Co-authored by Dan Sullivan, Director of Policy and Government Relations at United to End Genocide. Follow Dan on Twitter @endgenocidedan
In this era of fierce partisanship, policy makers and activists alike can look with pride to President Obama’s establishment last year of the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) — an ambitious endeavor bringing together high-level officials across the U.S. government to focus on the critical mission of preventing genocide and other mass atrocities. The APB’s creation marked the culmination of years of work by human rights activists and policy makers spurred by the horrors of Srebrenica, Rwanda, and Darfur. Their work resulted in wide public awareness, a proliferation of research, and a proclamation by the President that preventing mass atrocities is a “core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”
Now — a year and an election later — as Syria burns, the only public reporting on its efforts is a brief fact sheet that does much to illuminate efforts and success across specific agencies, but little to illuminate any broader strategy for atrocities prevention. The APB has been virtually invisible, making many wonder if the president’s gallant initiative has stumbled before it has even left the gate. Since the president’s speech at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in April 2012, the APB has generated few stories and held even fewer consultations with Congress, its partners, or its biggest supporters outside the government. Some now question whether atrocities prevention has once again been sidelined.
But despite appearances, the APB is up and running. Over the last several months, the Board has been quietly convening meetings and tackling the job of crafting new tools to bolster U.S. responses to brewing atrocity situations, scrutinizing crises that could escalate into genocides, and reforming bureaucratic processes so that another Rwanda or Syria doesn’t slip through the cracks.
So why has the APB shown such reluctance to let the public know of its work? Some think the administration fears it would look feckless publicizing the APB in the face of the Syrian crisis. But the truth is, it already has. An untimely roll-out of the APB, which had little to do with the Arab Spring or the slaughter in Syria, had the unintended effect of highlighting the administration’s inaction in the Middle East. Others speculate that the administration fears more transparency could expose the APB to greater criticism, political opposition, or even obstruction. But the risk the APB’s lack of transparency brings is far greater: the risk of actual failure.
At the end of the day, the APB needs support from Congress, civil society, and the public to succeed. The mission of preventing atrocities requires substantial resources and human capital across a spectrum of agencies, international organizations, and technical specialties over several years. It requires expertise and a constant inflow of information from those closest to the crises, whether they’re NGOs operating on the ground or local activists witnessing widespread attacks on civilians. And it requires the critical momentum of public support to drive the government to take risky and decisive action to prevent genocide. Indeed, seven out of 10 Americans believe that preventing atrocities is a national security interest and that the United States should work to prevent these crimes from happening. One need not look further than the Save Darfur campaign to see that the public can be a powerful partner, not a hindrance, to U.S. action. These critical players cannot be left out in the cold.
Preventing genocide is everyone’s business. Congress and the public deserve to know what the administration is doing to tackle America’s most haunting foreign policy challenge. They have a right to know how their government is working to ensure mass atrocities don’t happen in places like Burma, where other foreign policy interests appear to incentivize taking a softer stance even as attacks on civilians take place. They deserve to know how the APB will act when it comes to countries that need it the most, such as Guinea or Burundi — forgotten places where few U.S. national security interests exist. They deserve to know how the APB will make sure these cases don’t go the way of Auschwitz or Darfur.
The APB can no longer go it alone. It must start building the crucial partnerships it needs with Congress and civil society to move its important mission to the next phase. The APB can start with these concrete steps: First, set up briefings and regular consultations with Congress and NGOs and start developing the transparency they have long been demanding. Second, issue an Executive Order laying out the government’s strategy for preventing mass atrocities and its plan for carrying out such a strategy. And last, President Obama, on the anniversary of the APB’s creation and every year, should reaffirm the U.S. commitment to preventing genocide and mass atrocities. American leadership, in words and in deed, is essential in the struggle to prevent genocide.