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Purpose of This Guidance

  • The Atrocity Risk Assessment Framework (ARAF)[1] helps decision makers and country watchers understand atrocity risk and where atrocities are underway.
  • The ARAF should be used to help identify and prioritize options to prevent, respond to, and mitigate atrocities. To achieve the most comprehensive impact, this analysis should feed into a coordinated interagency planning and implementation process.
  • Understanding atrocities requires attention to certain key actors, affected populations, risk factors, and accelerants and triggers that could drive large-scale and deliberate attacks on civilians.

Summary Guidance

  • The Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018 defines “atrocities” for the purposes of the Act as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
  • Ethnic cleansing is not defined as a crime under international law but is a form of atrocity.
  • While war crimes occur in the context of armed conflict, crimes against humanity and genocide can occur in war or peacetime.
  • An atrocity risk assessment should be anchored in four sets of questions:
    • Which, if any, key actors currently have or might plausibly develop the motive and means to carry out atrocities? Which, if any, key actors (domestic or international) have or could play protective or peacebuilding roles?
    • Which, if any, groups of civilians or other populations are currently being targeted or might plausibly be targeted for atrocities?
    • What are the risk factors, if any, that could set the preconditions for atrocities? What are the resilience factors, if any, that could mitigate that risk?
    • What are the potential accelerants and triggers that could open windows of atrocity risk?
  • The assessment should result in the identification of the dynamics that underpin ongoing or potential atrocities, a set of plausible atrocity scenarios, key developments to monitor, and recommended prevention and response options.


Who are potential perpetrators?

State actors:  This category includes political, military, and criminal justice system actors who control the levers of power and translate national policy into concrete action.  These senior leaders may include heads of state; cabinet-level officials; military/security and intelligence officials; political party leaders; or law enforcement, justice sector, and corrections officials.  Mid-level officials are often responsible for coordinating the operational details of atrocities.  Low-level perpetrators, including low-level officials, soldiers, law enforcement officers, corrections officers, and civilians, carry out physical violence and make possible the commission of atrocities.  It is important to consider each of these levels of potential perpetrators in an assessment since they may suggest different opportunities for prevention.

Non-state actors:  Non-state perpetrators are typically rebel groups, militias, gangs and criminal organizations, or terrorist groups.  Particularly in states that are in collapse, suffering from ongoing armed conflict, or where the power of the state is weak, non-state armed groups may have the opportunity to carry out atrocities.  The organization of non-state groups generally differs, but most will exhibit some degree of hierarchy or delegation of authority analogous to the high-level, mid-level, and low-level perpetrators described above.[2]

Enablers:  Atrocities are complex, organized acts, and perpetrators are rarely able to carry them out alone.  They often rely on “enablers” – local, national, regional, and international actors – to provide the goods and services (such as weapons, resources, and training) necessary to commit the acts.  Enablers facilitate a supply chain that fuels violence against civilians, at times even exploiting civilians as forced labor for entities that generate profits for the enablers.  They may also offer political and moral support to perpetrators.  Enablers may also include the state and non-state actors listed above as potential perpetrators.

What motives drive atrocities?

Multiple motives may be at play in a given situation, with different motivations driving different perpetrators.

In some cases, the violence may be intrinsic to the goals or ideology of the perpetrator.  In such cases, perpetrators come to view the very existence of a portion of the targeted population as a threat to their status, privilege, wealth, land, power, or even physical existence.  In reaction to that perceived threat, perpetrators may adopt a strategy of exclusion, persecution, or destruction to remove the threat.

In other cases, violence against civilians may be more instrumental.  For example, the goal of violence against civilians may be tangible rewards – looting, seizure of land, or recruitment of additional perpetrators.  Terrorists and insurgent groups may intentionally attack civilians as part of their strategy to undermine or overthrow a regime, while governments may engage in violence targeted at civilians as part of a counter-insurgency campaign.

Perpetrators may employ conflict-related sexual violence and rape as intrinsic or instrumental strategies to instill fear and control populations, destroy the social fabric or alter the genetic composition of an ethnic or racial group, or inflict maximum suffering on a targeted group.

Assessment of motive, while difficult, is important because it informs response strategies to atrocities.  Understanding perpetrators’ motives as intrinsic, for instance, may lead to response strategies that center on protection of the civilian population under attack.  If perpetrators’ motives are more instrumental, response strategies may focus more on incentivizing perpetrators to seek less destructive means to achieve their goals.

What means enable atrocities?

