The Central African Republic had finally exploded. After months of signs that the country was a powder keg, with dire warnings of impending doom from the United Nations and human rights observers, outright clashes ignited the capital, Bangui, in early December. Hundreds were killed. Thousands more fled their homes, those who had not already done so in the eight months since the crisis first began. For a period, it looked as though the world was preparing to sit idly by yet again as another mass atrocity was perpetrated on the continent of Africa.
Two days later, it was like a switch had been thrown. The president of the United States asked for the people of the CAR for calm, speaking to them directly through the Internet and radio. The president shook $100 million loose from the federal budget, to purchase much-needed supplies to the African peacekeepers struggling to stem the killing and airlift in reinforcements. And on Thursday, Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, announced yet another $15 million in humanitarian aid and the pending presence of U.S. military advisers to assist the African Union’s forces in restoring peace.
Activists and U.S. officials alike say that the speed at which the United States has responded is unprecedented and part of it is due to a little heralded document and the bureaucratic tool it created. Presidential Study Directive 10 (PSD-10) came into being in 2011, declaring for the first time that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” Never before has an official document so bluntly said that the United States’ “security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods. America’s reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide.”
The cornerstone of this directive was the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), an interagency panel meant to draw expertise and ideas from across the federal government on how to prevent mass atrocities before they gain traction. Drawn from 11 agencies — including State, Defense, Treasury, Justice, the CIA and others — and represented by high-ranking officials, the APB was designed to be both a forum for long-term strategic planning as well as emergency response to developing crises. It would seem that the situation in the Central African Republic would be a prime case for the APB, after a lackluster first year of existence. Even fans of the administration’s approach found themselves criticizing the Board for not effectively working to prevent the mass slaughter being seen in Syria.
Now the CAR was leaping ahead from terrible to horrifying. Since a collection of rebels who called themselves the Seleka took power in March, civilian life in country had become hellish in nature. Officially disbanded, Seleka marauders raped and pillaged their way across the country, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing into the bush. In the fall, Christian communities organized themselves into armed vigilante groups — called “anti-balaka,” or anti-machete — to take their vengeance against the mostly Muslim Seleka.
The resulting fighting has taken on a sectarian tone, with members from both sides engaging in wholesale slaughter of communities and innocents. “We are seeing armed groups killing people under the guise of their religion and my feeling is that this will end with Christian communities, Muslim communities killing each other,” U.N. special advisor on the prevention of genocide Adama Dieng warned in October. “If we don’t act now and decisively I will not exclude the possibility of a genocide occurring in the Central African Republic.”
“I think that does represent a really important shift for what we would’ve seen even ten years ago,” an atrocities prevention activist told ThinkProgress about the early designation of the CAR as an atrocities prevention situation. With that in mind, advocates began pressing early in the crisis for the APB to be activated. “As the situation in the CAR started deteriorate, we in the [atrocities prevention] community felt that the [dealing with the] various ingredients of deterioration in the CAR were precisely what the APB was created to do,” Madeline Rose, Legislative Associate for Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, told ThinkProgress. The red-flags that the APB was designed to send up the chain at the White House needed to be unfurled, Rose said. “So because of that, we’ve been leading this campaign to start pushing the U.S. government to start activating in real-time these structures that have been created for this precise situation,” she continued.
The alarm bells that had started ringing in NGOs and advocacy groups in March wouldn’t quiet as summer came and went, leaving advocates to begin leveraging the APB as an accountability mechanism with the administration. “You have the situation where there’s increasing sectarian violence in this forgotten country, this is precisely the type of situation that the APB was created to address,” the atrocities activist said. “And that is the message that we’ve been sending to the White House and other participating agencies, saying ‘you need to activate this interagency mechanism to be drawing more attention politically to the escalating violence.’” The warning that a coalition of activist groups published in October would be sound in meetings with administration officials up to and including a meeting with the National Security Staff on December 9. The next day, amid the chaos of his trip to South Africa to attend Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, President Obama recorded his message to Central Africans while on a layover for refueling in Senegal.
The White House insists that it has always had the APB at the forefront of the response to the situation in the Central African Republic. “Departments and agencies across the U.S. government are working in close coordination and through all of the appropriate interagency mechanisms — including the Atrocities Prevention Board -– to address the crisis in the CAR,” Jonathan Lalley, a deputy spokesperson for the National Security Staff, told ThinkProgress. “The U.S. response to this crisis reflects the Administration’s commitment to pursuing effective preventive measures and supporting our partners as they do the same.”
According to one senior administration official, the Board has not only been meeting monthly since its inception, it has had least two meetings solely dedicated to the Central African Republic. It was in the long-term meetings, where possible threats and mass atrocities, that the looming crisis first was discussed, the official told ThinkProgress, even before the Seleka takeover in March. The response to CAR has been the “high water mark” of the Board, the official continued, noting its role in laying the groundwork for swift action in recent weeks as nearly 1,000 were killed over two days in December.
“What’s critically important is that when the cork started to come out of the bottle, the administration was completely poised and ready to act,” the official said. “Part of the reason for that is because you had senior people from all these agencies coming together every month and seeing the CAR on a piece of paper as a place where things could go bad.” The two years since the APB was founded, he continued, allowed the government to have spent the time developing the tools needed and to act without needing a conversation about why the U.S. needed to take action, but instead focus on how to react.
