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A Conversation with Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken

Preventing Genocide in the 21st Century 

The American narrative includes stories of past generations escaping difficult times in all different parts of the world, and that history informs and shapes our actions today. As Deputy National Security Advisor to President Obama, Antony Blinken, noted during “Preventing Genocide in the 21st Century,” a part of the Museum’s 20th anniversary commemoration, this is certainly true in his case. In a wide ranging conversation with Mike Abramowitz, Director of the Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide, Blinken described his family’s history of surviving the Holocaust, escaping communist Hungary and fleeing pogroms in Russia. Today, in his role on the National Security Council, this descendent of Holocaust survivors plays an instrumental role in formulating US government policy for preventing genocide and mass atrocities.

Blinken characterized the US Holocaust Memorial Museum as a “living institution” because it gives life to those who perished by preserving their memory and their stories, and it turns the act of remembrance into a tool for preventing genocide in the future. As an example he pointed to the 2008 report of the Genocide Prevention Task Force, which the Museum co-sponsored. He mentioned how that report “animated our work” and “inspired our ideas” when President Obama defined the prevention of genocide as a “core national security interest” and directed a review of the government’s prevention capabilities.

As a result of that review, the administration adopted several key recommendations of the task force, including the formation of the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB). As Blinken noted, for those outside government, it can be difficult to grasp how important processes are for day to day operations. But the APB is a “major innovation” in the way government operates because it looks over the horizon to identify areas at risk in order to act before the situation gets out of control, and it scans across the government for innovative tools to prevent genocide. Acting early is critically important, because the options narrow as situations deteriorate, and the government is then forced to react rather than respond proactively with the widest scope of actions available.

Reflecting on the US and the international community’s inaction in Rwanda, Blinken said that those who were in government, including himself, were scarred by that experience, which serves as a motivating factor for how they approach these types of problems today. He noted that while grave situations that are tremendously frustrating persist in places around the world, including Syria, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, making prevention a priority, enhancing early warning mechanisms, and strengthening prevention assets at home and abroad make a repeat of Rwanda less likely.

Commenting on the situation in Syria, Blinken asserted that the administration had taken a number of steps to confront the suffering there, but these actions were not yet enough to change the situation on the ground. These steps included: isolating the regime politically and using sanctions to reduce the availability of funds for co-opting supporters; contributing the largest amount of humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees and reducing the impacts on host nations; building up the capacity of the opposition; and preparing for the day after the Assad regime falls to prevent the state from collapsing and fragmenting. Blinken recognized that more than a decade of war has made both the public and policy makers cautious about engaging in another conflict in this region of the world. He indicated that the president is continuing with his deliberate attempts to drive this situation toward a managed transition, thereby avoiding a failed state situation with the potential for dangerous weapons to end up in the wrong hands.

As examples of effective prevention, Blinken talked about the separation of Sudan and South Sudan without a relapse to war, the removal of the former president of Cote d’Ivoire after he was defeated in national elections but threatened to hold power through force, and the international intervention to prevent an impending mass atrocity in Benghazi, Libya.

Blinken also talked about accountability for mass atrocity crimes as a moral and strategic imperative that is a vital component of the US government’s prevention strategy. Citing impunity as a driver of mass atrocities, he emphasized the importance of efforts to deny perpetrators the ability to get away with impunity, such as increasing cooperation between the US and the International Criminal Court.

Abramowitz summed up the discussion by indicating that over the last twenty years, the world has taken important strides toward ending genocide, but there is still much work to be done to make good on the promise of “never again.”