New Essay Draws Important Parallels Between Public Health and Atrocity Prevention, Systems Designed to Protect From Harm

Cover of Politorbis magazine, #68, issue on Preventing Atrocities

FXB Center for Health and Human Rights Senior Fellow and Harvard T.H. Chan Professor Jennifer Leaning recently compared approaches to prevention and early warning in public health to those for mass atrocity.  Her essay, “Prevention in Public Health and Atrocity:  A Comparative Approach to Early Warning for Early Action,” appears in the latest issue of Politorbis, an official publication of the Swiss Foreign Ministry.

As Leaning posits, “An understanding of how public health identifies, monitors, and then acts against threats may support a comparison with atrocity prevention. In both instances, a threat may begin with barely discernible indicators and then escalate in somewhat predictable ways to cause considerable and enduring harm.” She reminds us that “the work of maintaining public health … relies on a normative culture diffused throughout society.”

Leaning finds strong parallels between the tasks of public health prevention and the processes in atrocity prevention “of specifying the nature of the harms and interventions and the systems for monitoring, extending surveillance, and establishing modes of intervention.” Differences between the two fields include the more fully developed science of human health and greater amount of empirical data for public health, while atrocity prevention “cannot yet rely on a science of human hatred,” although the mechanisms through which it grows are increasingly well known. Yet atrocity prevention has some important advantages over public health prevention. Through the world’s painful experience and history of mass atrocity, atrocity prevention has gained a great deal of support from international law, international agencies, and civil society, enabling both the building of models of escalation for early warning and the potential for exertion of international pressure on state actors.

Leaning waits to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic until the last paragraph, in which she describes it as a public health failure of early warning and early action. “The lesson for public health,” she writes. “is that an uncontrolled pandemic can begin to resemble a mass atrocity.”

Read the essay.

Read the full Politorbis issue, Preventing atrocities; towards new paradigms?

Watch one or more video conversations between Leaning and Mô Bleeker, Special Envoy, Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs and Chair of Global Action Against Mass Atrocity Crimes (GAAMAC).