Charting the U.S. Atrocities Prevention Board's Progress

Monday, March 30, 2015
Murad Sezer/Courtesy Reuters
Sarah Sewall

Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, U.S. Department of State

Jared Genser

Managing Director, Perseus Strategies, LLC

Sarah Sewall, undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights at the U.S. State Department, joins Jared Genser of Perseus Strategies to discuss the U.S. Atrocities Prevention Board's progress over the last three years. Sewall discusses the board's origins within the U.S. foreign policy and national security establishment. She goes on to emphasize recent instances of successful atrocity prevention with U.S. intervention, including the rescue of Iraqi Yazidis from the Islamic State group in 2014. Sewall additionally offers her assessment of how the Board will evolve and outlines the challenges it may face in the future.

GENSER: Good evening. My name is Jared Genser and I'm a human rights lawyer here in Washington. And I'm very pleased to welcome undersecretary of State Sarah Sewell to the Council on Foreign Relations.

In Presidential Study Directive 10 issued by President Obama in August of 2011, he said "preventing massive atrocities in genocide is a core national interest and is a core moral responsibility of the United States."

Coming from this study some three years ago the president established the Atrocities Prevention Board, whose whole of government approach facilitated by the National Security Adviser and including high-level representatives from a range of agencies aims to strengthen the capacity of the U.S. government to prevent and respond to mass atrocities.

In addition to representing the State Department on the APB, Undersecretary Sewall has also overseen efforts within the State Department to realign and coordinate its efforts on atrocity prevention and response. Tonight we'll speak with her about the administration's work in this area and about the APB, both successes as well as challenges.

Here's how we'll proceed. Undersecretary Sewall will first make some opening remarks for about 15 minutes. I'll then engage her in some further conversation and follow-up to her remarks for another 15 minutes. And we'll leave 30 minutes for questions, and end promptly at 7 p.m. For the sake of brevity, I'll only note that Undersecretary Sewall has had a distinguished career in government and academia. You can see her rather detailed resume on the program tonight. And with no further ado, Undersecretary Sewall, thank you.


SEWALL: Thank you, Jared. It's wonderful to be here this evening. And thank you all for joining us.

I'm really always happy to talk about atrocity prevention. I know that's sort of a strange thing to say. But for those who are in the community and who have spent much of their lives working to prevent and respond to mass atrocities, we al l know the bond that we share.

And it's really a delight to be with so many of you here tonight. To include senior fellow from the Council, Paul Stares, who is known to many of you as a guiding force in the prevention arena to include atrocity prevention.

But before I get started, I have to explain why, really, truly why I'm here with you tonight. There was an event that reminded me how very important it was to speak publicly about the work that we do in government to prevent atrocities. And it was not President Obama, and it was not Secretary Kerry. It was Alex Trebek.

And this occurred because on—in January on the famous game show Jeopardy, America's brightest trivia contestants were working their way through the category Bad Words. And when they reached the $1,000 question, the most difficult question in the section, Trebek provided this clue in classic jeopardy style.

"In 2012, the State Department put out an APB, a new prevention board for these terrible crimes." "What is an assault?" "Incorrect," Trebek replied. No one else even ventured a guess.


And to make matters worse, it was not entirely accurate, right? The clue was not even correct. The Atrocities Prevention Board was not launched by the State Department, it was launched by President Obama and the National Security Council. And I will confess that I have tried to reach out to Mr. Trebek...


... to clear up this confusion. I have even Tweeted at him, but without luck. So here I am, at the Council on Foreign Relations, the epicenter of IR trivia knowledge, to explain the administration's commitment to elevate within U.S. foreign policy efforts to prevent the mass killings of civilians.

As Jared said, three-and-a-half years ago, the president identified the prevention of mass atrocities as a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States. And he committed this country to becoming a global leader in preventing large-scale violence against civilians worldwide.

He made it clear that the U.S. cannot and should not intervene militarily every time there is an injustice or an imminent atrocities threat. Instead, he called for the U.S. government to use its full arsenal of tools, including diplomatic, political, financial, intelligence and law enforcement capabilities to prevent these crimes before they evolve into large-scale civilian atrocities. And the U.S. government is working now to put these goals into practice.

As one element of this approach the president established an Atrocities Prevention Board, commonly referred to inside the government as the APB. And it brings together senior officials from across government to focus and coordinate their respective efforts.

This interagency group seeks to identify atrocity risks in their early stages, and then develop coordinated, whole-of-government responses to prevent or mitigate them. And each month, as part of an early morning exercise, the intelligence community helps the APB identify countries experiencing or at greatest risk of atrocities.

The board then has an opportunity to consider which cases need additional policy focus. And usually the board bears down on one or two at-risk countries in particular.

And of course the APB process feeds into a larger interagency process of decision making. The APB's work is meant to complement and enhance, not supplant ongoing regional work that is done every day at the State Department and throughout our government.

So in practice this means that the APB is not spending the bulk of its time where threats to civilians, such as Assad's brutalities against the Syrian people, are already well recognized and addressed in ongoing regional policy discussions. Most of the APB's effort is devoted to potential or ongoing violence that might escape focused attention in existing policy fora.

