscribed to the understanding that religion was part of the problem of conflict and violence. Thanks to this earlier work on religion and peacebuilding, however, the notion of the ambivalence of religion toward peace and violence is now a well-established premise – that is, just as religions through their leaders, organisations, and specific texts and verses can permit and support violence so, too, can they reject violence and work towards peace.

In the case of the Central African Republic, national level religious leaders occupied a prominent and visible role. They promoted inter-faith conflict mitigation and peace-oriented actions by appearing together, advocating for a UN peacekeeping mission to be established in the CAR, and calling for armed actors to lay down their weapons and engage in dialogue. Perhaps counterintuitively, the more national level leaders engaged and worked with international/external actors, the more some within their faith communities viewed these leaders as profiting from the conflict to improve their status. Specifically, for some leaders, their actions increased an already existing credibility gap they had within their own religious community. As with any external intervention or outreach, when thinking about how to support religious leaders in peacemaking, external actors have a responsibility to reflect on the potential consequences of their actions and assistance so as not to exacerbate existing tensions that exist within religious communities, particularly at the leadership level. 

Importantly, to fully understand the role of religious leaders in peacemaking, it is essential to also examine what these actors are doing subnationally. The actions of local level religious leaders may mirror those at the national level, or they may even undermine them. Local leaders can change how they operate and engage with conflict actors. Open communication, facilitated by a shared religious identity, can exist between religious authorities and armed actors, which religious leaders can use as an entry point to mediate disputes between and within armed groups. In some cases, armed group leaders seek out religious authorities to mediate internal conflicts. Although religious leaders have played a role in managing CAR’s increasingly local patchwork of conflicts, as mediators and parties to local peace and stabilization processes, their influence and role varies. It became increasingly more challenging for local religious authorities to work across religious lines, as religious difference became a more prominent feature of the conflict. Relatedly, local religious leaders in the CAR often preferred to work discreetly with other leaders of the same faith, particularly when they share a religious identity with armed groups whose intergroup violence and targeting of civilians negatively affects their faith community. Some armed groups in the CAR viewed the Catholic Church as increasingly partial because they perceived church officials to be providing sanctuary to the members of other armed groups.

Can you see religious leaders being useful for conflict stability and peacemaking becoming more or less prevalent in the next 10 years? Would it have the same impact in other African states or is religious leadership used in CAR because it is a local, internally-influenced initiative

Religious leaders have always been and will continue to be a relevant actor to study and engage to develop more locally attuned conflict stability and peacemaking strategies. To be sure, their influence varies from one conflict-affected environment to the next. Their influence can even fluctuate during the course of a conflict and religious communities are not immune to internal disputes and divisions, particularly among their leaders. Prominent female authorities within a religious community can also be marginalised. Accessing these women is often mediated by men. Nevertheless, the promotion of sustainable peace in the Central African Republic, as in many other places, requires that attempts to de-escalate violence and break cycles of armed conflict are informed by realistic understandings of local politics, violence, and impediments to peace. Within many countries the religious sector is an integral element of local dynamics that should not be overlooked, side-lined, or shunned for actors more favoured under the Western-state centric liberal peacebuilding approach.

It would be my hope that future efforts to support religious leaders in their peacemaking attempts is premised on collaborations with a diverse group of religious leaders from a conflict-affected country. This must include women and be approached creatively, including a range of fora that recognise the existing local expertise of these authority figures. Such collaborations must avoid tokenism and recognize the risk for external support to exacerbate existing divisions, especially if approached without adequate religious literacy among policymakers or a full appreciation of the internal dynamics of a given faith community at the leadership level. 

What, ultimately, do you consider to be the most important steps that need to occur in order to move forward with decreased levels of violence and conflict in the Central African Republic? Whose responsibility is it to help implement these steps?

That’s a great question and one we need to ask Central Africans more. Addressing the impunity gap that exists for serious crimes, including alleged atrocity crimes in CAR is one essential element. The CAR took an important step forward last month in that direct. The first trial before the Special Criminal Court in the country’s capital, Bangui, for war crimes and crimes against humanity began. However, further efforts should be made by international actors to support the ongoing work of the International Criminal Court, as it relates to the CAR, as well as the work of the Special Criminal Court. The 2015 Bangui Forum that brought together hundreds of delegates from a cross-section of Central African society from political representatives, civil society organisations, armed groups, and community associations emphasised the need for justice. All of these actors have a role to play in moving CAR forward in the direction of stability. Central Africans have experienced profound material and personal losses due to repeated and interconnected cycles of violence. For many, a blank amnesty provision would only serve to undermine any attempts at sustainable peace by helping to facilitate future conflicts.