It is important to identify the means or logistical capacity that potential perpetrators may need to carry out atrocities, such as weapons, funding, organization, information/propaganda capabilities, recruitment, and training.  Control of infrastructure, borders, and arms provides further logistical capacity for perpetrators.  When potential perpetrators are already organized into regular or irregular military units, significant command structures for atrocities are already in place.

In some cases, perpetrators must rely on other means to mobilize people to attack civilians, for example, by stoking fear and hatred of the targeted group, aided by a strong propaganda capacity.  Their narrative is likely to include divisive and inflammatory speech, dehumanization of the targeted group, accusations the targeted group is plotting harm, or emphasis on past instances of supposed harm by the targeted group.  Marginalization of moderates is a means of consolidating this mobilization capacity, especially by restricting their ability to use mass media.  Restricting interaction with the international community through internet “blackouts” may remove moderating influences.

What actors (domestic or international) have protective or peacebuilding roles?

Influential third parties include actors that work to prevent or respond to atrocities.  These actors may be located in the country where atrocity risks are present, in the region, or internationally.  Domestic actors may include local peacebuilding or human rights groups; women’s rights and LGBTQI+ rights organizations; religious organizations and leaders; criminal justice system actors, including law enforcement, corrections, and justice personnel; or other community groups.  Regional actors, including neighboring states and regional organizations, such as the African Union or the Organization of American States, may help respond to atrocities.  International actors, including the wide range of UN agencies, peacekeeping missions, and rapporteurs and other mandate holders; human rights treaty bodies; and international NGOs and foreign state governments can also help prevent and respond to atrocities.  Other mechanisms such as international, hybrid, and domestic courts; commissions of inquiry; and transitional justice measures may play an important preventive role as well.  Domestic and international media outlets and businesses can also help reduce risks.  The motivations of third-party actors are diverse – they could be humanitarian, religious, political, diplomatic, military, or economic – and the means of each of these actors also vary widely.


Who are targeted groups?

Groups might be targeted based on any of a wide variety of actual or perceived characteristics, including nationality, ethnicity, race, religious belief or identity, political affiliation, social class, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, profession, or geographic location.  The targeting is generally based on a perception that the group impedes or threatens the power, interests, or goals of the perpetrator.  Threat perception can be aggravated if the group is perceived as supporting or being affiliated with a competing group.  Groups may be targeted for strategic reasons, such as to gain territory or impose control.  Within targeted groups, it is important to identify particularly vulnerable subgroups.

Ultimately, it is the perpetrators’ subjective view of the targeted group, not the victim or bystander, that defines the targeted group for the purposes of targeting them.[3]

What means do targeted groups have to reduce their vulnerability or protect themselves?

A targeted group’s means of self-protection include any capacities to counter, mitigate, deter, or avoid a threat.[4]  Means may include methods of civil resistance, flight, countering propaganda, increasing independent media reporting of threats, efforts to resolve underlying conflicts, building alliances with moderates in the perpetrator group or third parties, nonviolent protests, documenting and publicizing the threat or actual atrocities, and legal action.  Members of targeted groups may also resort to violence and may commit atrocities, thereby becoming perpetrators themselves.


Risk Factors[5]

Lists of risk factors are constantly evolving.  This summary of risk factors is mined from a wide range of multidisciplinary research and helps identify preconditions for the outbreak of societal violence or atrocities (see Annex 1).  For ease of illustration, these risk factors are grouped into four broad categories – governance, conflict history, economic conditions, and social fragmentation.

Governance broadly refers to the ways in which authority in a country is exercised.  How are government authorities selected, monitored, and replaced?  What is the capacity of the government to develop and implement sound policies?  To what degree do citizens respect the state and the institutions that govern them?

Conflict history and impunity can lead to increased risk for the onset of future atrocities and can depend on the ways in which that history is remembered, taught, processed, and understood.  Memory is an active sense that can both accentuate the power of conflict history as a risk factor and diminish it.  Effective transitional justice mechanisms that comprehensively and inclusively redress past conflict minimize the risk of renewed atrocities.  By contrast, a culture of impunity surrounding past abuses may lead to further atrocities.  As Secretary Blinken remarked in October 2021, “Ending impunity as we know it is … one of the best ways to prevent more abuses going forward.”

Economic conditions are based on data that reflect longer-term and slower-moving trends of economic development, stability, or deterioration – potentially important indicators of the economic resilience of a society and its degree of susceptibility to the risk of atrocities.