So I apologize for the mind-numbing bureaucratic speak, but as anyone who has worked in government knows, the key to getting things done and effecting change is to be a bureaucratic catalyst, and the APB is a tool to help empower prevention catalysts. It speeds up the cogs of our government's bureaucracy by bringing attention to cases earlier in the buildup to violence and in turn giving the U.S. government or other international partners additional reaction time to plan and implement appropriate de-escalation interventions. And when threats emerge, the APB assists by helping martial personnel, technical expertise and occasionally financial resources to strengthen our embassy-led responses on the ground.

In the intervening three years since president's call to action the U.S. government has achieved significant progress in bringing atrocities prevention into the mainstream of our foreign policy process. The government's new coordination efforts elevate the profile of the issue within the interagency and within the State Department, where I live.

For example, within State, we've established an anti-atrocities coordination group which serves as a kitchen cabinet of sorts in elevating and addressing atrocity risks internally. Regional and functional bureaus collaborate in assessing at-risk cases in the weeks leading up to the interagency meetings. And the prevention perspective is well-integrated into our policy work from Central African Republic to Iraq to Nigeria.

Atrocity prevention is also becoming better integrated into our embassy-level work. Frontline officers are now often the first to sense and report on emerging atrocity risks, and chiefs of mission can request that the APB conduct risk analyses of their host countries, or provide planners to help identify appropriate interventions to mitigate the risk.

Since becoming undersecretary for Civilian Security, I've worked not only to strengthen the State Department's internal response to mass atrocities, but also to build a closer relationship with our key prevention partner, the U.S. Agency for International Development.

For example, pursuant to the J Strategic Roadmap (ph), the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations has begun dedicating expertise and assuming a formal analysis planning and coordinating role in support of APB priorities within State. And as the new hub for State planning and implementation of our atrocities prevention work, this bureau works with USAID to produce assessments of the drivers of conflict in targeted set of countries at risk for atrocities, and produces corresponding risk assessments.

Their new analytic atrocities assessment framework—this is something that's been developed in coordination with USAID, allows CSO to work with the department's regional bureaus to develop evidence-based, civilian-focused intervention options, including diplomatic, programmatic, multilateral and economic efforts.

CSO is also developing a growing collection of best practices that are informing more targeted effective government responses. And the U.S. government has also refined and expanded its tools to prevent atrocities.

So in addition to the traditional levers of influence, such as diplomacy and economic assistance, we now can impose targeted sanctions such as visa restrictions and asset freezes against perpetrators of human rights violations in specific cases.

We also have the first ever National Intelligence Estimate on global atrocities risks, new mass atrocities response doctrine for our military, which I know a little bit about, and a presidential proclamation that gives us an additional tool for watchlisting and denying entry to perpetrators of atrocities and other human rights abusers.

State department and AID are working to empower our frontline officers through a series of internal training programs to identify and respond to atrocity threats. And American diplomats are now monitoring media and political dialogue for dangerous speech.

We've launched initiatives to strengthen and amplify the voices of nonviolent leaders to counter extremist narratives. And our embassies are better equipped to engage community voices, religious leaders, mothers, respected elders, to encourage them to promote messages of peace and nonviolence in their communities.

And this is particularly important in the lead up to the kinds of events that are prone to fueling outbreaks of violence such as elections. And Nigeria's a great example of that.

Let me provide some specific examples to illustrate how the U.S. government is now more prepared to identify and respond to risks of extreme violence. Taking you back in time over about a year-and-a-half ago when the Department's atrocities watchers grew very concerned about escalating tensions in Burundi, this initiated the APB process, elevating the focus on the threat. And State and AID put together an interagency team from both the regional and functional components of the agencies to conduct a thorough analysis of potential risks for violence in Burundi. And this led to a broad diplomatic engagement and a programmatic strategy that was operationalized by the embassy in Bujumbura.

The APB process also galvanized over $7 million in State and USAID funds to address the risks that had been identified in the assessment. And it included—catalyzed the deployment of a prevention adviser to support the embassy in the lead up to the 2015 national elections, which was, as I mentioned earlier, and often is a potential trigger for violence and mass atrocities.

The adviser enhanced the U.S. government's monitoring early warning signals of violence to complement the execution of a set of de-escalation programs that were specifically targeted against potential perpetrators and messengers of violence. And through its programming, the embassy was able to engage local leaders ranging from political parties groups, to religious leaders to facilitate dialogues between regional and national political elites, and to support community stakeholders in their locally developed efforts to prevent conflict.

Let me offer a different example of the APB's impact, here with the example of the Central African Republic. So when violence quickly escalated in that African nation in December 2013, the board's atrocity prevention experts worked hand-in-hand with regional bureaus as senior leaders from across government identified key interventions, including from DOD, AID and State. And together we marshaled up to $100 million in assistance. We were funding everything from peace and reconciliation programs to the purchase of vehicles for peacekeepers, to critical life-saving humanitarian assistance. And now we support U.N. forces with their planning and coordination.

And when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant drove tens of thousands of members of the Iraqi Yazidi religious minority from their homes last year, the APB helped catalyze a swift USG response.

Its intervention helped ensure that local information collected by the embassy and by the State Department's Office of Religion Freedom was able to inform the U.S. strikes against ISIL that degraded ISIL and gave local Kurdish military forces enough momentum to break the siege and free the Yazidis from their entrapment on Mount Sinjar.

Now although I've shared with you my confident assessment of the progress that we've made and some examples thereof, and I think it's fair to say that the U.S. government's initial atrocities prevention efforts have registered very many important achievements, clearly challenges remain. And chief among these are resource constraints.

