Credit: Miriam Lomaskin/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum hosted a symposium, Ending Genocide in the 21st Century, on July 24. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave the keynote address, which was followed by several discussion panels. However, even after the event, a fundamental question remains unanswered: when confronted with all the signs of an impending genocide, what should governments do?

As far as emerging or ongoing crises are concerned, our policymakers appear to be as paralyzed as ever. This failure underscores the need for prevention, but also lays bare another critical area in which the United States must improve: response. With ongoing atrocities in places like Syria, Sudan, Burma and the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is no time to lose.

To be sure, the community of advocates concerned with ending genocide and mass atrocities has made notable gains over the past decade. The conference was a good reminder of that. The legitimization of prevention and intervention under the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, and the creation of new offices such as the United Nations Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, has given advocates new language and new focal points for this work.

At the symposium, Secretary Clinton focused her comments on the new Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), which is a high-level task force pulling from a broad spectrum of government agencies designed to prevent and respond to genocide and mass atrocities. The creation of the APB certainly represents a milestone for anti-genocide activism. The creation of new preventive tools emerges from important reflections on the global community’s failures in Bosnia and in Rwanda. The reflection has been healthy, and has led to some potentially important new vehicles for protection and prevention of mass atrocities in future. But, this still leaves the United States facing critical failures in its response to current and ongoing mass atrocities in places like Sudan and Burma.

As our activists are aware, over a year ago the government of Sudan began aerial and ground attacks on the people of Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. At this time last year, many of our friends and allies were joining us in calling for action to stave off imminent and deliberately-caused mass starvation. Now, thousands of people from the Nuba Mountains are flooding into refugee camps in South Sudan, and the hundreds of thousands more that remain behind are at risk of starvation. This is intentional, deliberate violence caused by using food as a weapon of war. Panelists agreed that food was being used as a political tool in the region. However, they were unable to suggest what appropriate intervention to stop such violence, either as an early response or at the current crisis point, should look like.

In Burma, which Clinton failed to mention entirely, we pointed out that 800,000 Rohingya people are stateless and at imminent risk of mass violence. In the aftermath of recent violence, they are completely vulnerable. Many of their homes have been burnt to the ground. Hate speech, a key indicator of future violence, is rampant. They have nowhere to go. Those who have tried to flee to neighboring Bangladesh have been turned back. The government has made statements that further exacerbate the Rohingya community’s vulnerability. The plight of the Rohingya offers a clear example of incipient violence targeted against a particular ethnic and religious minority in a pattern that is consistent with possible genocide. We have all the early warning signs, and yet neither the U.S. government nor any others in the international community are taking any measures at all to prevent likely violence. Why isn’t the system working to intervene in such an obvious case as this?

During the panel discussions following Clinton’s speech, audience members asked question after question about what should be done when we see the signals of atrocities, how we should respond to early or even late warnings, but the experts had no answer.

In the end, I was left with the sense that, while activists now have a target in the Atrocities Prevention Board, it is insufficient to resolve the critical problems it seeks to address.  Gathering and coordinating information is only useful if it triggers effective response.

So, who is responsible for responding?  The question was pointed back toward the activists, suggesting that once information is gathered, human rights advocates have an important role to play in publicizing that information, to sound the alarm.  Certainly, advocates can be helpful, but if we are sounding the alarm to governments, what then?  The conference left us in a conundrum: the early warning systems are good because they can alert advocates,  but advocates do not yet have any targets that we can count on to respond.

At the end of the day, we need systematic, and, preferably, internationally agreed-upon responses to the early signals of potential mass atrocities. Of course, responses will be different and uniquely tailored to each crisis, but there must be action. We continue to have our work cut out for us, lest the Atrocities Prevention Board, and other structures like it, simply turn out to be cul-de-sacs.

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