International actors should likely think twice about supporting or facilitating the creation of a strong, centralised state as a vehicle through which to create stability. The Central African state and elites have and will likely continue to play a complex role related to dynamics of violence throughout the country. Equally, superficial attempts at decentralising governance and fostering a state accountable to its citizenry may only serve to reignite longstanding grievances around neglect and exclusion felt by those in CAR’s peripheral areas and, particularly among Muslims throughout CAR.  

Laura’s published work includes

The Central African Republic and the Responsibility to Protect. European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (ECR2P), University of Leeds. (leeds.ac.uk)

Central African Republic: A Role of Religious Leaders in Calming Conflict? United States Institute for Peace, Washington DC. (usip.org)

Her co-authored article (with Dr. Gino Vlavonou), “A State of (Dis)unity and Uncertain Belonging: The Central African Republic and the Muslim Minority,” is forthcoming in spring 2022 in a special issue edition of Islamic Africa on Muslim minorities in sub-Saharan Africa.

*EXTENDED DEADLINE: 31 JAN 2022* Call for Papers for first Special Issue

What does responsibility mean in today’s globalised world? How do different disciplines tackle this question?

These are questions we want to engage with in the Responsibility Collective’s first Special Issue. We are therefore currently welcoming submissions concerned with responsibility from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Relevant topics include, but are not limited to, climate change, public health, technology, education, social and economic inequity, human rights, mass atrocity prevention and peace building.

To find out more about how to submit, check out our submission guidelines.

Submissions are now open until 31st January.

Courtroom drama and racism: Putting film on the stand

By Clémence Rebora

No other film genre conveys the idea of responsibility, to one’s beliefs and towards others, better than the courtroom drama. Using law as a tool to play with the audience’s belief in justice, courtroom dramas place a topical concept on trial rather than a single character. The success of the genre stems from its potential to captivate and engage an audience with tight pacing and camerawork, placing the viewer directly on the judge or jury’s stand. In a courtroom drama, a moral and legal responsibility is bestowed upon the litigating characters, but also implicitly on the audience. As the primary demographic targeted by film studios is white, the number of courtroom dramas aiming to put race on trial has exponentially grown since Robert Mulligan’s 1962 adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Through a contemporary lens, such movies can seem like an answer to what the world goes through, a solution to real-life prosecutions that do not benefit from the comfort of a fictional happy ending. The recent trial of Derek Chauvin, George Floyd’s murderer, has felt to many like a potential catalyst for change, despite many unsatisfactory elements. The use of single events as catalysts for movements or earth-shattering change is a good tool for fiction because it is engaging, especially emotionally. This is why we see such events translated into fiction, and the reason why the atrocious murder of George Floyd will likely become a narrative, much like the story of the Central Park Five.

Stories with a narrative, important to a specific moment in history, are often branded as relevant, but the concept of timeliness is dangerous to take at face value. The example of Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) demonstrates how important the notion of ‘relevancy’ has become in contemporary filmmaking. The movie relates the events of early 1969, when eight men including Bobby Seale, Chairman of the Black Panther Party, and Abbie Hoffman, co-founder of the Youth International Party (‘Yippies’), were tried for conspiracy and rioting after demonstrating at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Considering the trial’s historical importance as encapsulating a deep-rooted political and racial dispute, representations in a limited runtime should have been cautious. Yet Sorkin’s movie misrepresents crucial parts of the trial’s events. While Bobby Seale barely resists when he is gagged in the courtroom in the movie, Seale in reality wiggled out of the restraints repeatedly. Another divergence from reality is the assassination of Fred Hampton by US police, which took place on December 4th, 1969 but which appeared before Seale was gagged in the movie. This dramatization of events is done unabashedly yet never acknowledged. Ironically, of all the reviews for The Trial of the Chicago 7, it would be challenging to find one that does not mention its ‘topical’ nature, especially at a time when the previous US President unequivocally denigrated (civil rights) protestors.