While the APB coordination process doesn't require any funding, effective prevention tools certainly do. They depend on resources, particularly sources of funding that can be accessed quickly and deployed quickly. And in a constrained budget environment, we often see prevention needs that we are unable to meet.

Of course, in addition to building our own capacity, we're seeking to encourage and collaborate with like-minded partners. I recently led a group of State and USAID officials to meet with U.N. interlocutors who oversee issues of atrocity prevention in New York. Not atrocity prevention in New York, they are in New York where they work to oversee atrocity prevention. And our collaborative dialogue is one that I hope we'll be institutionalizing in the years ahead to ensure greater connectivity among concerned actors.

We're integrating mass atrocities prevention into ongoing bilateral and multilateral diplomatic discussion such as the U.S.-E.U. civilian security and development dialogue.

In closing, it's no small feat to try to change the way any government does its business. Institutional change is a difficult and slow process. Yet we have begun to make enduring progress integrating an atrocities prevention lens into the government's policymaking. And we're working to strengthen agency capabilities and to institutionalize those capabilities within agencies, as well as to strengthen the APB itself.

Some observers have expressed dissatisfaction with the Obama administration's commitment to prevent mass atrocities across the globe, and I can understand their perspective. The APB has not halted violence worldwide. In its three years of existence, it has not protected every civilian from governments, insurgents and terrorists.  Yet, as imperfect as our efforts are, they represent undeniable progress, both in symbolism and in concrete results. And as we approach the APB's third anniversary, we're certainly closer to realizing the president's intent that the U.S. government embraces the mission of preventing mass atrocities.

It's my hope that there years from now, the United States will have made its decision-making tools, resources and actions even more effective in preventing mass violence against civilians.

President Obama took a bold step in 2012 by elevating concern about mass atrocities as a foreign policy priority. "Atrocity prevention" he said, "is not just a matter of values, but also an issue of national security."

And the president acknowledged that it can be tempting to throw up our hands and resign ourselves to man's endless capacity for cruelty. But he also reminded us that Elie Wiesel and other Holocaust survivors chose never to give up, and nor can the United States of America. Thank you.  


GENSER: Well, thank you for those very useful and illuminating initial remarks. I wanted to talk to you for a few minutes to try to get behind some of what you're talking about.

One of the biggest challenges, I think, in atrocity prevention is measuring your success because if you succeed, nothing happens. In other words, you've prevented a mass atrocity situation.

Obviously there're other examples where you're on the verge of a mass atrocity situation that it's clear to see where you've had an impact. But how does the APB, or how do you at the State Department look at measuring success in your work on an ongoing basis?

SEWALL: I think what's fair to say right now, Jared, is that we are, at this point in our efforts, focusing more on outputs than outcomes, in part because they are easier to measure. We can see where we have moved a policy process or garnered resources or had an impact on statistics in a particular way. But it's harder to measure success because, as you said, the success is the non-barking dog. And so that will always be, I think, an enormous challenge.

I think anecdotally when we hear from ambassadors that we equipped them with tools to make a difference in their country, that serves as a pretty good proxy for now. And likewise, there have been governments that—and particularly in post-election when there is a transition of power, the follow-on government will express its great thanks for the work that the United States more broadly has done to help ensure a safe and peaceful transition and election.

So those are some of the ways that we currently satisfy ourselves with. And I'm sure that again in three years' time we can move to a better metric.

GENSER: And how do you strike a balance between having the U.S. be visibly viewed as engaging on atrocity prevention and intervening to prevent atrocities, versus the desire for a range of actors to engage with the government in discussing these things?

And by that, you alluded to several concerns from civil society. One of them is that I think that the APB itself has been very much like the proverbial iceberg, which isn't entirely surprising given that many of the briefings are classified and what is doing—is being done is classified. But the APB itself has not been very visibly publicly, nor has its work. And so how do you see striking the balance over time with the American public being able to understand what any administration, this or future administrations, are doing to advance atrocity prevention, and to get the American public behind this work as well?

SEWALL: Well, I think part of the reason why I'm here tonight is because I'm very committed to doing as much as I can to speak about both the progress and the challenges that we face as a nation and indeed as a global community in addressing atrocity crimes. I think that this is one of those rare issues where I don't sense a partisan divide at all.

I think all Americans from every walk of life, every side of the aisle, are very proud of America's tradition in promoting and protecting human rights. And generally certainly in the abstract feel that we should do more. And so I think that there is a great need to communicate more fully about the president's directive and about the ways in which we are seeking to ensure that a bureaucracy cannot deaden itself to the human costs overseas.

But I think that in part because, as I just confessed to, you know, some of this is real bureaucratic speak that probably is not necessarily congenial if even understandable by many Americans. And I would love to think that process didn't matter and that bureaucracy didn't matter. But I can fully confess after a year back in government, it does.

So that's not a very easily translatable piece of the story. It's a very important part of the story. But then you also have the difficulty of galvanizing a process to care about a problem before it's a visible problem. And that is a perennial challenge on the prevention work, as many people in this room well appreciate. And everyone agrees in principle that prevention is much more economical and much more desirable and far better than the alternative. But it's difficult to galvanize attention and resources for that work.

So I think that the more we can talk about those challenges and the possibilities that exist to make a difference, the better it is. And of course try to do that in a way that is both concrete, but not in any way tied up in government deliberations, I think has perhaps been perceived as a challenge. And I'm doing my level best to square the circle.

