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Beyond Kony: How to Prevent Atrocities Before They Happen

The following post by Michael Abramowitz, Director of the Museum's genocide prevention program, originally appeared on Nicholas Kristof's New York Times blog: On the Ground. The last few weeks have brought more evidence of the power of individuals—whether movie stars like George Clooney in Sudan or the little known creators of the Kony 2012 viral video—to shine a light on the world’s worst crimes. This kind of attention is usually for the good, forcing government leaders to confront dire situations that do not typically get the kind of policy focus they deserve. But public notice is only a start if we truly are to end genocide and other forms of mass atrocities inflicted on citizens by the likes of Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Governments everywhere must also have the tools necessary to generate solutions even when the public isn’t paying attention, and there’s ample evidence that when it comes to preventing the worst forms of violence against civilians—war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide—they don’t. Here in the United States, for instance, the State Department regularly sends its diplomats out to hotspots with no specific training in recognizing the warning signs for mass atrocities. Our intelligence community has historically devoted many more of its assets to traditional foreign policy problems—terrorism, political instability or nuclear proliferation—and viewed mass atrocity crimes merely as a proxy measure of regime stability. The Pentagon has reams of plans for major combat operations in the Middle East and other traditional war zones but is only now starting to develop the doctrines and guidance for coping with mass violence off the beaten path, a regrettably common scenario in recent years. And when crises do erupt, as they are now in Sudan and Syria, our government and others who genuinely want to stop human suffering are handicapped by a dearth of practical options for responding. Policymakers regularly see themselves as faced with a choice between full-scale military intervention and doing nothing beyond rhetorical condemnation, a recipe for paralysis. It is this lack of effective response options that saps the will of governments in either acting preventively or responding to these crimes. Recognizing this conundrum, the White House last year mandated a new government-wide plan for atrocity prevention. Borrowing from the recommendations of the bipartisan Genocide Prevention Task Force, it announced it would create a new Atrocities Prevention Board, composed of senior officials from across government, empowered to develop new tools and contingency plans to detect and address threats of genocide and mass atrocities. Agencies were also ordered to come up with better tools to foresee and prevent future Rwandas and Srebrenicas, situations in which the U.S. and international bureaucracies dithered until it was too late to stop the slaughter. President Obama himself last August described preventing such genocides as a “core” moral responsibility and national security interest of the United States. “Sixty six years since the Holocaust and 17 years after Rwanda, the United States still lacks a comprehensive policy framework and a corresponding interagency mechanism for preventing and responding to mass atrocities and genocide,” the president wrote. “This has left us ill prepared to engage early, proactively, and decisively to prevent threats from evolving into large scale civilian atrocities.” We have yet to see how such a framework might work in practice, in part because the Obama administration has yet to outline exactly how its new Atrocities Prevention Board will be structured and resourced. It is hard, perhaps, to tout new structures when confronted with real-time atrocities in Syria and Sudan. But the pentagon, state department and other agencies have already adopted plans for supporting the work of the new board. And in theory, the new framework—offering a vehicle for generating options and galvanizing a bureaucracy that has often failed to produce action in the case of past genocides—might be of huge benefit to this and future presidents in avoiding future crises. We know from history that mass atrocities have taken place on the watch of presidents of both parties, from the Holocaust during the Roosevelt administration to the killing fields in Cambodia under Ford, to Rwanda and Bosnia under Clinton, and Darfur under George W. Bush. While presidents do not typically campaign on these issues, they frequently end up regretting not doing enough after their terms are over. Think what a message it would send if this year the presidential nominees of both parties committed themselves to ensuring the creation of a strong Atrocities Prevention Board, and a framework for preventing these worst crimes from happening again. While there are many divisive issues on the plate this election year, preventing genocide should not be one of them.