President Obama Announces the Atrocities Prevention Board

Today marks a major turning point for the anti-genocide movement in the United States.  President Obama announced the creation of a Atrocities Prevention Board which will help ensure the government has the “mechanisms and structures” to prevent and respond to civilian protection crises.  The announcement came after an extensive study, directed by the National Security advisor, that assessed existing crisis response infrastructure, protocols necessary for the board’s creation, and how the intelligence community could best assist prevention efforts.  He gave his remarks at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum nearly nine months after a presidential directive declared mass atrocities and genocide prevention a national security priority and moral responsibility.  In his speech, Obama reaffirmed the importance of past and current genocide prevention strategies such as international diplomatic pressure on Bashar al-Assad and his allies.  He added a need to punish foreign nationals who use new technologies to limit social organizing.  Moreover, the President also reinforced the need for a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis by using targeted sanctions.  He concluded by reaffirming one of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine’s key principles which says that the right to national sovereignty includes an obligation to protect civilians within respective states. If that obligation is not fulfilled, the international community has a responsibility to respond.

The board will consist of members from several government agencies working in conjunction to streamline and operationalize prevention and protection measures.  More specifically, it will institutionalize cooperation between civil society, military, and diplomatic actors such as the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, USAID, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The group will meet monthly to implement policies that will utilize the reach of all relevant U.S. government agencies

According the the directive issued in August 2011, the goals of the Atrocities Prevention Board are to “ensure: 

(1) that the US national security apparatus recognizes and is responsive to early indicators of potential atrocities; 

(2) that departments and agencies develop and implement comprehensive atrocity prevention and response strategies in a manner that allows "red flags" and dissent to be raised to decision makers;

(3) that the US increases the capacity and develop doctrine for our foreign service, armed services, development professionals, and other actors to engage in the full spectrum of smart prevention activities; and 

(4) that the US is optimally positioned to work with its allies in order to ensure that the burdens of atrocity prevention and response are appropriately shared.”

In other words the Atrocities Prevention Board is heavily geared toward recognizing and swiftly responding to early warning signs of mass atrocities. Based on that data, relevant government agencies will develop a comprehensive collaborative strategy to effectively respond to crises.  Moreover, the board will work with international partners to maximize supranational coordination.

Another implicit goal of the Atrocities Prevention Board is to avoid situations like Rwanda in the future.  In 1994, President Clinton failed to coordinate with foreign policy agencies as 800,000 Rwandans were killed in about one-hundred days.  Ad hoc, disaggregated responses from the international community once again proved ineffective.  The focusing of interagency prevention work and lessening of bureaucratic red tape will hopefully quicken response times. 

The Atrocities Prevention Board announcement comes as two major (and other) conflicts are killing civilians.  Violence along the Sudanese border between lingering SPLA soldiers, Sudan, and South Sudan is increasing as disputes over oil revenue sharing and land ownership remain unresolved.  Meanwhile, Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on Syrian protesters continues into its thirteenth month leaving over 10,000 civilians dead.  However, the new board will, in theory, be better equipped to proactively respond to crisis such as these.

Policy experts and youth advocates should embrace today’s announcement.  However, today is merely a step in the right direction that will require a sustained commitment to civilian protection.  Students must work alongside professionals in pressuring the administration to uphold his commitments.  Meanwhile, they must also continue transformative advocacy that is shaping a new human rights narrative that more fully respects local civilian populations.  Constituencies who are not fully incorporated into policy-making such as civil society in conflict areas and diaspora groups living in the United States must be taken into consideration.  Finally, the Atrocities Prevention Board provides an opportunity to view conflicts are intersectional processes involving environmental change, women’s rights, minority rights, military operations, and diplomacy.  Let’s use our leverage as informed student activists to continue developing a progressive human rights framework that better serves civilian populations.  

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