Can the United States stop mass atrocities before they happen? The answer should be yes, but over the course of history there are precious few examples where the U.S. has taken effective action. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
Seeking a more proactive approach to genocide prevention and saving lives, President Obama created the Atrocities Prevention Board in April 2012. Now, more than two years later, and in the wake of U.S. efforts to protect Iraqi Yazidi’s under siege by ISIS last month, James Finkel in collaboration with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has released a new report assessing the board’s effectiveness. And given the number of human rights challenges faced over the course of Obama’s administration, including genocidal attacks or mass atrocities in Darfur, Burma, Syria, and Iraq, the APB has not been idle.
In its first two years, the Atrocities Prevention Board has received both criticism and praise. The APB received praise for raising critical attention to potential precursors of genocide happening in Burma and Kenya. They have also begun to look at the potential factors of atrocities in Africa and how working with U.S. officials can lessen that risk. For example, thanks to the efforts of the APB, the Department of Treasury has placed greater focus on the money trail that leads to the people and groups committing these crimes. By enforcing sanctions and other various tools to hinder their ability, a department that previously had little to do with genocide and atrocity prevention is making an impact.
One of the central criticisms of the Atrocities Prevention Board has been the lack of transparency. Both Congress and the public know little about the APB‘s activities and objectives. Case in point: the agency lacks even a simple website. In addition, the APB was created as a “budget neutral board”, meaning that they cannot spend money on new initiatives, limiting the effectiveness of its recommendations. It is also difficult to tell when a genocide has been prevented, adding to the challenges the APB faces in proving its effectiveness.
Beyond the technical challenges, the APB has been criticized for its failure in alerting the public of potential genocides and pushing the U.S. into action before atrocities occur. Syria and Iraq are prime examples. However, the civil war in Syria had already begun when the board formed. In Iraq, the government did not decide to intervene until ISIS posed a potential threat to the U.S. By that time, the Yazidis were already in imminent danger.
Yet, the work of the Atrocities Prevention Board is vital. Finkel argues that if the APB can establish a common understanding of what genocide prevention means (in his opinion, early warning and response to potential crises), convince the government to listen, find the resources to address the issue, and move to action, the lives of those at risk of genocide and mass atrocities could be saved.
Finkel makes a number of recommendations to improve the APB, ranging from increasing the size and resources of the APB to conducting research on what triggers genocide and atrocities, the connection to economics, and the link between physical integrity violations and the escalation of the crisis. He also argues that Obama and his administration must publically reiterate the importance of genocide and atrocity prevention.
To be truly effective, the APB needs to find their place within the bureaucracy and streamline their objectives with existing departments. The APB provides an important intra-agency link, but with no budget and little public support due to a lack of information, the APB has a very limited ability to make an impact on the U.S.’s foreign policy.
With the right organizational changes and sustained support, the Atrocities Prevention Board can survive into the next Administration and offer key perspectives and recommendations on genocide and atrocity prevention.