GENSER: At the outset, before you arrived in government, the APB had been consulting with civil society more intimately. And I'd be interested to know your thoughts as to your view now looking back over the last three years—only one of which you've obviously been back in government—to what the vision is for the APB and how it might engage further with the Congress or with civil society as it undertakes its work, acknowledging, obviously, that certain things that it does are never going to be public or capable of being public.

And maybe in a lot of cases it will be passively receiving information. But there're—I mean, do you see further channels for civil society and the Congress to be engaging with the APB?

SEWALL: Well, I can't speak to the earlier because I wasn't in government. But in the year that I've been at the State Department, I've had a number of roundtables with civil society to talk about the atrocity prevention work that we're doing both at State and more broadly within the U.S. government. And I have had an opportunity to speak at a variety of gatherings of civil society groups. And as I said, I'm committed to reaching out to partners in the United Nations, to partners in bilateral dialogues and other multilateral fora.

So I can't speak to what the NSC role in that is. But I can say that I see it as a wonderful opportunity both to learn from people who are truly expert. You know, many people have spent their careers in this field. And many have very particular areas of expertise in regions of the world that are actually extremely useful for the U.S. government to learn from.

But I also think more broadly that you know we have to rely on civil society organizations to both keep us honest in our efforts to make progress and to spur us on where we fall short. And I look very much forward to continuing that dialogue.

GENSER: You were talking about partners before in the U.N. They also have seriously limited resources when it comes to the offices of the special adviser for genocide prevention and the special adviser responsibility to protect.

I'm curious because, I mean, the U.S. has been more public and outspoken in creating a framework for engaging on these issues as compared to our usual partners, shall we say, internationally. And I'm wondering from your perspective, engaging with diplomats around the world from various governments, how they have taken to the atrocity prevention approach of the United States and whether any of this might rub off to some extent on other partners and enable more systematic approaches to be taken in other governments.

SEWALL: You know, it's a really interesting question because we frame it as atrocities prevention and we have a particular bureaucratic response that fits our—or seeks to address what we see as the challenges within our government of addressing these issues. Other countries approach the question differently. They may define it differently

For example, you know the UK is very comfortable talking about stabilization work. And we have a stabilization leaders' forum in which we exchange views with a number of like-minded countries about work that includes the atrocities prevention conversation, but also is broader. And I think different governments define both the issue and the challenge, as well as the response differently.

Another example of that is an interesting innovation within the U.N. system, the Rights up Front initiative. And the way in which it is seeking to also be more adept at identifying challenges to human rights early and galvanizing different elements of the system to respond, often behind the scenes, often diplomatically.

So I think there's a variety of responses out there. I don't think we're the only ones that are engaged in this. And again, I think there is a lot of complementarity to the ways that different both organizations and states act. And expanding and regularizing that conversation, which we've begun to do, I think is really an exciting development.

GENSER: And how do you see or how does the administration see its role in atrocity prevention relative to other partners around the world because the United States obviously has an outsized global footprint and capacity. It doesn't change the, I think, moral responsibility and legal responsibility under the Genocide Convention or the Geneva Convention or otherwise.

But I'm curious how the U.S. looks to calibrate its responses on some of the examples you gave, like Burundi or the Central African Republic, and how much it expects from partners for them to be able to put in and to what extent decisions are being made in relation to other partners potentially working with the United States on these issues so we don't go it alone.

SEWALL: Yes. It's a good question. And, you know, I'm thinking about some of the recent experiences that we've had in coordinating vis-a-vis say Nigeria.

I think every case of potential atrocities is—you know, it's like Tolstoy's unhappy families, right? There's similarity everywhere, but there are also very important distinctions. And so the potential for partners to play different roles is going to vary so much by the case.

Sometimes you really need someone who is—who has ties with people that you fear will be the perpetrators. Sometimes what you want are deep historical linkages and ongoing relationships with communities that could be victimized. It depends on history. It depends on geography.

It depends on a lot of different things as to who can be helpful in what ways in the atrocity prevention work. And so it's very much a pickup game, which means that it's creative, but it's a little chaotic in terms of trying to think about all the different avenues that you can use to seek to affect the situation in a way that is—in advancing the prevention agenda.

GENSER: Let me just ask you one last question before we'll open it up to the audience. I'm curious what you see as the biggest challenge in let's say the next year for the administration on atrocity prevention.

You've now been around for a year. You've gotten, I'm sure, knee-deep in all of this stuff and see how the interagency process has played out and how you're working to facilitate this process at the State Department. What are your thoughts as to the biggest challenge at the three-year mark with going from where we are today to where you would like to see it as one of the participants in this process?

SEWALL: I think on the prevention side, I think resources really are a challenge. When I think about the way that we're organized as a government, which is if we have a crisis we can request supplemental funding and we can see the need for it, we need to move swiftly and there's a certain sense of urgency politically and bureaucratically. Such a different scenario than you face on the prevention side. And we don't have dedicated funding for prevention efforts.

And so the—as difficult as the charting out what the right path is, you have then a whole second level of hurdle in terms of, you know, is there any money available? What authorities could possibly be used? Who still has something out? What can be reprogrammed?

It's just if you were designing a process to facilitate prevention efforts, the way we currently do our budgeting is not what you would design. And so I think both the existence of dedicated funding for atrocity prevention as well as the flexibility and access to that funding is a huge challenge.