Social fragmentation can be defined “as a process in modern society by which different groups form parallel structures within society, which have little or no consistent interaction between them over the full spectrum of the social experience.”[6]  Where social cohesion can unite a people and strengthen a society, social fragmentation splinters a people, reduces the resiliency of a society, and places it at increased risk of atrocities.  Effective transitional justice measures for past atrocities “mitigate the risk of further violence, promote civilian security, strengthen the rule of law, rebuild social cohesion, encourage respect for human rights, address the needs of victims, facilitate development, and restore trust in formerly abusive institutions.”[7]

Impact of Gender

Conflict affects – and is perpetrated by – genders differently.  Gender norms and bias interact with other factors to drive or mitigate conflict.  All elements of atrocity assessment should include a gender-focused analysis to examine the role expectations, rights, and behavior of members of certain groups and how norms and power relations affect the degree of vulnerability of these groups to conflict.  This analysis will help ensure the entire range of opportunities, actors, and risks are taken into account when designing atrocity prevention strategies.

It is also important to look for ways in which women and girls, in all their diversity, and LGBTQI+ persons exercise unique or unnoticed influence in their community, since they can play an important role in a community’s ability to peaceably manage and prevent conflict.  Collecting and analyzing gender- or sex-disaggregated data; assessing the physical safety of all women, girls, and LGBTQI+ persons; and analyzing the participation of women and LGBTQI+ persons in decision making about security issues are components of a thorough analysis of key actors.

Gender-based violence, including rape, can be both a cause and consequence of societal breakdown.  In some conflicts, perpetrators deliberately target women and girls, and conflict-related sexual violence can fuel instability as these populations flee the violence, disrupting economic relations and structures within a community.  In places where wars have officially come to an end, high levels of violence and insecurity, including higher rates of domestic violence, continue to plague women, girls, and LGBTQI+ persons.

Resilience Factors

Resiliencies are social relationships, structures, or processes that provide dispute resolution and meet basic needs through nonviolent means.  Resiliencies that might be activated domestically to mitigate risk and prevent or stop atrocities include:

  • an engaged, constructive civil society
  • shared culture or values between targeted groups, perpetrators, or potential allies that mitigate against mass atrocities, such as religious teachings or a strongly unifying historic event or figure
  • promotion of and respect for human rights and rule of law
  • strong, legitimate institutions that provide checks and balances on those in power
  • civilian oversight of security actors
  • revulsion at past atrocities or severe violence
  • exhaustion with cycles of violence
  • traditions and values of questioning authority or exercising freedom of expression
  • economic relationships that depend on the victim population

Transnational resiliencies include a desire by potential perpetrators and third parties to be seen as legitimate and law-abiding and to maintain political, economic, and military relationships, as well as relationships between victim groups and international actors.  Resiliencies may involve respect for international human rights law and international humanitarian law and capacity and willingness by a military to engage in civilian protection, where appropriate.


Accelerants are “changes in the strategic situation that increase incentives or feasibility for perpetrators or enablers to mobilize people or resources for atrocities.”[8]  Changes in the strategic situation internal to the state that could serve as accelerants are numerous.  Following the four-category framework of risk factors laid out above, some accelerants are related to issues of:

  • Governance – Governance accelerants may include regime transitions (particularly coups), major government or legal reforms, state imposition of restrictions on the press and social media, gradual isolationism and withdrawal from the international community, release of political prisoners, purging security forces of members of minority groups, or marginalization of political moderates.
  • Conflict history and impunity – Post-conflict peace stabilization programs or transitional justice mechanisms that are poorly designed or implemented or have a biased depiction of conflict history can accelerate intergroup tension in an at-risk state.
  • Economic conditions – Economic accelerants can come, for example, from overdependence on foreign aid or peacekeeping missions or a marked increase in unemployment.
  • Social fragmentation – Threats to social cohesion can be accelerants, such as the presence of foreign enablers; failed ceasefires or peace agreements; undue restrictions on the exercise of freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, or movement by members of a targeted group; an increase in arbitrary arrests or disappearance of members of a targeted group; the mobilization of an armed group or groups; rising discrimination; forced separation or displacement of groups; an upsurge in hate speech and the organization of hate groups; the large-scale purchase or import of small arms; or actual outbreaks of limited violence against a targeted group.

