Because remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing. In this sense, “never again” is a challenge to us all—to pause and to look within.
—President Barack Obama, April 23, 2012, US Holocaust Memorial Museum
For nearly two years the US government has been developing a comprehensive interagency strategy to help prevent mass atrocities and genocide. This policy experiment includes creating the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) within the White House’s national security apparatus, along with equipping federal agencies with new capacities and tools for preventing atrocities. While still a work in progress, the effort marks an important step forward in shifting the stance of the US government and the international community from willful neglect, which meant intervention came too late in Rwanda and Bosnia, to coordinated action to help prevent future genocide and mass atrocities.
The recent US policy developments on atrocities prevention trace their roots to the Genocide Prevention Task Force (GPTF), led by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former secretary of defense William Cohen, and the efforts of many to translate the rhetoric of “never again” into practical reality. In late 2008, as the Obama administration prepared to take office, the bipartisan task force released its report, which included a robust list of recommendations for improving US capacities to help prevent genocide: assessing risks and triggering action through early warnings, engaging before a crisis erupts, halting and reversing escalation through preventive diplomacy, dedicating resources and foreign assistance to support preventive capacities, incorporating genocide prevention and response into national policy guidance and planning, developing military doctrine and training on protection of civilians and prevention of genocide, and helping to create an international network for information sharing and coordinated action to prevent genocide.
A number of incoming officials were personally engaged in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and were long-time advocates of a more responsible US role in addressing mass atrocities. Meanwhile, a growing coalition of human rights, humanitarian, peacebuilding, and faith-based organizations organized around the GPTF report and began a concerted advocacy effort to ensure key recommendations were implemented. The Obama administration began to dedicate high-level attention to mass atrocities prevention, implementing important components of the GPTF recommendations, including appointing a national director for war crimes, atrocities, and civilian protection in the White House national security staff and adding mass atrocities for the first time to the intelligence community’s annual assessment of security threats.
At the same time, a new international genocide prevention architecture was emerging, starting with the 2004 Stockholm conference on genocide prevention. On that occasion UN Secretary General Kofi Annan announced the establishment of the post of special advisor on genocide prevention, a role that Juan Mendez, Francis Deng, and now Adama Dieng have performed so far. UN Member States and international organizations began expanding and developing a more active role in early warning and response. Argentina, Switzerland, and Tanzania organized regional gatherings. A growing number of states began to address genocide prevention and the responsibility to protect. Training programs such as Engaging Governments in Genocide Prevention introduced more government officials around the world to genocide prevention. New civil society initiatives focused on strengthening community resilience to help avert mass violence and heal after atrocities. All these activities called for synergy.
On August 4, 2011, the White House released Presidential Study Directive (PSD) 10, which emphasized that genocide and mass atrocities prevention was a national security priority and moral responsibility and stated clearly that “in the face of a potential mass atrocity, our options are never limited to either sending in the military or standing by and doing nothing.” The directive mandated the creation of the APB to address emerging threats and coordinate a comprehensive strategy for atrocities prevention. Agencies across the US government were charged with reviewing their own capacities for atrocities prevention, identifying gaps and challenges, and developing focused work plans to improve their capabilities. From this review came a number of specific initiatives, including improved civilian surge capacity in the State Department, an innovative Tech Challenge by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), new doctrine and training on mass atrocities prevention in the Department of Defense, and new Department of Treasury sanctions against third-party enablers.
A year later at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, President Obama announced the establishment of the APB and the development of a US strategy to prevent mass atrocities and genocide. He recommitted the United States to striving for a future where there is a “place for dignity for every human being,” and to making this “the work of our nation and all nations.”
The APB has now been up and running for over a year. Some have criticized it for not being more out front on the Syria crisis and for working behind a shroud of secrecy. The criticism has been intense especially among academics and some sectors of civil society and is worthy of debate. The APB has not been adequately transparent, and it needs to find clear ways to measure and demonstrate the real effects of its work on changes in its behavior and policies in specific situations. A shift does seem to be happening in these directions, but it has been slow in coming and will not satisfy all critics.
Rather than operating in crisis mode on situations that have already escalated to mass atrocities and high-level policy attention, such as Syria, the APB is undertaking the apparently mundane but long-neglected work of trying to address crises before they erupt. It is taking prevention seriously.
However, the seemingly bureaucratic changes the APB has focused on are critical steps forward. The board meets monthly and includes senior representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Treasury, Homeland Security, and Intelligence, along with USAID, the US Mission to the United Nations, and the Office of the Vice President and national security staff. It looks at specific country cases that may be at risk of atrocities and seeks to take an upstream approach on situations that may not otherwise get high-level attention. Rather than operating in crisis mode on situations that have already escalated to mass atrocities and high-level policy attention, such as Syria, the APB is undertaking the apparently mundane but long-neglected work of trying to address crises before they erupt. It is taking prevention seriously.
The APB is also changing how the US government works at an interagency level and how resources are spent. It has helped ensure dedicated US investments in prevention efforts in Burma, Kenya, and Central Africa. It has established itself as a forum for interagency engagement and coordination in identifying and mobilizing US resources on emerging atrocities threats. And, perhaps most promising of all, it has begun to institutionalize atrocities prevention into “the DNA of the US government.” On May 1, 2013, the White House released a fact sheet outlining progress since PSD-10, and an executive order on atrocities prevention is expected in the months ahead. A new national intelligence estimate identifies specific situations of concern for mass atrocities threats.
The APB will not be perfect and its efforts will still be undertaken within the broader confines of a complex and often conflicting US foreign policy agenda.
The United States is both leading and learning as the APB begins its work. The APB will not be perfect and its efforts will still be undertaken within the broader confines of a complex and often conflicting US foreign policy agenda. It will face the ongoing challenges of the prevention paradox—that we can prevent only what we know—and the difficulties of policy prioritization and interagency coordination. But it is a crucial effort that can support and be part of the emerging broader global regime for genocide prevention. Atrocities prevention is ultimately a collective enterprise that uses and generates learning and produces good practice through experimentation, verification of results, and further improvement. The APB attempts to move US policy from moral outrage to evidence-based decision making. Data on human rights violations, the arms trade, hate speech, demographic trends, economic patterns, and early warning must be collected and interpreted properly, consistently, and transparently. Policies and investments need to follow what works. Doing so requires not only mustering greater political will to face emerging threats before violence erupts but also the slow and steady work of research and learning, policy development, program design and implementation, and resource investments to support capacity-building at the local, national, regional, and international levels.
The APB’s work is often not high-profile and may be difficult to measure. It is neither a panacea for genocide prevention nor a merely bureaucratic exercise. Rather, it is an experiment that deserves the attentive examination and critical support of all who are committed to transforming “never again” from persistent promise into practical reality.