I think, you know, stepping back and thinking about mass atrocities as a global challenge, you know, clearly the biggest failing that we as a global community have is our inability to respond effectively. And that is a function of a great variety of factors to include the costs of responding.

And so, I think, you know, on an absolute level that's the central challenge. But on the prevention side in terms of the progress of where I think the APB has been able to move and what its promise really suggests, I think there is a more modest ask, but one that can still feel insurmountable in constrained budget times.

GENSER: Absolutely. And the side prevention fund or something. An idea for the Congress, perhaps.

Let's open it up for questions. Just for everyone just to recall, please wait for a microphone before you ask your question. Please stand and state your name and your affiliation. And keep your questions and comments concise so that we can get as many people in the audience to be able to speak.

Professor Tanter? Microphone.

QUESTION: Ray Tanter, the Iran Policy Committee and University of Michigan.

I'm interested in whether when you were at Harvard at the Kennedy School, did you draw upon your work as DASD on peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance? And help to set something up at Harvard, and then set up the same kind of—or reinforce that structure at the Department of State? Because it seems to me—it's unclear to me.

When I was on the NSC staff, President Reagan used to talk about mass atrocities, but he didn't call it that. I'm not sure exactly what he called it.  So—and regards to Madeline, Cashen, Emma and Sophie? No?

SEWALL: I've accused my children of many things, but I have not put them in the same category as the question suggests. So let me just ponder on that for a moment.

We all build on our own experience. And so there's no question that having served in the Department of Defense in a period of enormous humanitarian challenge and a number of experiments and humanitarian response, clearly that had a huge impact, the work that I did after I left government in working at the Carr Center for Human Rights, and in working on the MARO Project, Mass Atrocities Response.

So I think our experience always informs us. And I think that there are many people in government today who have both been in the trenches of trying to prevent and respond to mass atrocities, or who have studied those efforts, who have—are a big part of the reason why President Obama's commitment is beginning to become real.

When I think about the world that I would like my children to grow up in, it is one in which the specific comments that President Obama articulated in terms of mass atrocities being not just a moral—preventing them being not just a moral responsibility but a national security concern, I was—my hope is that the U.S. government and the administrations to come, regardless of their political tenor, will accept that as a given and move forward in continuing to institutionalize our responses.

And where I think—I mean part of the reason why I think it's so meaningful that the APB process and the way we are trying to institutionalize atrocity prevention at State focuses on prevention is because I don't think there is any debate or dissention about the value of doing that where you can use—where you can use diplomatic tools, where you can use smaller amounts of resources and where you can make a significant difference.

And I think where we can tend to see the divide occur in terms of where the government is appropriately responding to mass atrocities worldwide, it's in the crisis stage, post prevention. And so I really believe that there is a deep, a deep row to hoe on the prevention side when it comes to atrocity prevention, regardless of what you call it as you were referring to in the time in which you served.

QUESTION: Thank you. I am Barbara Scheck (ph) from Center for Naval Analyses. I'm interested in kind of the DOD side of things. And I know you interact a lot with DOD.

Thinking for them the sort of mil-to-mil engagements is a big part of hopefully how they sort of help with this mission. What do you see in terms of what we're getting right and what we're getting—you know what we could improve on with respect to mil-to-mil engagements in this vein?

SEWALL: It's a great question. I mean one of the—I used to work a lot with military. I worked more with the military—I think it's fair to say I worked more with the military when I was at Harvard than I do now, which is a lot. But one of the—I think that while there is mass atrocity response doctrine, my impression is that there is a ways to go in terms of it being internalized within the Department of Defense.

I think that there has been more progress on the more narrow, almost tactical angle of production of civilians when we think about our training of foreign peacekeepers, which occurs largely through actually contracts at the State Department. But I think there is much more that DOD could do vis-a-vis military partnerships and capacity building on atrocity prevention.

I think that one of the interesting things in watching the evolution of U.N. peacekeeping is that it is serving so many different functions now. And so I think that U.N. peacekeeping may in fact be an apposite framework in which to engage rather than necessarily having to do it on a bilateral basis because these do tend to be the forces that deploy frequently in a wide variety of circumstances. But they're now engaged essentially in counterterrorism missions and protection of civilian missions and atrocity prevention missions.

And so that might be the most fruitful way for the DOD folks to initially think about expanding their role. But I do think that they have their own learning to do because one of the dangers of importing doctrine is that it means that the machinery hasn't necessarily gone through its own process of intellectually absorbing the concepts and owning and inculcating the standard operating procedures.

And so I think there's more work in that regard to be done as well. But I haven't—as I said, I haven't been working closely with the military for some time.

QUESTION: Stevie Hamilton with the Department of State.

You mentioned, you know, obviously elections are key to sort of this aspect. And with Nigeria, I know it's not over. But can you tell us maybe some of the early lessons learned and how this may sort of lead toward a future template?

SEWALL: I think it would be really dangerous to talk about the Nigerian elections right now because historically of course the violence in Nigerian elections occurs more in the days following the results than it does in the days during the elections themselves. And because as you know, we're waiting for the results, I would prefer not to talk about that particular case.

But what I can say is that I think there's been enormous amount of learning, certainly within the U.S. government and I think probably also within many foreign partners and multilateral partners about different kinds of interventions that can make a difference in preventing violence around elections.

