This is the first in a series of four posts recapping Imagining the Unimaginable: Ending Genocide in the 21st Century, a symposium held this morning at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The event featured a keynote address by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, two panels, and a presentation of the results of a poll on public perceptions of mass atrocity prevention. This post summarizes Secretary Clinton’s address, which can be read in full here.
Secretary Clinton began by reiterating previous statements from other administration officials, including President Obama himself, that the prevention of mass atrocities is not only a moral imperative, but also a core U.S. national security interest. The bulk of her talk consisted of a review of the steps that the administration has taken thus far to put this principle into practice. Some of the measures that she mentioned are quite well-known, most notably the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board.
Of course, it remains to be seen what the Board’s exact agenda will be, and, perhaps more importantly, how much influence it will ultimately wield over U.S. policy. Based on the Secretary’s remarks, it seems clear that she understands the Board’s most important role to be that of information management. She noted that a massive amount of information relevant to possibly impending atrocities flows into various U.S. government agencies on a daily basis, and expressed her belief that one function of the Board is to ensure that none of this information falls through the cracks; in other words, that it is aggregated, analyzed, and (if necessary) acted upon.
Other, more “behind the scenes,” measures that the Secretary highlighted were enhanced conflict prevention and resolution trainings for U.S. diplomatic staff, and efforts to leverage technological innovation as an early warning tool both for the U.S. government and for civilians in vulnerable areas. She also emphasized examples of more forceful administration responses to certain ongoing conflicts, including the NATO intervention in Libya and the deployment of U.S. Special Forces in support of joint operations against the Lord’s Resistance Army.
In general, the Secretary’s tone in her discussion of the administration’s preventative efforts was one of measured optimism. This changed towards the end of her talk, when she briefly addressed the ongoing atrocities in Syria.
She spoke frankly about the limited entry points available to the U.S. government, explicitly placing a large amount of blame for the lack of progress on the Russian government. She emphasized that the situation in Syria epitomizes the most fundamental and intractable challenge faced by those who are committed to an atrocities prevention agenda: the ability of only a few countries (in this case, Russia, China, and Iran) to undermine a process supported by a large majority of the international community. She went into little detail about the administration’s efforts to respond to atrocities in Syria outside of the Security Council framework, aside from a brief reference to training and other non-military support being provided to opposition groups. Without saying so explicitly, she seemed to hint that, in the absence of Russian cooperation with international efforts to pressure the Assad regime, such aid to the opposition is one of the few remaining options available to the U.S. government.