ASTK18457U The Politics of Atrocity

Volume 2024/2025

Full-degree students enrolled at the Department of Political Science, UCPH

  • MSc in Political Science
  • MSc in Social Science
  • MSc in Security Risk Management
  • Bachelor in Political Science


Full-degree students enrolled at the Faculty of Social Science, UCPH 

  • MSc in Psychology
  • MSc in Social Data Science


The course is open to:

  • Exchange and Guest students from abroad
  • Credit students from Danish Universities
  • Open University students

This course explores atrocity crimes and the politics surrounding them. It starts from the hegemonic discourse in international politics that we will “never again” let the atrocities of the Holocaust reoccur and yet we are witnessing ever more violence internationally. How can we understand this? How can we prevent mass atrocities? Are current frameworks fit for purpose?


The course starts by looking at what constitutes each of the four atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. We look at the politics and struggles that go into defining these crimes and the legal and sociopolitical hierarchies that are built into the way we understand and talk about atrocity crimes. Next, we look at (international) legal attempts to prevent atrocity crimes, assessing whether these have been successful or where they could be improved. While the course references other frameworks for preventing atrocity, we specifically focus on the United Nations Responsibility to Protect, which was unanimously endorsed at the United Nations in 2005. At the end of the course we spend three weeks focusing on specific cases of atrocity and examine what role R2P played or could have played in their resolution.


Throughout the course, we handle two structuring questions: (1) what politics underpins mass atrocities? (2) what is the politics involved in preventing mass atrocities?



  • What is mass atrocity?
  • A history of mass violence since 1945: a pathology of violence?
  • International Humanitarian Law and Atrocity Prevention
  • The politics of defining and recognising atrocity crimes
  • Atrocity Prevention Frameworks and Risk Indicators
  • The Responsibility to Protect: history and evolution
  • The Responsibility to Protect: pillars, ethics, and application
  • Critiques of the Responsibility to Protect
  • Devolving and localising atrocity prevention
  • Critical Friends: Women, Youth, and Queers in Peace and Security
  • Case Study: Darfur
  • Case Study: Syria
  • Case study: South Africa’s Genocide Case against Israel OR Chechen Gay Purge
  • Assignment Workshop
Learning Outcome


Students will be able to…

  • Analyse and critically approach atrocity prevention frameworks
  • Identify and define the four atrocity crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing
  • Critically analyse the legal, social, and political hierarchies between these atrocity crimes
  • Critically assess the UN’s R2P
  • Apply knowledge about mass atrocity to current events in international politics
  • Identify power struggles around contentious issues in international policy-making
  • Identify and critically interrogate the link between politics and ethics



Students will be able to…

  • Evaluate advanced concepts
  • Use primary and secondary sources
  • Understand international legal frameworks
  • Understand and interpret policy documents
  • Show critical judgement



Students will be able to…

  • Work effectively in groups
  • Prepare and receive peer-to-peer feedback
  • Take responsibility for their own preparation, planning, and time-management skills
  • Transfer their knowledge of atrocity prevention to ‘real life’ working environments, including those in an international environment like aid work or in international non-/governmental organisations
  • Speak the language of atrocity prevention and translate this into other issue areas beyond the prevention of direct violence


An indication of the reading we will look at:

  1. Bellamy, Alex J., and Timothy Dunne. 2016. The Oxford Handbook of the Responsibility to Protect. First edition. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
  2. Bradol, Jean-Hervé, and Le Pape Marc. Humanitarian Aid, Genocide and Mass Killings: Médecins Sans Frontières, the Rwandan Experience, 1982–97. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017.
  3. Cooper-Cunningham, Dean, and Detmer Kremer. 2024. Queering Atrocity Prevention: Europe in Focus. London: Protection Approaches.
  4. Davies, Sara E. ‘Addressing the Gender Gap in R2P’ in Alex J. Bellamy and Tim Dunne, eds, The Oxford Handbook of the Responsibility to Protect. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 489–508.
  5. Dean, Carolyn. The Moral Witness: Trials and Testimony After Genocide. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019.
  6. Ferguson, Kate. 2020. Architectures of Violence: The Command Structures of Modern Mass Atrocities. London: Hurst Publishers.
  7. Ferguson, Kate, and Fred Carver. 2021. Being the Difference: A Primer for States Wishing to Prevent Atrocity Crimes in the Mid-Twenty-First Century. [Online]. Available at: https:/​/​​being-the-difference.
  8. Gifkins, Jess, and Dean Cooper-Cunningham. 2023. Queering the Responsibility to Protect. International Affairs 99(5).
  9. Gifkins, Jess, Dean Cooper-Cunningham, Kate Ferguson, Detmer Kremer, and Farida Mostafa. 2022. Queering Atrocity Prevention. London: Protection Approaches. [Online]. Available at: https:/​/​​queeringap.
  10. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. Manual for R2P Focal Points. [Online]. Available at: http:/​/​​wp-content/​uploads/​2022/​09/​R2P-Focal-Points-Manual-12-September-FINAL.pdf (pp. 1-15)

