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A child sits at a Berlin Jewish memorial (Moritz Schumacher via Unsplash)

Deep Dive: The Real Meaning of “Never Again”

Words: Emily Tamkin
Pictures: Moritz Schumacher

In vowing to prevent mass atrocities with the slogan “never again,” what are we really saying? In using the phrase as a call to prevent harm, are we perhaps helping to enable it?

These are the questions before Adrian Gallagher, Richard Illingworth, Euan Raffle, and Ben Willis in their paper, “The permanency of mass atrocities: the fallacy of ‘never again’?,” recently published in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations. 

The authors believe that the term has been insufficiently studied in international relations, even though it’s an everyday term for relevant parties ranging from political elites to academic to NGO workers.

The phrase itself has what the authors dub “expanding parameters,” which is to say that it means different things at different times when coming from different people: some take the phrase to mean no more genocides, while others mean no more mass killing or “mass atrocities.”


The authors thus decided to analyze five real-world problems: “1) the quantitative problem, 2) the nuclear problem, 3) the regime change problem, 4) the weak state problem, and 5) the P5 problem.”

In looking at the quantitative problem, they consider an increase of mass atrocities in the world over time, and the reality that “even if we accept the claim that international human protection has become more common in the 21st century, the sheer number of mass atrocities outstrips our capacity to prevent them.” 

If a nuclear state perpetuates atrocities against its own people, it is difficult to imagine how to stop it from doing so.

The nuclear problem presents a specific challenge. If a nuclear state perpetuates atrocities against its own people, it is difficult to imagine how to stop it from doing so.

They also look at how regime change, if it is a consequence for perpetuating atrocities, can itself lead to negative consequences, which in turn has “catalyzed an unwillingness of states to use force in the name of atrocity prevention.” 

Further Complications

The existence of weak states and the fact that P5 countries have veto power further complicates the extent to which its possible to fulfill the promise of “never again.” (The international community’s ability to prevent atrocities depends on the extent to which these five powers all agree.)

Ultimately, the authors “find the blanket call of ‘never again’ oversimplifies the complexity of mass atrocity prevention and creates an unrealistic goal.” Moving forward, they encourage those using the phrase to be specific about what they actually mean by invoking it.

The authors do not, however, believe that the scope of “never again” should be reduced, even if such a thing were possible. In a move that may strike some as cynical, the authors end by asserting, “Rather than uphold the commitment of ‘never again’, we conclude that it would be better to acknowledge and adapt to the permanency of mass atrocities in IR.”

Emily Tamkin

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