In reality, the movie failed to find the correct base for timeliness. Certainly, making a movie (or any piece of media) time-relevant has a marketing purpose, but one can wonder if the line between bait and sincerity is ever really set. This is all the more important when ‘bait’ becomes synonymous with ‘exploitation’, as academic Zoé Samudzi comments in her 2020 Art in America essay: “Where Blackness is en vogue and atrocity images are a hot commodity, it becomes difficult to produce a commentary or satire that does not read almost identically to the quotidian flows of violence”. The same can be seen in courtroom dramas, where the use of the white saviour trope often takes the focus away from anything that does not contribute to making the Black character(s) a worthy cause. When Black characters are relegated to plot devices and stripped of their agency solely to benefit a white character’s narrative, race becomes an ironic canvas for contradiction.
When films try and fail to illustrate reality, the risk becomes bigger than just that of a single trope or plot device; they come together in a dangerous rewritten history. Pretending that historical revision is acceptable even as it glosses over dark moments or waters down power struggles for the sole reason that audiences are expected to know the facts is harmful.

Furthermore, because film is a credible media, semi-fictional accounts of historical events risk supplanting our shared memory of events. This is even more damaging because it stops encouraging the viewer to question what they are watching. The example of The Trial of the Chicago 7 once again comes to mind, with its complete reduction of the pain inflicted upon Bobby Seale in the courtroom scenes. The movie misses the opportunity to relate the Chicago Trial in terms of the experiences of the eight men who faced it, and instead focuses on idealised versions of the white protagonists, particularly Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman. This is made possible and effective thanks to director Aaron Sorkin’s reputation and acclaim as a potent political screenwriter, which allows the movie to surf a wave of wokeness. Yet this attitude to the source material does not only involve Sorkin but rather all of us, starting with the Academy who nominated The Trial of the Chicago 7 for seven awards, in the same breath as it nominated Judas and the Black Messiah, a black led movie recounting the events leading up to Black Panther figure Fred Hampton’s assassination, for three awards. The coexistence of such diverging versions of the history of Black people, some in which they are background characters and others in which they have a true place, confirms and upholds a gap between viewers: different interpretations of history are marketed towards different demographics based on how likely they are to believe them.

This is not a new phenomenon, but if movies like The Trial of the Chicago 7 work it is because audiences can weather seeing them, and because the glamourised rewritings of history are more comfortable to sit with than the often grimmer state of reality. This is also where relevancy becomes a trap: the implication of universal timeliness is a falsehood when a film is only really topical for those who fail to question the implications of its revised politics.

Call for Conversations: Beyond the Media Cycle

Summer 2021

With a 24-hour news cycle, we are constantly alerted to new crises breaking out across the world. Yet complex events seize the world’s attention for mind-bogglingly short amounts of time, causing constant shifts in public consciousness. Even when the world has stopped paying attention–even after the media cycle moves to the next big event–the tragedies continue. While we are no longer seeing an onslaught of news on a daily basis, India is still facing an extreme Covid-19 surge, dynamics in Israel and Palestine remain lethal to civilians, and police in America continue to murder black people at alarming rates. 

The Responsibility Collective invites contributions to our current Call for Conversations: Beyond the Media Cycle. How do we continue to care and take action to address events that are no longer prevalent in the media? How does the loss of the media attention feel to those directly impacted by these tragedies and by those a million miles away? We invite you to join the conversation. 

Submit Your Narrative

Eligibility Anyone and everyone is eligible to submit. You do not have to be affiliated with a school or institution. 

How to submit Send an email to our team at: responsibilitycollective@gmail.com.

Write “CFC Media” in the email subject line with your creative work attached. A member of our team will follow up with you.  We aim to create a space for open, respectful and constructive conversations through visual and written creative works. Share your experience on how the Black Lives Matter movement has impacted you. Show the world what’s going on in your community. Tell us your story. We can’t wait to hear from you.

“To Wash One’s Hands”: Challenges to International Justice in a Covid-19 Era

Stephanie Miller, University of St. Andrews, UK

A former research intern at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, Stephanie is currently studying for an MLitt in International Security Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland. She previously earned her Bachelor of Science in Diplomacy and International Relations from Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.


Since the World Health Organization officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic in March 2020, the ramifications of social distancing, quarantine, and other lockdown measures have been felt across the globe. The international human rights regime in particular has seen the detrimental consequences of limited judicial operations: increased violations compounded by the limited capacity of advocacy efforts have led to general impunity. This article assesses the state of affairs within the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court since the onset of the pandemic. It also highlights challenges for addressing abuses and conducting investigations and legal proceedings. Informed by public health guidelines and current attitudes towards justice and advocacy, it offers up considerations for future practice.


