President Obama’s Atrocity Prevention Board: one year later

In 2011, under Presidential Study Directive-10 (PSD–10), President Obama created the Atrocities Prevention Board. In his landmark speech, Mr. Obama recognized mass atrocity and genocide prevention as “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” Officially established in April 2012, the board was a major step in the improvement of the United States’ efforts to act “before the wood is stacked or the match is struck.” The creation of this board, particularly in the American context, constitutes a significant step towards the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide.

Last week, the White House published a factsheet summing up the purpose and record of the Board.  But while the creation of the Board must be saluted, one year later I have mixed feelings about the impact of the Board’s efforts as described here. The factsheet appears a little too self-congratulatory and fails to mention shortcoming 

  • The Board as an inter-agency Atrocities Prevention Board: too much bureaucracy?

What the factsheet reveals is that the Board, as an inter-agency body, has created a highly bureaucratic and technical framework responsible for improving our capacity to prevent mass atrocity crimes. Indeed, the body is composed of senior representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Justice (DOJ), Homeland Security (DHS), the Joint Staff, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Office of the Vice President and the National Security Staff. According to its mandate, the Board “coordinates the development of new policies and tools (…) to enhance the capacity of the United States to effectively prevent and respond to atrocities.” Thus within the board’s agencies, new doctrines and tools have been created in the past year.  

But while the Board is responsible for coordinating and prioritizing efforts, could the accumulation of agencies, research and tools, as well as the highly bureaucratic, technical and technocratic character of the Board make timely action and decision-making actually more complex? Although I highly welcome the creation of the board, this is my fear in the long run. This week, I attended a presentation at the Canadian Parliament given by Dr. Mukesh Kapila, the former Head of the UN in Sudan who was abandoned by his peers as the Darfur genocide unfolded. Speaking to parliamentarians and deputies, Dr. Kapila rightfully argued that institutions have lost their human side, and that we have therefore also lost our capacity to hold individuals accountable when they fail to act. Where are the individuals behind the institutions, he asks? This is my fear with the prevention board: that it could be another set of faceless agencies, a complex bureaucratic system that manages problems but does not solve them. As Dr. Kapila argues, institutions, such as the UN, have gotten coward and need to be served by people again.

  •  Policies and tools: from creation to political will to act 

Over the past year, the Board’s individual agencies have undertaken research and created a number of tools and policies responsible for improving the U.S.’ capacity to prevent mass atrocities. These elements include new analytical frameworks, “alert channels”, recommendations about data collections, and best practice handbooks. This is important. Governments, policymakers, military personnel and civil servants should be given the appropriate tools and knowledge to prevent mass atrocities. But when time comes, these tools must also be used. It is one thing to create a set of early warning systems, alert channels or to use new technologies but it is another thing to act once the risk assessment has been made. Management is the minimum requirement, leadership and political will to act are the real tools.

  • Case studies: the good and the bad

The White House factsheet refers to specific cases in which is Board’s has been involved in the past year, including Burma, Kenya, central Africa, and Syria. Some of the more successful initiative include US and UN efforts to address the problem of armed groups in Central Africa, in particular the LRA and the M23 that are perpetrating atrocities. The United States (USAID and the State Department for example) has indeed contributed to peacekeeping capabilities and civilian protection in various ways.

But the picture is less positive elsewhere. According to the fact sheet, “the U.S. Government is playing an important ongoing role in supporting efforts to address violence and protect vulnerable communities” in Burma. But what is actually being done? Two weeks ago, Human Rights Watch published a report clearly condemning ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in Burma: “The Burmese government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement.” Reports of human rights violations committed against this Muslim minority have actually been emerging for months. Not only has the Burmese government failed to address these violations but local authorities have also stood by while these crimes were being committed. They are complicit in the violence because they stand by while abuses are being committed. Furthermore, the Burmese government’s attitude towards of Rohingya and other minorities, some of them portrayed as stateless people and illegal migrants, has encouraged and rationalized exclusionary practices and abuses. While Burma has made several efforts in terms of democracy, the world has been quick to lift sanctions in order to develop economic ties with Burma, thereby leaving human rights considerations aside. The US along with the European Union only expressed worries or urged the government to act on human rights issues but nothing else has been done. Just last week, new reports of sectarian violence in western Myanmar emerged again. Why is the Board not acting on these issues when the evidence is clearly there?

The Board’s record in Kenya and Central Africa is more positive. This year’s elections in Kenya were peaceful partly thanks to international efforts in voter education and mitigation of potential election violence. However, the major problem remains is that the elected president Uhuru Kenyatta has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in post-election violence five years ago. One of the Board’s mandate is to combat impunity and promote accountability but Kenyatta’s election throws a shadow over the board’s attempt to deny “impunity to those who commit atrocities, at home.

Finally what about Syria? It remains our biggest failure this year. The international community remains in complete deadlock, mostly because we have been waiting for so long. The Board seeks to “share the global burden, by strengthening multilateral institutions (…)” and states that the “United States is working to build the capacity of the United Nations for atrocity prevention (…).” Yet in Syria the regime is killing hundreds of people every week, especially children. There is no miracle solution now only one that may be less damaging than another. Syria is what happens when “we fail to act preventatively before violence is at full blaze.”

I highly welcome the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board and encourage other countries to do the same.  But we must also guarantee the board a) is governed by people, not of faceless agencies that manage problems instead of solving them, and cannot be accountable b) puts emphasis on successes and shortcomings in order to learn lessons. 

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