The establishment of the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB)--a new interagency body unveiled yesterday by President Obama--represents a major advance in the U.S. commitment to counter genocide and mass atrocities. If the APB functions as intended, it will make a real difference to the effectiveness of the U.S. government in meeting the challenge of these horrific crimes.
To those familiar with the many failures to act quickly to the threat of mass atrocities in the past, this is a big "if." Generating the political will to react to warning of mass atrocities has proven to be immensely difficult, and often the response has been too little, too late. Previous efforts to redress the institutional weakness of the U.S. government to prevent mass atrocities have also not fared well. An initiative in the late 1990s to improve early warning and institutional response to mass atrocities did not outlive the Clinton administration.
The creators of the APB appear to have learned the lessons of these earlier efforts in several ways. First, and most importantly, they have emphasized from the beginning that this effort has the clear backing of the president, who has categorically declared the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide to be "a core national security interest and core moral responsibility of the United States." This sends a strong signal to the rest of the government of the priority of this mission.
Second, the APB will not be just another interagency coordinating mechanism. It is to be made up of senior officials from a dozen agencies--at assistant-secretary level and above--and, moreover, be driven out of the White House by a senior adviser to the president. It will meet monthly and in emergency session if necessary. The Deputies Committee will also convene twice a year, and principals once a year, to review its work. In short, the APB will not lack for means to bring concerns to the highest levels of the U.S. government.
Third, after six months of fine tuning, a presidential executive order will be issued that spells out the structure, functions, priorities,and objectives of the Board. While not guaranteeing its existence beyond the Obama administration, an executive order will certainly improve its chances.
Expectations for the APB have to be kept within reason. Its primary mission is to avert atrocities before they happen, at least on a widespread scale. Success will be hard to demonstrate publicly. It is also coming late to the unfolding crises in Syria and Sudan, among others, and thus its performance should not be judged by how well it does in the days and weeks ahead.
Other initiatives announced yesterday--new sanctions on those who help the Syrian and Iranian regimes crush dissent through the use of information technologies, visa bans on those suspected of carrying out human rights abuses, and more targeted financial penalties--will add to the tools at Washington's disposal in these and subsequent crises.