As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread across the world, the international community faces unprecedented challenges to global justice. Exacerbated by a current climate “of global strengthening of authoritarianism and weakening of multilateralism, human rights and the rule of law” (Šimonović, 2020, p. 4), some states have utilized strictly mandated public health measures to suppress vulnerable populations, consolidate their power, and commit unspeakable acts of atrocity (Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, 2020).

In the midst of this crisis, the international justice mechanisms designed to combat such impunity are seemingly at a standstill. Caught between their mandates and the need to stop the virus, the courts can only offer a limited range of responses. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) grapples with questions of jurisdiction while using videoconferencing to handle procedural issues (ICJ, 2020, p. 1). The International Criminal Court (ICC) must juggle war crimes investigations with political and procedural obstacles (Mansour, 2020) while also considering requests for the prosecution of individual world leaders and the World Health Organization (WHO) for alleged international crimes committed under the guise of the Covid-19 pandemic (Canadian Institute for International Law Expertise, 2020).

Acknowledging the unique circumstances these mechanisms must now confront, this article poses the question: “What challenges does Covid-19 present to international justice?” It firstly seeks to provide a general assessment of the state of affairs within both the ICJ and the ICC since the onset of the pandemic. Secondly, this article details three broad aspects of international justice that have been impacted by the global pandemic and their relationship with court activities. Finally, this article draws on observations from key figures in the justice sector to propose considerations for the future. It ultimately asserts that in failing to adequately deal with the rising challenges posed by the pandemic itself and those who would seek to take advantage of it, the international community also fails in its responsibility to protect. While the continual failure of states to uphold this responsibility ensures that justice still remains elusive for many, the international court system has remained committed to responsibility, accountability, and timely management to the midst of the global health crisis.

Covid in the Courts: Assessing ICJ and ICC Action

Guidance and briefing notes from the ICJ and ICC offer insight into the priorities of each of these courts as the pandemic continues to unfold. The ICC Presidency’s “Guidelines for the Judiciary Concerning the Holding of Court Hearings during the COVID-19 Pandemic” centers around health and safety measures, limiting the capacity to conduct hearings to one hearing per day and closing all hearings to the general public (ICC, 2020b). While public statements reassuring the public of continued operations remain elusive, a review of ongoing activities reveal that the court has since been very active throughout the pandemic. For example, the trial in the case Prosecutor v. Al Hassan opened before Trial Chamber X of the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes allegedly committed in Timbuktu (Mali) on July 14, 2020, less than one month after the release of the ICC’s Guidelines (ICC, 2020a). The ICC previously managed the surrender, custody transfer, and initial appearance of alleged leader of the Sudanese “Janjaweed” militia leader Ali Kushayb in June (ICC, 2020c). It also began adjusting operational engagement so that its Trust Fund for Victims continued to provide service delivery to stakeholders (ICC, 2020d).

Outside of conducting its usual activities, the ICJ has been relatively quiet on how it is internally handling the pandemic. Its document “The Court adopts measures to ensure the continued fulfilment of its mandate during the COVID-19 pandemic” briefly outlines how the Court will continue vital operations despite the containment measures, citing the use of videoconferencing to handle procedural issues (ICJ, 2020). Nonetheless, the Court may yet play an important role in establishing accountability for the global health crisis. For instance, Alexander (2020) states that “the views of the world community are that China has not complied with the WHO’s International Health Regulations… This being the case, one could argue that China breached the human rights of its citizens.” Noting the Articles 6 and 7 of the International Health Regulations provide for timely, accurate, and sufficiently detailed public health information and information sharing respectively, Alexander goes on to argue that states looking to hold China accountable for pandemic-related crimes could invoke breaches of Articles 6 and 7 of the WHO’s International Health Regulations as a basis for establishing the ICJ’s jurisdiction.

In addition to this, De Herdt (2020) points out that the court may give an advisory opinion under Article 65 of the ICJ Statute, the purpose being to “offer legal advice to the organs and institutions requesting the opinion.” An advisory opinion from the ICJ would carry a sizeable deal of legal weight and moral authority in respect to the subject at hand, a move certainly more likely than any official action on the part of the court or the international community where China is concerned.

All in all, it appears that the international courts have remained active throughout the pandemic. However, emerging gray areas regarding justice and accountability within pandemic responses ensure that all is not business as usual. The rise of human rights abuses by states in recent months has called into question the general role of international criminal justice in the prevention of and response to public health emergencies. Guariglia (2020) asserts that despite the lack of a direct connection between international crimes and epidemics, “it can help isolate the actors behind the crimes, generate awareness of their actions and their potential consequences, and galvanize efforts to counter them.” Guariglia continues on to contemplate exploring the applicability of different modes of responsibility to authorities who deliberately fail to take necessary steps to contain the coronavirus. He notes that “it is not outside the realm of possibilities that the international criminal justice system be asked to hold to account those who use the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to commit or perpetuate crimes against humanity or war crimes.”

