Earlier this month, US President Barrack Obama directed the National Security Advisor to create an Atrocities Prevention Board which will be tasked with co-ordinating the US government’s policies on the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide. In addition, the President also launced a US interagency review which will, inter alia, develop the membership, mandate and structure of the Atrocities Prevention Board but which will also identify:
steps toward creating a comprehensive policy framework for preventing mass atrocities, including but not limited to: conducting an inventory of existing tools and authorities across the Government that can be drawn upon to prevent atrocities; identifying new tools or capabilities that may be required; identifying how we can better support and train our foreign and armed services, development professionals, and build the capacity of key regional allies and partners, in order to be better prepared to prevent and respond to mass atrocities or genocide.
In a Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities, issued on 4 August, the President stated that:
Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.
Our security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods. America’s reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide. Unfortunately, history has taught us that our pursuit of a world where states do not systematically slaughter civilians will not come to fruition without concerted and coordinated effort.
Governmental engagement on atrocities and genocide too often arrives too late, when opportunities for prevention or low-cost, low-risk action have been missed. By the time these issues have commanded the attention of senior policy makers, the menu of options has shrunk considerably and the costs of action have risen.
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 actions that can be taken are many they range from economic to diplomatic interventions, and from non combat military actions to outright intervention. But ensuring that the full range of options is available requires a level of governmental organization that matches the methodical organization characteristic of mass killings.
Sixty six years since the Holocaust and 17 years after Rwanda, the United States still lacks a comprehensive policy framework and a corresponding interagency mechanism for preventing and responding to mass atrocities and genocide. This has left us ill prepared to engage early, proactively, and decisively to prevent threats from evolving into large scale civilian atrocities.
The work of this Review and Board will be of great interest to those academics working on prevention of genocide and other international crimes. In recent years, there has been renewed focus on the question of prevention of mass atrocity. Indeed, the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (of which I am Co-Director) is engaged in a project on “Prevention and Responsibility to Protect” which is looking at these very questions. The project is led by my colleague, Prof. Jennifer Welsh.