And, you know, one of the things that President Obama has been doing with some regularity is taping messages that are then distributed broadly through—I mean you talk about bringing it down to the personal level, here we have not just the abstract sense that the international community is watching or that the United States cares, you have the president talking to the people, right, and in the case of Nigeria, the secretary of State speaking directly with the candidates themselves about the need for nonviolence.

And, you know, there are a host of issues relating to the mobilization of youth wing as party apparat, which is a discouraging but I think tangible issue that we can focus on in pre-election prevention efforts, elevating the voices of those who speak for peace within communities, again, something that was done in the case of Nigeria.

I think there are a host of things. And again, one of the things that I came into the J undersecretariat (ph) with was a tasking from the secretary to try to really focus and steer the efforts of the different bureaus within it, and make them complementary. And one of the key ways in which the J enterprise (ph) is changing in support of atrocity prevention is through the role of the Conflict and Stabilization Office.

And they are working on capturing precisely those kinds of lessons around different intervention sort of baskets, one being election violence, so that we have more of—so that the learning is not in people's heads, which is what I'm really struck by when I ask around at State in policy debates. Sort of what do we know? Well, you know, Joe knows or Susie knows. They did it two years ago.

We're trying to really institutionalize that knowledge. Again, stealing a little bit from DOD practices, and CSO is playing a leading role in that respect. But I do think that on election violence that we have an enormous repository of knowledge and that's again why it can be frustrating when we are scraping to find the resources to implement what we often believe really can make a difference.

QUESTION: Tod Lindberg from the Hoover Institution. Thanks very much for the speech. I think it's a huge and important step into public diplomacy on this issue, and I really appreciate the initiatives that you've taken on that.

What do you think are the two or three steps that have—that could be taken but have not yet been taken by—whether by the government, the administration, Congress, civil society to ensure the continuity of the gains that we've made from its origin in the Obama administration to the next administration, whatever that administration might be.

SEWALL: Thanks. That's a great question. And I would like to think that we are doing it because I think that the key is to make sure that each agency that has a role to play in atrocity prevention is internally embedding that process into the woof and warp of the agency.

And again, that's going to be different for each agency. But already the intelligence community has come—it's night and day. I mean now there is a unit within the different pieces of the intelligence community almost every which way that owns responsibility for this issue of atrocity prevention and early warning. And they put together tailored products. And they have a recognized role in the interagency process. You know, that's, you know, not transformative of the response, but for the intelligence community, that is a very different reality than existed five years ago.

And so similarly within State I think that as we have tried to formalize the ways in which very talented individuals have worked within a system to work on atrocity prevention. And now what we are trying to do is take that energy, codified and catalyzed by the president's directive, and formalize that.

So we've got the anti-atrocities working group that can bring together the different pieces of the State Department for a regular process. That means that each of the bureaus that those representatives come from now is partly pregnant with responsibility for atrocity prevention. It's not just someone else's problem or it's not just the APB's problem.

I think the—inculcating the sense of responsibility and ownership. You know in a perfect world you don't need an Atrocities Prevention Board. In a perfect world, that's what our government does. But we are transitioning toward perfect. We're not there yet. And so the interim step is to broaden the community of people who feel responsible for this work.

And I think, you know, we talked about challenges vis-a-vis funding. We've talked about challenges vis-a-vis galvanizing people to act early. Those are real challenges. But I do think that in terms of ensuring that there is embedded within the system a reflex, a muscle memory of a problem to which a response and a solution is—for which the response and solution is required. I think that is beginning to happen. And I'm hopeful that in the next two years that will have become inculcated in a meaningful and hopefully unmovable way.

GENSER: Let me just ask a quick follow-up to that because I know one of the questions people observing this area are asking is when the president will be issuing the executive order that makes permanent the status of the APB. And that's been—I think a lot of people have been anticipating that. But do you have any sense of the timing that you can share?

SEWALL: No because that's an NSC decision. So I'm sure that when the president is ready the president will do that. But in the meantime we're doing the work. So stay tuned.

GENSER: Up front here?

QUESTION: Thanks so much. Kate Phillips-Barrasso with the International Rescue Committee.  When we talk about violence and atrocities in this context I think we often think of these big inflection points like elections or just these mass episodes that break out among populations.

My question pertains to the slower burn problems, things that don't surround elections, and maybe over the course of years don't look that different, but if you look over time get much worse, and structural violence among particular groups and populations.

Like one example that comes to mind is the situation of the Rohingya in Western Burma. Just wanted to see where is the place for that? Because we talked about the Syria sort of epic, the whole government on it type things and then monitoring for what's to come.

But what of these things that sort of slowly change and have the potential to get much worse over time, or slow burns, and put people in a position where they're exposed to great violence? In this case, maybe being—leaving the country become of this discrimination and being trafficked, et cetera. I think this has been a big hole in government policy for a while. So I just wanted to see where the APB stands on that.

SEWALL: So the—I'll go in the abstract on this rather than getting specific to this case. But then I'll come back to the case.

So typically the way the—both the intelligence community, but also the policy shops within different pieces of the government, to include CSO, look at issues is that they are looking both at slow burn and then they are looking at precipitating events because often—or I—sometimes it is the combination of the two that can create the most dire circumstances.

And so there is not—there is no preclusion of a slow burn situation. I mean many people characterized Darfur as a slow burn situation for a long period of time. But clearly was recognized as an atrocity case, and one that deserved attention.

I think in the case of Burma, the APB is very well aware of the Rohingya issue, and has been monitoring that. And I think it's also very well aware that Burma has elections coming up later this year. And so the issue I think that we will be looking at is how those do or do not intersect.

