President Obama Directs New Atrocity Prevention Measures

In the decades since the world first pledged “never again,” the U.S. response to mass atrocities and genocide has confronted several challenges. First, governmental engagement on atrocities and genocide often arrives late, when opportunities for prevention have been missed.  Second, senior decision-makers are often not personally engaged because there is a government-wide assumption that there is little that can or will be done. And third, too few other international players step up to try to prevent atrocities, and come under little domestic pressure to do so. As a result, too often, we and the rest of the international community have later regretted not taking diplomatic, political, economic, legal, and military steps that might have prevented the loss of tens of thousands of lives. In 2008 the Genocide Prevention Task Force, co-chaired by former Secretaries Madeleine K. Albright and William Cohen, found that preventing genocide was an “achievable goal” but one that required a degree of governmental organization that matches the kind of methodical organization that accompanies mass-killings. 

This week, President Obama directed a comprehensive review to strengthen the United States’ ability to prevent mass atrocities. The President’s directive states plainly that: “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.” The directive creates an important new tool in this effort, establishing a standing interagency Atrocities Prevention Board with the authority to develop prevention strategies and to ensure that concerns are elevated for senior decision-making so that we are better able to work with our allies and partners to be responsive to early warning signs and prevent potential atrocities. The directive recognizes that preventing mass atrocities is a responsibility that all nations share and that other countries must also be enlisted to respond to particular crises. Therefore, the directive calls for  a strategy for engaging key regional allies and partners so that they are prepared to accept greater responsibility for preventing and responding to crimes against humanity. 

Over the past two years, the Obama Administration has devoted enormous time and energy to better equipping our Government, and the international community as a whole, to be able to respond meaningfully to potential (and actual) atrocities.  He is the first president to establish a position at the White House responsible for policy on war crimes and mass atrocity.  In Sudan, we launched a full court diplomatic press that helped ensure that the South Sudan referendum occurred on time, thereby preventing the outbreak of mass violence that would have accompanied a delay.  In Kyrgyzstan, through engagement at the highest levels, we helped bring about the creation of a formidable international commission of inquiry to investigate the causes of the ethnic killings there and to prevent relapse into conflict.  In Cote d’Ivoire, we facilitated a robust international effort to protect civilians, while maintaining firm resolve that strong-man Laurent Gbagbo had to step down.  In Libya, as civilians were being targeted by their own leader for ruthless attack, we mobilized – with unprecedented speed -- an international coalition, operating with a mandate from the Security Council and at the request of the Libyan people and the Arab League, to protect civilians endangered by Qadhaffi.  When indicators of a potential relapse into conflict emerged around the constitutional referendum in Kenya, we worked with international partners and Kenyan leaders to support a peaceful and credible process.

We know that often holding those who have carried out mass atrocities accountable is at times our best tool to prevent future atrocities.  As such, we have engaged in an intensive effort to create a variety of international mechanisms charged with uncovering the facts and identifying those responsible for gross human rights abuses in Syria, Libya, Kyrgyzstan, Cote d’Ivoire, and have announced our commitment to accomplish the same in Burma. We have also intensified our focus on finding the world’s most wanted fugitive war criminals, mobilizing interagency focus and resources towards apprehending those who must face justice.   We offered our full support to the Government of Serbia as it successfully pursued the final remaining fugitives from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, who were apprehended this year.  

In addition to the Presidential directive, which makes clear the level of priority attached to preventing mass atrocity, we are taking another important step forward in our effort to hold accountable human rights abusers by, for the first time, barring entry into the United States of persons who organize or participate in mass atrocities, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or other serious violations of human rights.   Existing U.S. law renders specific classes of human rights violators inadmissible to the United States – such as participants in genocide, torture, or extra-judicial killings. However, before today, the United States did not have an explicit bar to admission on the basis of participation in other serious human rights or humanitarian law violations or atrocities.  The President’s Proclamation fills this gap, and by enumerating these grounds for denying admission to the United States, policymakers will have a new tool to warn groups that have carried out, or may be about to carry out crimes against humanity, war crimes, and related abuses , that their conduct falls within explicit standing bans on admission to the United States.  As such, we will be able to more effectively shame those who are organizing widespread and systematic violence against civilians based on ethnicity, religion, or other protected characteristics. In banning would-be organizers of human rights violations as well as perpetrators, it allows the United States to act expeditiously before planned atrocities metastasize into actual ones.

We know that the steps this administration has taken are not panaceas to the horrifying violence being perpetrated around the world against civilians. Even today, we see violence against civilians from Syria to Sudan. But President Obama has directed us to scrub every option and bring as many levers as possible to bear in trying to influence the calculus of those promoting ethnic, religious and other forms of mass violence. The Obama administration takes very seriously its responsibility to do everything that we can to prevent atrocities, and -- with the President’s Directive and his Proclamation barring human rights violators from entering the United States -- President Obama has given the US government two new tools in the effort to meet this responsibility.

 Read the Fact Sheet

Samantha Power is Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights. David Pressman is Director for War Crimes and Atrocities
Related Topics: Human Rights, Foreign Policy
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