Other Obama administration officials sung the Atrocity Prevention Board’s praises during a hearing on Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on African Affairs. Earl Gast, the USAID Assistant Administrator for Africa, told the panel that the APB helped come up with comprehensive approaches to dealing with human rights issues, and on the CAR had led to a number of recommendations,” including several regarding peace-building efforts at the community level. “That’s from the knowledge and wealth of all the agencies that have taken part in the Atrocities Prevention Board,” he said.
“I think the Atrocities Prevention Board gave us the tools to come together as an interagency, and in fact gave us a lot of direction as we looked at the humanitarian needs and looked at the situation there,” echoed Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
The use of radio programming to help rally the people of Rwanda into killing their neighbors during the 1994 genocide is clearly unforgotten within the U.S. government. “The APB has been particularly focused on developing communications strategies that ensure that messages that relate to inter-religious tolerance from the U.S., as well as from voices in the the CAR are widely disseminated,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “We looked at all kinds of mechanisms — we’ve used [Voice of America], we’ve used text messaging to the extent that that works,” she said, adding the decision to have President Obama directly address Central Africans “came about as a result of our actions on the Atrocities Prevention Board.”
This second-wind for the APB couldn’t have come at a more fortuitous time, given the new title of its primary advocate. Samantha Power originally held the seat at the head of the APB, the result of her role on the National Security Staff as the Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights. Power’s appointment to that role was considered a huge move towards affirming the centrality of atrocities prevention in the Obama White House, given her previous history as a journalist and activist. Her book on genocide in the 1990s “The Problem from Hell” was a Pulitzer prize-winner and considered a searing indictment of the inactivity the U.S. government showed at the time and she harnessed that previous career into serving as the primary author of PSD-10. Now as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Power is walking the halls of the organization that she so roundly criticized for being ineffective at protecting civilians in Rwanda and Bosnia.
CREDIT: Associated Press
Some have criticized her performance at Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing as wavering on her past idealism, given the somewhat bland answers she provided to her questioners. Since then, she’s thrown herself into her new role, speaking out on Syria and South Sudan and by all appearances helping spearhead the charge on addressing the Central African Republic. On Thursday, Power landed in the CAR to see firsthand the situation on the ground. “Just landed in #CentralAfricanRepublic,” she tweeted. “Thousands sheltered at airport seeking safety. Has become a giant, makeshift refugee camp.”
“We know from history that in the early phase of conflict and violence that is motivated by ethnic or religious tensions that there are key moments to change the calculus of individuals on the ground who every day are making decisions about whether they want to take the side of peace or take up arms and begin to target their neighbors,” Power said to NPR in transit to Nigeria, her first stop before the CAR. “Central African Republic is in one of those periods right now where people are making those choices every day.”
It was on the ground in the CAR that Power made the surprise announcement that the U.S. military would become involved in the crisis, though not in a combat role. The exact number of military advisers being sent to the Central African Republic has yet to be revealed, nor if they would be drawn from the contingent that is already advising countries in the region as they pursue members of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Power also pledged $7 million to go towards reconciliation efforts between the CAR’s Muslim and Christian communities, whose representatives she met with while in the country.
For all the successes it appears to have helped move forward, the APB is still at its core just one of many interagency policy committees, as activists and officials reminded ThinkProgress. While it has certainly helped formulate policy, it hasn’t been a silver bullet to end the crisis in the CAR, nor has its presence neutralized all points of contention between the administration and NGOs. One activist that ThinkProgress spoke to specifically cited the delay in providing emergency humanitarian aid to Central Africans as one area in which the administration has been stumbling. Separately, the senior administration official noted that the NGO community “doesn’t have particularly solid assessment” of what humanitarian aid is even needed at the time. In a fact-sheet released on Thursday, the White House indicated that an interagency assessment trip led by USAID Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Affairs, Nancy Lindborg, would touch down in January to determine the needs of Central Africans.
The United States has also proven somewhat gun-shy when it comes to pulling the trigger on a full-fledged U.N. mission in the CAR, instead opting to support the African Union mission already on the ground and France’s desire to send 1,600 of its own forces. “We live in a fiscal environment where our pots of money are not getting bigger,” an administration official told Foreign Policy. “But it’s not dispositive. The United States has put substantial skin in the game on CAR.”
Power made that same point in a meeting with reporters earlier this month. “What matters right now to the civilians whose lives are hanging in the balance is actually not the color of the helmet of those tasked to protect them,” she said. “What matters is whether the troops there move out aggressively to protect civilians and to restore security.”
For now, French troops are working with African forces to end the violence between communities so that the 639,000 displaced and scattered into the bush and across the borders can return to what’s left of their homes. Even as Power’s trip concluded, heavy gunfire could be heard in the capital. The new outburst of violence in the neighboring South Sudan will also help make clear whether the Atrocities Prevention Board is positioned to swing into action once again or revert to idleness. And it will take time to see if the efforts thus far are nearly enough to stop the bloodshed, or if it will be back to the drawing board in a few months’ time. But at least in the Central African Republic, unlike 1994, it seems as though the world actually is moving to prevent genocide before it actually occurs.
(Lead Photo: U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power meets with peacekeepers from Burundi in the Central African Republic)