There are many different forms in which elections can trigger violence. I mean whether you're talking about Burma or whether you're talking about Nigeria. The underlying conflicts that have the potential to spark very enormously throughout both countries, but elections are often a precipitating factor.

And so I think the answer to your question, simply put, is that there's no distinction made but that the prioritization process tends to put the interagency focus on precipitating events that we have reason to believe will spark underlying potential atrocities.

QUESTION: Tom Miller. I'm president of the nonprofit International Executive Service Corps, and a former diplomat. I appreciated your opening remarks. If I asked you to use two additional words and integrate them into your opening remarks, I'd appreciate how you'd respond. One is genocide and the second is Syria.

SEWALL: So genocide is one form of mass atrocity. So the way the Atrocity Prevention Board works is that genocide is actually perceived as too restrictive a case but is very much on the minds and is sometimes at issue in the context of the analysis that we do. And Syria fits the category of issues with which the policy process is already seized. And that's different from saying has solved, but the APB's role is not to duplicate processes that already exist.

Particularly within the State Department it is very regionally focused in its policy apparat and in the way it frames and makes decisions. And so the—where there are large, recognized challenges there's a process in which the interagency is discussing them. So Syria's very much in that category.

Where the APB has come into play is where there is—where we believe there is not sufficient attention being paid to particular instances or angles of mass atrocity issues. And the example of Yazidi protection is one that I gave in the context of Iraq. But for the most part the APB's focus in areas that the current policy process is not covering. And again, that relates to the difference between primarily a preventive agenda and a response agenda.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you very much for coming here today and for talking about this. And I commend you for the work that you've done in Burundi and particularly with the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar.

I'm concerned about another slow burn situation which is Mexico. There are 250,000 internally displaced people, displaced mostly by gangs and violence and drugs, drug dealers, 22,000 disappearances.  This is our neighbor to the south. Obviously, the U.S. has a lot of investment interests, also joint citizenship issues, migration issues. But I don't think we've been paying enough attention to what's going on in Mexico.

Similarly with some of the other countries in Latin America, the number of children who showed up at the border and the reasons that were precipitating the violence that caused those children to flee. And the terrible reaction by the American public for the most part, and the newspapers are basically send them back, throw them out, as if they were gangsters themselves or criminals when they were victims. So I wondered if that's on your agenda.

SEWALL: Well, the violent—there's a lot of competition for attention in the world of atrocities. And the character and scale and pace of systematic and purposeful attacks against civilians has some—every continent has issues that are deserving.

And so I come back to the answer that I gave before about the difference between slow burn and precipitating event, and the way in which we seek to look across the globe at the issues that are in need of prevention and those that we are able to envision. I hesitate to say the word narrow because the responses are not narrow.

But there's a difference between fixing a country and intervening to prevent mass atrocities. And it's almost the proximate cause timeframe issue that I think comes into play. And I think that that's apposite because if we were to ask the APB to solve every problem related to violence and civilians it would not be able to focus. And so we do focus.

And so that's not to say that Mexico—issues wax and wane. And they come and go in their acuity and in the way in which we focus on them. And so I think those will always be in flux. Part of the reason why we sought to systematize the review process is precisely because there is a limited ability to look at issues and we want to prioritize the cases as best we can.

QUESTION: My question is a direct follow on that...

GENSER: I'm sorry. Can you...

QUESTION: Sure. Jeff Smith, Center for Public Integrity. As you know, Sarah, I wrote about atrocities when I was at the Washington Post in the Balkans. And there are large scale and small scale atrocities.

A lot of the questions you're getting from the audience are sort of what are the criteria that you use to decide? Is there a numerical criteria? What constitutes an atrocity of sufficient scale and scope to demand your attention? And how do you set where that bar is?

I understand also—I presume you're going to say that the bar is somewhat in flux depending on other events going on in the world. But I'm wondering if your work is guided by an overall consensus about what constitutes an atrocity, a mass atrocity and so forth. If you could be a little bit more specific, that would be helpful.

SEWALL: I can give you more—be more specific about the terms, but not about the application of them, to be fair, because there's a timeframe issue and there is—and there are judgments that analysts make about whether or not things are a problem.

So typically when we are talking about mass atrocities, we're talking about violence directed against civilians that is somewhere in the range of above 500 people over a sustained period of time. Now, that's a very low bar, frankly, globally, and so there is a lot that is captured by that. It's not dispositive for that reason precisely.

And so the—again, the fact that you have a slow burn situation that has a number of deaths that is lower than that threshold over a long period of time doesn't preclude you from being very concerned about what could ignite something far bigger because of a precipitating event, whether it's a coup or whether it's a war next door or whether it's a famine or whatever it is. So that's the answer, but it's not dispositive in terms of what we focus on.

QUESTION: Hi, Sarah. Louis Caldera, former Department of Defense. I want to ask you about your broader set of responsibilities because some of the atrocity prevention is like the cop trying to get there as something's happening or even in the slow burn mode.

But on the bigger level of what are the things that you—the strategies that you think about in terms of creating context in which there is respect for human rights or democracy or pluralism. What are those strategies that are most important from your perspective to focus on?

And a sub-part of that question is, are foundations doing enough to invest in those kinds of things? I've heard recently some self-criticism about not doing enough to invest, for example, say in moderates, in countries or in supporting democracy-building projects. Have you tried to engage that sector, not just the NGOs, but the foundations in supporting that kind of work?

