The Role of Civilians and Civil Society in Preventing Mass Atrocities

by Congo Research Group, Anushani Alagarajah, Dharsha Jegatheeswaran, and Laxana Paskaran, Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research, Nyathon H. Mai, The Sudd Institute, Zachariah Mampilly with Daniel Solomon, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, July 21, 2020

Preventing Atrocities in a State Unwilling to Address its Past by Anushani Alagarajah, Dharsha Jegatheeswaran, and Laxana Paskaran, Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research

Executive Summary
This paper studies the role of civilians and civil society in preventing and mitigating atrocities in Sri
Lanka. The first case study is set during Sri Lanka’s civil war, specifically during the breakdown of the
ceasefire between 2005 and 2008, when there were significant constraints on civil society and civilians
and a very high risk of atrocities. The second case study is set in the post-2015 period, a time when there
was a new coalition government that pledged to work toward reconciliation, and when, as a result,
constraints on civilians and civil society were much lower and the risk of atrocities was also reduced.
Both case studies consider the risk of atrocities centered on interethnic conflict, though the first case study
looks at the long-standing armed conflict between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam (LTTE), while the second looks at intercommunal violence directed at the Muslim minority
community in the post-war context.
In the first case study, most initiatives, which sought to directly engage with Sri Lankan security forces or
the government, were unsuccessful at preventing atrocities because of (1) the primarily Sinhalese
military’s prejudice against Tamil communities; (2) a post-2005 strategic shift toward winning the war at
any cost; and (3) a lack of resources for civil society. Underground initiatives were found to be more
effective at preventing atrocities on an ad hoc basis. In the second case study, most initiatives taken by
civil society failed to prevent anti-Muslim atrocities from occurring because the initiatives were unable to
address root causes of intercommunal violence in the Eastern Province. (A few initiatives taken directly in
the aftermath of the horrific Easter Sunday attacks were the exception.)
Taken together, the two case studies highlight that although there has been space for civil society and
civilians to try to act to prevent or mitigate atrocities perpetrated during Sri Lanka’s cycles of ethnic
violence, the effectiveness of those actions has been rather limited. When using the metric of saving
individual lives, as in the first case study, the study finds that underground initiatives tended to be more
effective than initiatives that directly confronted the State during a period of armed conflict. However,
when the broader metric of lasting intercommunal harmony in the post-war context is considered, it is
clear that civil society has been unable to address root causes and, thus, that initiatives have been largely
ineffective at maintaining intercommunal harmony and preventing intercommunal violence, except
possibly in the aftermath of a major triggering event.
This study raises important implications for the scope of what civil society can do in a context in which
the State is unwilling to address its past. The study concludes that until the State is willing to address and
undo its Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist character, it will be very difficult for civil society to pursue
initiatives that directly engage or challenge the State. In the interim, underground initiatives will be
hindered by a lack of coordination among civil society and a lack of resources.
On the basis of this analysis, and as Sri Lanka once again becomes a country at high risk of interethnic
violence driven by Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, the study recommends that the international community
and civil society find ways to support coordination and resources of underground initiatives aimed
directly at preventing abductions and killings of suspected targets of the government. It also recommends
that institutional and foreign donors incorporate victim-survivor community voices directly into their
strategic planning. Finally, it recommends that civil society organizations attempt to stress the need to
address root causes either in their work (if they can) or in government- or international-led initiatives.


See the source imageThis research project explored when, how, and to what effect civilians engage in atrocity prevention.

Civilian communities are often presumed to be passive victims or bystanders when threatened by mass atrocities. Our research finds this assumption to be false. Civil society actors respond to threats of atrocities in many ways, even in the face of significant constraints. They are more diverse and their roles are more complicated than is often acknowledged. A greater understanding of and interaction with local civilian communities is required to prevent mass atrocities.

The research project examined the following questions:

  • How frequently do civil society actors and civilian communities take different types of actions to help prevent and mitigate mass atrocities?
  • What factors explain the variation in the effectiveness of civilian-led efforts to prevent and mitigate mass atrocities?
  • How can external actors—particularly foreign assistance donor organizations—effectively support civilian-led efforts to prevent and mitigate mass atrocities?

Read a three-page summary of key findings from the entire project here and each of the research papers below.

Case studies

Three case studies and a synthesis paper examine the range of actions civilians can take to prevent and respond to atrocities. They were conducted in partnership with three in-country research organizations and overseen by Leonard and Sophie Davis Fellow Zachariah Mampilly.

Quantitative analysis

This cross-national quantitative analysis assesses the relationship between civil society and mass atrocities.

Policy analysis

This paper examines how foreign assistance donor organizations can best support civilian-led actions to prevent and mitigate mass atrocities.

Learn more

  • Read a rapporteur’s report (PDF) from a June 2019 workshop with research partners and external scholars, by Jamie Wise
  • Read a rapporteur’s report (PDF) from a March 2018 workshop discussing the state of research and kicking off the project, by Daniel Solomon and Mollie Zapata
  • Read the project description (PDF)

For more information about this project, contact Kyra Fox at 

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