Obama Announces Atrocities Prevention Board: ‘Sovereignty Is Never A License To Slaughter Your Own People’

By Sarah Margon

(Photo: AP)

Earlier today, on the heels of Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Obama gave a long-awaited speech on the U.S. government response to genocide and atrocities prevention. It was a remarkable speech that illustrated the unprecedented attention this administration — and this President in particular — has paid to addressing atrocities around the globe. Specifically, Obama’s speech illustrated the central role civilian protection has played within his foreign policy by noting that “national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your own people” — whether in Libya or Cote D’Ivoire.

The President outlined a number of important initiatives geared toward creating a more cohesive and effective government-wide strategy to combat atrocities. Some of these initiatives have been underway for some time — including the creation of the first-ever White House position dedicated to preventing and addressing war crimes and atrocities or the visa-ban issued to ensure human rights abusers do not enter the United States.

One of the newer initiatives the President announced today was the formal establishment of the Atrocities Prevention Board, or APB, created under the 2010 Presidential Study Directive which declared mass atrocities and genocide to be a “core national security interest and core moral responsibility.” The APB, comprised of senior government officials across nearly a dozen government agencies, will meet regularly to help identify and address atrocity threats. It will also help manage the governmental bureaucracy — and recommend any necessary changes –- to ensure a more effective and cohesive response. With its inaugural meeting later today, the APB emphasizes the centrality of atrocities prevention within President Obama’s foreign policy agenda.

Another notable new initiative is an executive order that authorizes sanctions and visa bans against those who commit or facilitate grave human rights abuses through information technology. For now this executive order is specifically related to the ongoing brutality in Syria and Iran but there is great potential for expansion, particularly because these sanctions target not just governments but companies who enable such abuse.

Taken together, these initiatives are long-overdue and welcomed tools. Of course, there is no “one size fits all” model for preventing atrocities, particularly given different actors that are involved and varying methods employed to commit such abuse. As Obama spoke today, the situation in Syria continues to devolve rapidly and clashes between Sudan and South Sudan are escalating.

To ensure these policies have teeth and are around long after Obama leaves office, the administration needs to do a few key things, some of which have been highlighted for action under the APB. First, the explicit integration of genocide prevention with long-term conflict prevention, especially in light of the 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, or QDDR, which elevated civilian protection and conflict prevention within the State Department and at USAID. While there are differences between the two, the nature of today’s conflicts means close coordination can help avoid interagency tensions and ensure that specific policies complement each other.

In addition, robust support for wider governance and rule of law programs –- such as effective judicial and security sector reform –- will be essential to help protect civilians over the long term as they mitigate the potential for atrocities and abuses to occur. A 2011 groundbreaking World Bank report on conflict, security and development noted that “strengthening legitimate institutions and governance to provide citizen security, justice, and jobs is crucial to break cycles of violence.” Currently our programs in this area are so weak they often undermine development and democracy promotion agendas.

Finally, expanded training for diplomats and development experts deployed to conflict or conflict prone environments can contribute significantly to defusing crises. The 2011 Failed States Index noted that 35 countries merit “alert” classification — the highest level of vulnerability for collapse or conflict. As a joint CAP-Humanity United report noted, ensuring that government officials have the right training and skill sets may be only one piece of the puzzle but it is long overdue and can help guide smart policy making, whether on the ground or back in Washington.

Years of underinvestment in civilian tools have hindered the U.S. government’s ability to help prevent atrocities around the globe. By harnessing the power of multiple agencies and working closely with Congress to employ a full range of tools, the President can now accelerate his commitment to a more coherent and comprehensive response. A worthy goal, to say the least.