Accelerants may also come from changes in the strategic situation external to the state, which may have particular impact when the state is at risk of violent conflict.  These “negative externalities that can exacerbate conflict in fragile states” may include external military intervention into the territory of a state; non-state armed groups operating across borders; the movement of refugees; the impact of externally imposed structural reforms; illicit trade in drugs, arms, and minerals; an international financial crisis; increasing regional destabilization more broadly; and climate change.[9]

Triggers are the discrete, highly salient precipitating events, or chain of events, that instigate or catalyze the perpetration of atrocities and can push an at-risk state over the brink into violent conflict.

The range of triggers is broad, diverse, and often difficult to predict or identify in advance.  Triggers may include “natural disasters that provide opportunities to rebel groups to increase antigovernment actions, assassinations of key leaders, expulsion and evacuation of foreigners, and terrorist attacks.”[10]  Other triggers could include coups, sudden deployment of security forces, acts perceived as “treacherous” by a targeted group, contested succession or secession, battlefield victories, closure or liquidation of large employers, environmental crises, epidemics, acts of incitement, calls to arms, the taking of a census in certain contexts, or the actual onset of armed conflict.

Other potential triggers are more easily identifiable in advance.  Foreseeable triggers of violent conflict can include “deadlines for significant policy action, legal judgments, and anniversaries of highly traumatic and disputed historical events.”[11]  Elections in deeply divided, fragile, or conflict-prone societies may be triggers, and while it may be difficult to anticipate how contentious or contested elections will be, elections in at-risk societies that are poorly planned or carried out increase the risk of potential atrocities.

Outputs of an Atrocity Assessment

  • Identification and Interaction of Atrocity Dynamics:
    • key actors with motivation and means to mobilize people or resources for or against atrocities
    • potential targeted groups and a description of the means they have to reduce their vulnerability or protect themselves
    • risk and resilience factors that impact the probability of atrocities occurring
  • Plausible Atrocity Scenarios: The primary goal of unpacking atrocity dynamics is identification of the most plausible atrocity scenarios.  However, some scenarios, though unlikely, would merit consideration because they would result in high numbers of civilians injured or killed.  Exploration of scenarios should be used to better understand how and why atrocities are being committed or could be committed in the future and to communicate this to policymakers.  The process of “red teaming” or challenging the underlying premise of scenarios can help identify knowledge gaps and logic leaps that will sharpen the accuracy of scenario planning and subsequent recommendations.
  • Key Developments to Monitor: An assessment should identify trends or events to track over time that would signal significant change in the potential for atrocities.  While these should be tailored to specific atrocity dynamics and scenarios, in general, risk and resilience trends to watch can include factors related to governance, conflict history, economic conditions, and social fragmentation.  Particularly relevant are the accelerators and triggers that might precipitate atrocities.  Civil society and non-governmental organizations operating in countries at risk may provide useful information sources to track these and other relevant trends.
  • Recommended Prevention and Response Options: An assessment should identify and prioritize recommendations for atrocity prevention or response.  Recommendations should consider the timeframe, organizational hurdles, and any risks of unintended harm that the recommendations may pose.  Proposed atrocity prevention or response options should address multiple aspects of atrocity risk:
    • Reduce windows of risk and increase the potential of windows of opportunity for prevention. Examples include ceasefires, introduction of peacekeepers, events providing international access to the country or its leaders, deadlines for international decisions, key moments in International Criminal Court proceedings such as the opening of investigations, UN Security Council and UN Human Rights Council resolutions, or perpetrator infighting or logistical overreach.
    • Shift the motives or means of potential perpetrators and enablers away from committing atrocities.
    • Enhance the motives and means for prevention and self-protection by likely targeted groups and actors with protective or peacebuilding roles.
    • Expand resiliencies that can be used to prevent atrocities and reduce the strength or salience of relevant risk factors.

Annex 1 – Risk Factors Summary[12]


  • Regime Type
    • Autocracies or Hybrid (mix of authoritarian and democratic characteristics) Regimes
    • Few Institutional Constraints on Executive Power and State Security Apparatus
    • Lack of an Independent and Impartial Judiciary, Professional Security Sector, and Independent Media and Civil Society
  • State Legitimacy Deficit
    • Corruption
    • Disregard of Domestic Laws
    • Mass Protests and/or Riots
  • Weakness of State Structures
    • Poor Provision of Basic Services
    • Lack of Respect for Rule of Law
    • Lack of Civilian Protection Mechanisms
  • Identity-Based Political Division[13]
    • Politically Contentious along Identity Lines
    • Exclusionary Ideology
    • Conventional and Digital Media Propaganda and Disinformation Operations that Incite Violence
  • Systematic State-Led Discrimination and Repression
    • Lack of Respect for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms
    • State Discrimination against Ethnic or Religious Groups