Could you address those topics? Thanks.

SEWALL: I'm so glad you asked.

So let me try to answer the first piece, which is when I look across the J undersecretariat (ph) and we have the hard security issues of counterterrorism and security sector reform, international narcotics law enforcement as well as, you know, the Population, Migration and Refugees Office, the Democracy and Human Rights Office, I mean really span the spectrum. To me they're all of a piece.

And to me one of the biggest and most profound differences that I think the State Department can make is in bringing together the harder security pieces with the softer security pieces, and blending them in areas that need attention so that we are focusing on, for example, building up a legal regime that protects human rights while we are training police to do the same.

While we are ensuring that there is a justice system that can actually reach verdicts and make people feel as though there is justice that will come at the end of the day. While we're working to make sure that refugees are actually refugees are actually accepted in an area. In other words, the integration of the tools that we use so that there's a more comprehensive approach to what governance means and what rights realization means, to me, that's where the money has been made.

And it's part of the reason why—and I look to Nancy Lindborg in the audience, part of the reason why AID is such an important partner for State because that is so much their lifeblood and what they do also. And State can't do it all alone.  We have certain pieces, the CT piece and the security sector reform piece that complement that AID does.

So to me, as we think about what does it mean to create an environment in which rights are respected and atrocities are prevented, it very much relates to a broader set of interventions that I think we at State can do more to foster both intrastate and then in partnership with AID and of course with posts overseas.

And I was just in the Horn of Africa—well, this relates to my second answer. But anyway, I was just in the Horn of Africa looking at how we might re-envision our interventions there from a preventing violent extremism angle. And so for me everything's all connected. So preventing mass atrocities, preventing violent extremism and terrorism, building respect for rule of law, protecting human rights, it's all integrated. And yet our bureaucracy by definition, you know, has expertise that comes in the form of silos that have separate funding streams and different committees that authorize them and provide them.

And, you know, it's just that you can't get away from the how when you think about the what we should be doing by way of effective foreign policy. So for me within State, integration is something that I'm really looking for, and greater consolidation of effort with AID and with posts and with regional bureaus.

In terms of foundations, we recently—the White House had a summit on countering violent extremism just last month. And the—Secretary Kerry hosted a day-long ministerial at the State Department that was really unique in a bunch of ways that I think are very important and exciting.

First of all, it was one of the first if not the first major event. Some 65 countries and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and President Obama spoke. I mean lots of high-level government and international organization focus. But it also included civil society and it also included the private sector.

And so the conversation was very different as a result. And the real focus of this summit was the prevention of violent extremism, rather simply than the military intelligence, law enforcement reactions to violent extremism because the reality is if you look at all of our incredible investments, and in many ways distinct successes in addressing terrorist networks, they have continued to spread. And part of the challenge for the international community in the years ahead is to get ahead of that curve and to think preventatively.

And what that means is thinking at the outer edge of the epicenters of terrorist safe haven or activity and doing more to create resilient communities and good governance that together reinforce the ability of young people of any target of extremist ideology to resist it and to resist the likelihood that those communities will align themselves tactically with terror actors.

Anyway, background, summit on violent extremism. One of the big takeaways from this conference was that this set of interventions that are very community-focused, very locally driven, very, very—they're fundamentally about people and their relationships to their future and their governments. Really requires all hands on deck, to include foundations, to include the private sector.

And I think, you know, we have now—the president laid out a challenge through to UNGA in September, the U.N. General Assembly, in September when we were going to reconvene that same set of actors, asked them to all make inroads in having regional summits and working on a series of agreed objectives up until September. We are working now to try to find foundation and private sector support partners in that work because so many of the countries that have gamely stepped forward and said I want to host a regional summit, but I don't really know how to bring civil society in or I can't afford to do this or that or the other, they want partnerships from all manner of nongovernmental actors.

And I think the beauty of the prevention as it pertains to violent extremism is that it's relatively—it's mappable in a way that is, I think, conducive to partnerships. I think when we're talking about mass atrocities, so often we are—it's harder to find the right partners with whom to say—have a foundation work with in the early stages of an election. There's absolutely no reason why we can't evolve to do that. What I have not heard is foundations seeing that as their role.

I think they see themselves as more likely to fund advocacy groups and direct service than they do to solve the more political, for lack of a better word, kinds of initiatives that are really necessary to prevent the violence that we then look at and try to repair with civil society organizations. And so I think in all of these prevention cases there is the potential for a concern about being politicized to deter people from doing the very things that they demand need to be done.

And yet it's very clear to me, whether you're talking about countering violent extremism or whether you're talking about pre-election violence that those kinds of locally based solutions, those—many of the same tools sort of apply. And there are local organizations that can do that work if they are properly supported.

So sorry, it's a very long-winded way of saying there is a role. I do think that we tend to—because it doesn't seem to be sort of a pure humanitarian kind of engagement, I think that there's sometimes a shyness about other actors engaging. But from my vantage point it's precisely where it's most needed. And so anything you can do to encourage us in that regard would be greatly appreciated.

GENSER: I'm afraid that's going to be our last question for this evening.

Undersecretary Sewall, thank you so much for coming and joining us here tonight. It was a really exceptional discussion. And I know I've learned a lot. I'm sure everyone else did as well.

So, if everyone can...

SEWALL: Thanks.


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