In this vein, the ability of the ICJ and ICC to hold states accountable for such abuses is limited. While Chinese human rights abuses remain a question for ICJ jurisdiction, Ackerman (2020) says that similar complaints to the ICC will also likely go untouched, noting its role as a court for only the most egregious crimes. Though the Bolsonaro administration’s crimes against healthcare professionals in Brazil is most certainly a human rights issue (Al Jazeera, 2020), Ackerman points out that it does not meet the threshold for a crime against humanity and as such “will disappear into thin air at the Prosecutor’s office” (2020: 4). Ackerman ultimately asserts that bringing individual perpetrators to court for Covid-19 related human rights violations could devalue the ICC’s mandate in the eyes of the public. To be effective, he argues, civil society and international actors ought to utilize human rights law’s concern for the protection of individuals from the acts and omissions of States. Pressuring abusive regimes not only magnifies the issues but also expedites it to the court of public opinion, where humanitarian action is faster than a legal battle. In this sense, Guariglia’s considerations for holding perpetrators accountable for Covid-19 related abuses are more aspirational than particularly realistic.


In May 2020, TRIAL International released a report identifying three aspects of international justice that have been affected by the global pandemic: an increase of human rights violations, crimes reporting and investigations, and the conduct of legal proceedings (TRIAL International, 2020a, pp. 1-11). While by no means exhaustive, the report gives a comprehensive overview of the challenges facing both states and international organizations as they wage a two-front war on the Covid-19 pandemic and those who would utilize global health measures to commit atrocities. For example, security forces continue to use excessive force against civilians in Nepal and the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) while enforcing quarantine lockdowns. Kasozi et al. (2020) observe that expectations of robust yet flexible pandemic control strategies have led to excessive use of force by police and armed forces in Kenya and South Africa. In doing so, they argue, government authorities contribute not only to serious human rights violations but also panic and anxiety amongst local populations. As with most state-sponsored atrocities, continued abuses of power and subsequent breakdowns in communal trust only perpetuate further violence.

With no end in sight for the Covid-19 pandemic, state abuses and violent communal responses will only perpetuate themselves unless intervention, governmental, local, or otherwise, takes place. UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee warned that the Burmese military’s “significant” role in pandemic response has led to increased targeting of the Rohingya people (CNN, 2020). The military and its civilian government counterpart continue to target Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State, Myanmar, where a genocide against the Rohingya Muslim population began over three years ago (Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar and United Nations, 2018). Abuses against the Rohingya minority and the general Burmese population have received attention since the pandemic began, with Human Rights Watch calling out excessive sentencing for Covid-19-related infractions (Human Rights Watch, 2020) and NPR reporting on restored internet access to Rakhine and Chin States (NPR, 2020). Nonetheless, with the genocide still ongoing and Covid-19’s disruption of ICC and ICJ operations, current arbitrations will be difficult to progress due to safety concerns and public health restrictions (ICC, 2020b).

Documentation of war crimes in the eastern DRC has also significantly reduced since the onset of the pandemic, mostly due to limited access to crime scenes. Because evidence collection is extremely time-sensitive, failure to act accordingly can result in the deterioration or disappearance of physical evidence and witness statements. This poses negative implications not only for investigations but also future legal proceedings. As noted by Labuda (2019), the International Criminal Court already has a severe “evidence problem,” as demonstrated by recurring system of evidence and oversight failures in Prosecutor v. Kenyatta and Prosecutor v. Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé (Labuda, 2019). Pandemic-related issues with crime scene access and witness availability will only serve to exacerbate pre-existing conditions within the international justice system and jeopardize ongoing cases. This may be especially pertinent to the ICC’s ongoing war crimes inquiry in Afghanistan (ICC, 2019). Greenlit in March, the investigation already faces backlash of the United Stated government (Burke-White, 2020) and will continue to stall evidence collection as the pandemic devastates the country and limits mobility (World Bank, 2020).