Hindawi, Coralie Pison. ‘Decolonizing the Responsibility to Protect: On Pervasive Eurocentrism, Southern Agency and Struggles Over Universals’. Security Dialogue 53: 1, 2022, pp. 38–56. [Online]. Available at: https:/​/​​10.1177/​09670106211027801. Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2010.

  1. Lal, Vinay. ‘The Concentration Camp and Development: The Pasts and Future of Genocide’. Patterns of Prejudice, 39, 2, 2005, pp. 220-243.
  2. Lester, Alan, and Dussart Fae, eds. Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance: Protecting Aborigines across the Nineteenth-Century British Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  3. Mac Ginty, Roger, and Alp Ozerdem, eds. Comparing Peace Processes. London: Routledge, 2019.
  4. Mallavarapu, Siddharth. ‘Colonialism and the Responsibility to Protect’, in Ramesh Thakur and William Maley, eds, Theorising the Responsibility to Protect. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 305–22.
  5. Meera Sabaratnam. Decolonising Intervention: International Statebuilding in Mozambique. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
  6. Rosenberg, Sheri. 2012. "Genocide Is a Process, Not an Event," Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal 7, no. 1.
  7. Sémelin, Jacques. Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
  8. Sémelin, Jacques. ‘What is “Genocide”?’. European Review of History: Revue européenne d'histoire, 12:1, 2005, pp. 81-89.
  9. Shaw, Martin. What Is Genocide? Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007.
  10. Stanton, Gregory. “The Ten Stages of Genocide.” Available at: https:/​/​​ten-stages-of-genocide.
  11. Steinacher, Gerald. Humanitarians at War: The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust. Oxford: Oxford University
Teaching will include lectures and group discussions, as well as more innovative approaches that include, for instance, ‘mapping’ exercises, social media campaign creation, and policy brief preparation.

The mandatory texts are aimed at providing a broad overview of the topic for the week, with various optional readings providing more in-depth, specific contributions. Each student will be able to participate in/contribute towards an optional class reading journal. This journal will take form as a Google Doc where students, if they wish to participate, will be allocated one of the mandatory readings from any week and asked to upload their notes for this text. The purpose of this is to provide a pooled learning resource that all participating students can access and take away at the end of the course.

The general format of the combined document will be to include: 1) key concepts, debates and ideas covered in the text; 2) the student’s response to the text (i.e. do they agree or disagree with its core argument?; 3) identify the text’s strengths and weaknesses; and 4) to pose questions to the text and clarify (in collaboration with teacher and fellow students) problems with understanding the text. By having a variety of reading and understandings of texts in the class, students will be able to share ideas and engage in critical discussions with one another, enabling co-learning and ownership of their own education.

In order to supplement in-class learning, I will provide ‘digital content’ for most weeks that enables students to engage with a variety of content including: UN debates, recorded lectures, podcasts, and news stories.
A version of the syllabus will also be uploaded as an interactive Google Doc that students can comment on and ask questions to.
The free assignment can take a more policy-oriented approach or a more academic approach. Either is appropriate given the subject of this course.
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • Total
  • 28
Feedback by final exam (In addition to the grade)
Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)
7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written assignment
Type of assessment details
Written free assignment
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship

- In the semester where the course takes place: Free written assignment

- In subsequent semesters: Free written assignment

Criteria for exam assesment

Grade 12 is given for an outstanding performance: the student lives up to the course's goal description in an independent and convincing manner with no or few and minor shortcomings

Grade 7 is given for a good performance: the student is confidently able to live up to the goal description, albeit with several shortcomings

Grade 02 is given for an adequate performance: the minimum acceptable performance in which the student is only able to live up to the goal description in an insecure and incomplete manner