In April 2012, President Obama went all-in rhetorically when he asserted that preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a "core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States." Such statements are in part an outgrowth of the American public’s horror at the genocide and atrocities of recent decades in places like Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. But as the limited U.S. response to the ongoing conflict in Syria illustrates, there is not yet a full understanding of the centrality of preventing mass atrocities to our national security.
Today, in addition to the fighting in Syria, brutal conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and areas of Central Africa that are plagued by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army continue to result in the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, especially affecting women and children. These kinds of conflicts cross borders and perpetuate regional instability, inevitably drawing in U.S. diplomatic, humanitarian, and sometimes military resources. The shock and outrage we feel in the face of atrocities such as the rampant sexual violence against women in the Congo, Burma, and elsewhere should motivate us as a nation to find solutions.
Establishing a sustained national commitment to preventing atrocity crimes will require the creation of informed and active constituencies both within government and among the general public. In this effort, the next administration, regardless of who wins the election, will have the full support of a coalition of 22 human rights organizations and individuals that identified atrocity prevention as a priority human rights concern in the recently issued "10 Critical Human Rights Challenges for the Next American President."
The Obama administration responded to pressure from current and former policymakers as well as advocacy groups by creating the new Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), which builds on recommendations from the Genocide Prevention Task Force. If fully realized, the APB would represent a seminal moment in initiating a "whole of government" approach to tackling atrocity crimes. The APB, chaired by the National Security Council, is designed to work across agencies–including the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Treasury and the CIA–to more effectively utilize existing diplomatic and intelligence capabilities while also enlisting new tools, such as better targeted sanctions and innovative technologies for early warning. However, so far the APB has been a top-down initiative that lacks full acceptance by rank-and-file officials in the State Department and elsewhere.
If the APB is to be accepted and integrated into the relevant departments, the right bureaucratic incentives must be established. The tendency to view human rights concerns as a nuisance is deeply embedded in the State Department and the Pentagon, and those officials who care–and there are many–are forced to fight to have their voices heard. If raising concerns about pregenocide situations continues to be seen as a distraction from the perceived priority of promoting good bilateral relations with the host government, officers will be reluctant to take the lead on these issues. The next administration needs to signal strongly and repeatedly from its highest levels that atrocity prevention is a major priority, and that those who work effectively on the issue will be recognized and rewarded.
Nongovernmental organizations are also an essential part of atrocity prevention, providing early warning information from the field in atrocity-prone regions. To be successful, the APB must not only develop a more defined role within the government, but also build more effective partnerships with outside groups that work on these problems.
Beyond the vital task of institutionalizing atrocity prevention within the bureaucracy, the next administration needs to consistently send the message to the public and Congress that preventing genocide and mass atrocities is in the national interest. The new secretary of state should reinforce the fact that preventing atrocities in fragile states means avoiding crises of displacement and insecurity that necessitate the commitment of even greater U.S. resources and lead to long-term instability. In Congress, there are strong champions from both parties dedicated to preventing atrocity crimes, and the next administration should collaborate closely with them to see that sufficient resources are appropriated for this work.
Finally, strengthening the International Criminal Court (ICC) is an essential element in any effort to end the culture of impunity that prevails in regions vulnerable to atrocity crimes and replace it with a principle of deterrence. The value of such deterrence should be evident to administration officials and members of Congress who are concerned with optimizing resources for conflict prevention and crisis response.
The president’s statement in April was a potent expression of the gravity with which Americans view atrocity crimes. Turning rhetoric into reality and fully engaging U.S. capacities to prevent and punish these abuses will require a long slog through interagency meetings, congressional markups, and public debates. But it is a worthy goal, and we are embarked as a nation on the right path to achieve it.
This blog is part of the series "Ten Critical Human Rights Challenges for the Next President," sponsored by Freedom House. The series will feature renowned experts writing on some of the top human rights issues that should be addressed by the presidential candidates and the next administration. As the candidates participate in policy debates we look forward to a lively discussion of these and other important foreign affairs issues facing our country. For the full series please visit the Freedom at Issue Blog.