All-Points Bulletin: Mass Atrocity in Progress
Last month, President Obama announced the launch of an Atrocities Prevention Board to be chaired by renowned mass atrocity expert Samantha Power. The APB marks a new era in U.S. government commitment to anticipating and preventing mass atrocities, incorporating resources from multiple departments and a series of high-level actors charged with direct and public accounting for the Board’s findings. As a statement of U.S. commitment to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, it is an important and necessary undertaking.
But so what? As noted realist Stephen Walt describes, with echoes among national security hawks, the Board’s objectives focus on improving intelligence, developing more diplomatic policy options, and cross-department information sharing. As a theory of change, the theory seems to be that if the government knows more, it can and will do better. Among those who monitor and report on human security threats and mass atrocities, the idea that simply knowing more will readily equate to doing more is an idea worth skepticism. (Walt also notes that ‘doing more’ doesn’t necessarily mean doing good.) From the Holocaust and Rwanda to Syria and Sudan-South Sudan, more often than not Washington has known what was happening – and failed to act.
However, what the theory lacks, the Board’s objectives may supply. There is no straight line between having information about a potential mass atrocity and taking the steps necessary to prevent it; that requires a series of actions, often at multiple levels of government, over a period of time.
Well-executed, the APB should foster the development of those actions and the creation of new ones better targeted to civilian protection objectives. (Relying on sanctions, for instance, is an oft-noted half-step before military intervention, but it can have terrible consequences for civilians.) Even better, the APB should – with the willing cooperation of the intelligence community now charged with estimating the global risk of mass atrocities and genocide – be able to anticipate threats far enough in advance to generate more innovative options that can function well before atrocities take shape.
Two factors stand out as indicators of whether the APB will succeed. First, it needs to be adopted by the intelligence community charged with increasing its collection and analysis of human security threats. Faced with major budget cuts, these agencies may not be particularly amenable to a new mandate.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has already advocated for nearly 50% reductions in the government’s purchase of commercial satellite imagery – the kind of imagery that the State Department widely released in one of its more overlooked actions against the Syrian regime. (Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also released related images.) This isn’t to suggest that the intelligence community is unable to utilize its resources to accurately assess the civilian protection threats in Syria, Sudan, or other crisis zones; it is more a question of prioritization in an age of even more limited means.
Another factor will be the tempo of the APB’s actions, findings, and reports. The Board is currently slated to meet “at least monthly to oversee the development and implementation of atrocity prevention and response policy, and additionally on an ad hoc basis to deal with urgent situations as they arise.” Given the current pace of events around the world, those ad hoc sessions could easily become the rule rather than the exception. That could be the only way to go – but by setting a standard that’s reactive by design, the APB could be set up to fail in the same crisis culture that contributed to the ‘oversight’ of Rwanda’s genocide.
Ultimately, what the APB represents is a commitment to civilian protection elevated within the U.S. government’s other commitments to its national interests. It is not a promise that this commitment will necessarily trump those other priorities – indeed, its findings may still mirror those priorities depending on how the various departments and agencies contribute. But as a measure of U.S. commitment to its Responsibility to Protect, it is an important step. The responsibility of human rights advocates, then, is to keep lighting the way for the next steps to follow.
Caitlin Howarth is a Truman Security Partner.