Conflict History

  • History of Identity-Related Tension
    • Ideologies of Antagonism
    • Legacies of Colonialism
  • Prior Genocides or Other Atrocities
  • Past Cultural Trauma
    • Enters into Core of Social Group’s Sense of Identity
    • Redefinition of Collective Social Identity
  • Legacy of Vengeance or Group Grievance
    • Politicization of Legacies
    • Historical Revisionism
    • Lack of Local Dispute Resolution and Transitional Justice Mechanisms
    • Exacerbation by Contentious Celebrations of Historical Events
    • Impunity for Past Atrocities
  • Record of Violations of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Violations or Abuses
  • Presence and Empowerment of State-Sponsored Agents
    • Paramilitary groups
    • Rogue State Actors

Economic Conditions

  • Low Level of Economic Development
    • Low Opportunity Cost for Mass Violence
  • Economic Discrimination
    • Horizontal Economic Inequalities Between and Among Groups
    • Patronage and Nepotism
  • Lack of Macroeconomic Stability
    • Deficiency in Economic Diversity and Interdependence
  • Economic Deterioration
    • High Inflation + Low GDP
    • Large Foreign Debt Burden
  • Growth of Informal Economies and Black Markets
    • Drug Trade, Human Trafficking, Trading Networks in Minerals, Weapons Smuggling

Social Fragmentation

  • Identity-Based Social Divisions
    • Prioritization of Divisive Subordinate Identities
    • Speech Inciting Violence against a Particular Group
    • Risk of Identity Dominance and Identity Polarization
  • Demographic Pressures
    • High Population Density
    • Disproportionate Percentage of Male Youths
    • Massive Movement of Refugees or IDPs
  • Unequal Access to Basic Goods and Services
    • Horizontal Social or Economic Inequality (inequality between or among groups)
    • Vertical Social or Economic Inequality (inequality between individuals/households)
    • Poor or Uneven Service Delivery
    • High Infant Mortality Rates
  • Gender Inequalities
    • Gender-based Violence
    • Gender Norms and Inequities as Drivers of Conflict
  • Political Instability
    • Adverse Regime Changes/Irregular Transitions
    • Threats of Non-International or International Armed Conflict
    • Regional Instability (“Conflict-Ridden Neighborhood”)
    • Increasing Proportion of Population is Armed



[1] The ARAF was formerly referred to as the “Atrocity Assessment Framework.”  The name was changed to encourage use of the tool in cases where risks of atrocities are present.

[2] See Scott Straus, Fundamentals of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, November 2014.

[3] See James Waller, Confronting Evil: Engaging Our Responsibility to Prevent Genocide (NY: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[4] See Aditi Gorur, “Community Self Protection Strategies: How Peacekeepers Can Help or Harm,” Stimson Center, August 2013.

[5] Waller, Confronting Evil, p. 147-197.

[6] Eric Sean Williams, “The End of Society?  Defining and Tracing the Development of Fragmentation through the Modern and into the Post-Modern Era” (2010), 47.

[7]U.S. Department of State, Transitional Justice Initiative, Transitional Justice Overview,

[8]US Department of State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations and USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance, “Atrocity Assessment Framework: Supplemental Guide to Conflict Assessment Frameworks,” (2015, working draft, unclassified), 7.

[9] James Putzel, “Regional and Global Drivers of Conflict: Consequences for Fragile States and Regions,” paper prepared for the World Bank Headline Seminar on the Regional and Global Dimensions of Conflict and Peace Building, Addis Ababa, October 10-12, 2009, 1.

[10] Barbara Harff, “Detection: The History and Politics of Early Warning,” in Adam Lupel and Ernesto Verdeja (eds.), Responding to Genocide: The Politics of International Action (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2013), 104.

[11] Madeleine K. Albright and William S. Cohen, Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the American Academy of Diplomacy, and the Endowment of the United States Institute of Peace, 2008), 37.

[12] Adapted from the “Categories of Risk Factors for Violent or Genocidal Conflict,” James Waller, Confronting Evil: Engaging Our Responsibility to Prevent Genocide (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 147-197.

[13] Elites and state institutions divided along identity lines – which may include racial, ethnic, religious, class, clan, or tribe – fueled by exclusionary ideologies, often nationalistic in intent and propagated by extremist rhetoric.  Legitimate and effective governance is compromised by identity-based political divisions and the exploitation of such differences.

U.S. Department of State

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