Why the White House Atrocity Prevention Initiative Matters

August 6, 2011

The recent release of the Presidential Directive on Mass Atrocities has generated some criticism.  In large part, this criticism is a result of the lack of action from the Administration to end violence against civilians in Sudan. However, it is this ongoing violence that underscores the critical need for improved systems. In recognition of these current challenges, the release of the directive, the prioritization of mass atrocity prevention, the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board and the development of additional tools in the fight against genocide are developments to be acknowledged and pushed further.

Bec Hamilton notes the need for improved prevention and response systems in her blog when she quotes from the conclusion of her book, Fighting for Darfur:

Putting aside the question of whether to act, U.S. officials must do an enormous amount of work to position themselves to save lives if they do decide to act. Darfur was a particularly challenging case for the U.S. government at the multilateral level. But even in a future situation in which the United States has sufficient unilateral level to change the behavior of a government committing atrocities, it will not be in a strong position to do so unless U.S. officials have addressed the coordination and capacity deficits within the U.S. government in advance.

After emphasizing those three sentences from her book, Bec goes on to say that the:

…announcement is a great first step, provided the taskforce is empowered to “mainstream” atrocity prevention throughout the unwieldy bureaucracy that is the U.S. government. Too often these sorts of initiatives end up sidelined by the regional bureaus within the system. But this is something that citizen activists can, and should, work to ensure does not happen here.

I, for one, couldn’t agree more. Building on Bec’s point, there’s something that been in the back of my mind for quite some time that bears mentioning in the context of this conversation. It’s the reality that the longer governments wait to act and the more a conflict (or conflicts in the case of Sudan) drags on, the fewer and fewer the options available. This isn’t to say that there aren’t things the U.S. government can do now to support peace in Darfur, South Kordofan and throughout Sudan. However, the list of options the Administration has today is much less than would have been available years ago when conflict first began. I’d argue even further that the options available now are also much less effective than those that could have been leveraged years ago.

If only past Administrations had thought to prioritize the prevention of mass atrocities, what a difference it could have made for the people of Darfur and South Kordofan! A rejection of the Administration’s new effort marks a denial of the elephant in the room: right now the United States has limited capacity to prevent and respond to atrocities. Further, hurdles continue to exist that work against a rise of political will. Until we deal with these underlying challenges, I’m afraid the U.S. will continue to be limited in its response to crises.

The U.S. needs to incorporate the lessons that have been learned from the Darfur experience (i.e.: need for structures, coordination, additional resources and early action) and think creatively about any other potential points of leverage that might exist (i.e.: tools). The Administration must continue to encourage a whole-of-government approach and get buy-in from all corners of the bureaucracy (“mainstream” as Bec mentioned). The faster structures are developed and tools created, the faster they can be applied to ongoing response efforts and prevention initiatives. This isn’t to say that these changes–once instituted–will be a “cure” for any specific crisis, but we can certainly use all the help we can get.

My biggest fear is that Sudan advocates will fail to recognize how critical the Administration’s recently announced effort is and–instead of pushing to ensure the creation of robust and effective structures and tools–will continue to reject these advancements. Most unfortunately, such a rejection would come at the expense of action to resolve both ongoing and future crises.

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2 Responses to “Why the White House Atrocity Prevention Initiative Matters”

  1. Sharon Silber said

    If genocide could be stopped by the formation of a committee or creating a new government agency, that would be great. But stopping genocide always requires the will to act. There seems to me to be something obscene about posturing about stopping future genocides while failing to stop a genocide in which people are dying right now.

    • Thanks Sharon. The point of this post was to underscore that the President’s actions do not amount to posturing, but that–in fact–the creation of new structures and tools are necessary in the fight against genocide.

      Bec Hamilton’s book and the Genocide Prevention Task Force Report make the critical point that political will is only one piece of the puzzle in the effort to prevent and respond to mass atrocities. Both texts describe gaps in structures and tools that must be improved if the U.S. government is to be effective. I wholeheartedly concur with this assessment based upon my experience. Further, dozens of organizations are also in agreement and have worked to support efforts to improve capacities around response and prevention.

      Certainly, President Obama could be doing better right now in terms of leadership/political will in responding to atrocities in Sudan (and elsewhere around the world). Real leadership is–and will continue to be–needed, but at the same time capacity must also be improved. This is why the White House initiative is so critical. If implemented well, the Atrocity Prevention Board and related improvements will matter a great deal. It’s the difference between success and failure moving forward.

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