April 23, speaking at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, President Obama announced that he had ordered the development of government-wide strategies for finding ways to intervene before mass killings take place.
The Presidential Study Directive (PSD-10) and the executive order on which these actions are based result from America lacking a comprehensive strategy for preventing mass atrocities. An Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), a high-level, interagency structure responsible for developing atrocity prevention and response strategies for the U.S. government, will coordinate this work.
In his speech he also announced new, tougher rules barring all serious human rights violators from entry into the United States.
The move has been strongly criticized on the right, with Fox News mocking the creation of what they called an ‘Atrocities Czar,’ and with the left predictably saying that America should ‘look for abuses in its own back yard first’. Many have criticized the name ‘Atrocities Prevention Board.’ The Christian Science Monitor asks ‘Will Obama’s new atrocities board lead to more Libya-style operations?’ But there has been less partisan and more thoughtful criticisms too.
Trevor Thrall, an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University, writes in The Atlantic that:
“It is difficult to contest the general logic of Obama’s finding that the United States and its allies have been ill-prepared to prevent mass atrocities. What is less difficult, however, is to worry about where we might wind up if the United States finally puts its money where its mouth is and creates an infrastructure for intervention.”
“Which mass killings are we responsible for? All of them? What counts as a mass killing? Why is nine thousand in Syria almost enough to get the United States involved but several million in the Congo was not? Without a clearer articulation of the conditions under which the United States will act to prevent mass killings, this effort starts to look more like political theater and less like sound policy.”
“Yes, there are cases where a relatively small investment of attention and action would have paid huge dividends — Rwanda comes to mind. But for every Rwanda, there are many that look more like Bosnia, Syria, Somalia or Sudan, where problems cannot be fixed without getting deeply involved in resolving multilateral civil conflicts and nation building,” argues Thrall. “In those cases, getting involved at all risks getting involved all the way and, in turn, risks being involved for a very long time at great cost. Given our track record in those sorts of conflicts, I am not sure improving our infrastructure for intervention is a good idea.”
“The time to help people is before things get that bad. This is not always possible either, of course, but it does not require killing people, and it at least holds the possibility of creating the conditions for peace and stability that will make military intervention unnecessary.”
Thrall believes that the proposals are too militaristic, but NGO Human Rights First argues that the all-of-government approach actually does answer his worries.
They point, as one example of “a broad scope of tools and resources that the U.S. government can deploy for this important mission,” to the use of financial levers, a mechanism that will be used by the Board to allow the Treasury Department to more quickly use financial tools to block the flow of money to repressive regimes. They say that a comprehensive strategy can identify and pressure not only the direct perpetrators of mass atrocities, but also third-party enablers – individuals, companies, and countries that provide the material and technical means on which perpetrators rely to carry out attacks on civilians.
Stephen Walt of Foreign Policy magazine also offered thoughtful criticism (“it is another manifestation of the American obsession with global police work”) and decently published a response from Andrew Miller of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action. Says Miller:
“New bureaucracies often create more problems than they solve. But, the APB is a worthwhile (albeit, modest) attempt to improve the government’s mass atrocity prevention and response efforts. A close look at the board shows that it has the potential to both avert atrocities and lessen the likelihood of humanitarian interventions — outcomes that realists, of course, can welcome with open arms.”
Again, Miller argues against assumptions that the new approach would inevitably be about military interventions. It’s the opposite, he says. Because it is inter-agency, this “will help make the military less of a go-to institution for dealing with atrocities as has been the case since the end of the Cold War.”
“With a preventive approach, the United States can save more lives while expending less blood and treasure. Preventive tools such as economic sanctions or threats of prosecution used to deter would-be perpetrators and protect would-be victims are almost always cheaper and less risky than large-scale military operations.”
Like many on the left, like Coleen Rowley’s boilerplate attack, Walt sees the APB as just another example of American “smug self-congratulation.” But, says Miller, “if one takes a victim’s perspective, however, this smugness seems less relevant.”
The world has said “never again” a number of times since World War II. In all the criticism and cynicism about this development, I don’t think I’ve read one counter-proposal of what the U.S. government can or should do. As Human Rights First’s Elisa Massimino puts it:
“Successive administrations have recognized that preventing genocide and crimes against humanity is in the national interest of the United States. Finally, there is a concrete effort to put that rhetoric into action and create a standing prevention structure within the U.S. government.”
Watch President Obama’s speech:
Rwanda Genocide Memorial picture by configmanager