In addition to this, TRIAL International points out that human rights advocacy and mobilization has “drastically slowed” since the onset of the pandemic (TRIAL International, 2020a). While combatting Covid-19 remains at the forefront of international attention, abuse monitoring and interventions have fallen to the wayside. Though the Human Rights Council condemned the Burundian government’s closure of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in March 2020, it is unlikely that cases of extrajudicial executions, torture, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and arrests, forced expropriations of property, and arbitrary detentions will be addressed while the pandemic is still ongoing (TRIAL International, 2020b). With international and regional judicial bodies operating at minimal capacity, much of the responsibility for reporting and action has fallen to local advocacy groups whose resources are already spread thin by the pandemic. This ‘out of sight, out of mind’ phenomenon not only reinforces the international community’s failure to exercise its responsibility to protect but also contributes to an overall loss of visibility that puts victims at risk and encourages perpetrators to commit further abuse.

Moving Forward

Given the limited capacity and overall challenges facing the international courts, options for justice for human rights violations in an era of Covid-19 may seem slim. However, with conscious considerations and adjustments for practice, reinforcing responsibility and achieving accountability is still within reach.

Despite Ackerman’s (2020) observations as to the feasibility of pursuing world leaders for human rights violations in international court, there is still a role for the ICJ and ICC to play in the crisis. As previously mentioned by De Herdt (2020), the ICJ’s ability to issue an advisory opinion upon request would bring much needed legal and moral authority while also contributing to the development and interpretation of international law. While the ICJ should be wary of the implications of issuing premature advisory opinion during this unprecedented time, this would help to close the gap regarding acceptable legal action about accountability for violations committed in the context of the pandemic. As far as the role of the ICC goes, the court’s continued commitment to maintaining a vital presence in communities affected by international crimes illustrates that building communal resilience remains a priority.

Reporting and conducting investigations while following pandemic health regulations will remain difficult for the foreseeable future. Social distancing measures and foreign travel restrictions will most likely make evidence collection challenging. However, Braga da Silva (2020, p. 1) offers a potential solution in third party investigations: “Evidence collected by third-party investigators will likely face challenges of admissibility in being introduced into trial. Those challenges could, however, be overcome if third-party investigations are regulated within the legal framework of the ICC”. While third parties would still have to adhere to public health protocol, with proper regulation and oversight third party investigators can preserve time-sensitive evidence needed for prosecution. While the potential for acquittals due to pandemic-related evidence loss remains to be seen, the very implication is enough to warrant a closer look at adapting current practices for the times.

In this same vein, both courts have already seen several changes in how legal proceedings are conducted during the pandemic. Barring public access and instituting necessary precautions are all positive steps towards continuing court operations under Covid-19 restrictions. Though limiting the number of hearings conducted each day certainly slows down due process (Crawford, 2020), it does not necessarily hinder it. Despite alterations to day-to-day procedure, all signs point towards the fact that it is still very much business as usual. Moving forward, each court should continue to be mindful of public health restrictions while also ensuring that justice is served and rights are not infringed upon.


In his statement on behalf of the International Center for Transitional Justice, Fernando Travesí (2020) writes: “The common expression “to wash one’s hands of something,” usually means to absolve oneself of responsibility for something. In the current global [health] crisis, the meaning seems to have been turned on its head. In washing our hands today, we are accepting, embracing our responsibility for others wherever they are. As we gaze upon the road ahead, may we similarly embrace our responsibility for the most vulnerable and for all victims of human rights violations all over the world.”

While the rise of human rights violations in the midst of the pandemic may appear to illustrate how states have washed their hands of their responsibility to protect, the same cannot be said for the international justice system. Though they face immense challenges to operation and procedure, many unprecedented, the ICJ and ICC remain open and active. Their capacity may be limited for now, but they have not forgotten their mandates to see justice and accountability for egregious crimes; investigations continue, and trials commence even as these courts grapple with the uncertain. How to investigate and try world leaders and other international actors for crimes committed during the pandemic? What is preferable, prosecution or advisory opinion? What is the role, if any, of the courts in the accountability process? These are the questions that must be solved.

What ultimate form international justice in the Covid-19 pandemic may take is still to be determined. In the meantime, civil society and the international community must remain vigilant. Despite these unprecedented circumstances, the international community is still responsible for bringing mass atrocity crimes to heel. Pandemic or not, failure to stop the most vulnerable cases from slipping through the cracks is a failure in the responsibility to protect. As Guariglia (2020) notes, “we need a global response. And global responses imply the international rule of law, global governance and accountability dimensions.” Supported by civil society, governance institutions, and international actors, that response must put human rights values at its core in order to be genuine and effective.


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