How New Atrocity-Prevention Steps Can Work

How New Atrocity-Prevention Steps Can Work

New efforts by the Obama administration to prioritize the prevention of atrocities can only make a difference if authorities are able to surmount challenges ranging from bureaucratic inertia to fickle public opinion, write Andrew Miller and Paul Stares.

August 15, 2011 11:23 am (EST)

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The White House on August 4 unveiled a series of measures to enhance U.S. responsiveness to the threat of mass atrocities and genocide. A new interagency body--the "Atrocities Prevention Board"--will be empowered to bring greater timeliness and coherence to U.S. prevention efforts. A presidential proclamation issued at the same time will also bar perpetrators, who have organized or participated in atrocities, from entering the United States.

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These are commendable--arguably overdue--initiatives. President Barack Obama has sent a strong signal to would-be perpetrators by unequivocally declaring the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide "a core national security interest and core moral responsibility of the United States."

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By establishing a high-level government body focused solely on this threat, the inertia and neglect that has often characterized U.S. responses in the past can also hopefully be lessened, if not eliminated. Major challenges, however, still need to be overcome for these initiatives to make a real difference.

An Early Warning System

As the Presidential Study Directive (PSD-10) authorizing the new initiatives more or less acknowledges, the U.S. response to the threat of mass atrocities and genocide often has been too little, too late, and too improvised. Senior policymakers frequently have been unaware or distracted by other events when atrocities break out. Once the magnitude of the threat becomes apparent, the range of practical responses has often narrowed and the potential costs of action rises to unpalatable levels. Generating the political will to act then becomes that much more difficult. The result is typically a muddled, ad hoc set of responses designed to contain the consequences with minimum commitment. In Darfur, for instance, many of the atrocities took place well before policymakers in Washington were aware of the situation’s gravity, making it impossible to implement preventive measures. This left George W. Bush’s administration with its hands largely tied, given that military intervention was never a viable option.

The new initiatives, which are modeled heavily on the recommendations of the 2008 Albright-Cohen Report--a joint effort of the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Academy of Diplomacy--aim to mobilize the United States to take early preventive action in several ways:

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First, by explicitly making the prevention of atrocities and genocide a presidential priority, PSD-10 provides a high-level sanction for the U.S. military and civilian agencies to plan and prepare for this mission. This is especially important in a time of shrinking budgets. Last month, the House appropriations sub-committee overseeing the State Department’s funding announced cuts of $8.6 billion for FY2012 on top of an earlier $8 billion reduction in April for FY2011. The defense budget is also poised to contract by at least $350 billion over the next ten years as result of the recent debt ceiling extension deal.

Second, the directive also calls for the intelligence community to improve its support for atrocity-prevention efforts. Predicting the outbreak of atrocities with a high degree of confidence is no doubt a difficult task, but scholars have in recent years improved our understanding of telltale risk factors, such as leadership instability and ethnic polarization, which can help with early warning. Helping analysts within the intelligence community or diplomats in the field to raise "red flags" when they detect dangerous signals is another important component.

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Genocide and Mass Atrocities


But without a high-level body of policymakers to receive such early warning information, it is effectively worthless. The new Atrocities Prevention Board, augmented by the recently created National Security Staff directorate for atrocities and war crimes, could serve as that body--one potentially empowered to push for proactive responses.

Third, the directive’s goal of producing a comprehensive policy framework could expand the range of early response options--particularly non-military ones--available to senior U.S. officials. It avoids the false choice of "sending in the Marines or doing nothing" that has often stymied early action in the past.

The U.S. government already holds a number of diplomatic, economic, and legal tools that can help halt or reverse escalating threats. Diplomatically, for instance, a July visit by the U.S. ambassador in Syria to the northern city of Hama shed light on atrocities there and may even have deterred additional ones. The Obama administration has also made proper use of economic and legal measures in Libya by freezing Muammar al-Qaddafi’s assets and supporting the referral of human rights abuses in the country to the International Criminal Court.

Roadblocks to Prevention Initiatives

But greater awareness of atrocity-prevention steps does not guarantee a process that will have lasting effect. Tough questions remain:

First, will the new atrocity-prevention structures and processes become "mainstreamed" within the national security apparatus? Recent history demonstrates that the established bureaucracy can marginalize or eliminate good faith efforts to change the status quo. George W. Bush attempted to enhance the government’s response to crises abroad with the establishment of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) and the Interagency Management System (IMS). As it stands today, S/CRS remains on the periphery of the policymaking process, and the IMS is defunct.

Second, will the elevated priority given to atrocity prevention continue with subsequent administrations? In the wake of the Rwanda debacle, the Clinton administration established the Atrocity Prevention Inter-Agency Working Group in 1998 only to have it disappear when Bush took office two years later. Other similar initiatives have fallen by the wayside as new administrations desire to distance or distinguish themselves from their predecessors.

Third, and most importantly, will the American people support what some will doubtless see as altruistic efforts with little bearing on U.S. interests? As the United States’ fiscal position worsens and calls for strategic retrenchment intensify, such sentiments are sure to increase.

Ironically, the Libyan intervention--launched with the primary goal of preventing a mass atrocity--may convince many Americans that precious national resources needed to rebuild and rejuvenate the United States cannot be "squandered" on this policy objective. Public support for the Libyan intervention has steadily slipped (Rasmussen) with only 24 percent of likely voters supporting the operation compared to 43 percent in late March. This lack of support has translated into a lack of political will in Congress, which has yet to authorize the mission. If Libya descends into a quagmire, the American public will likely be reluctant to support aggressive action against future atrocities. And no post-Cold War president has ever ordered a large-scale military intervention to stop atrocities without significant public support.

This possibility only makes institutionalizing the preventive measures resulting from PSD-10 all the more important.

While the outcomes of Libya and PSD-10 remain unknown, they could play a pivotal role in shaping the future direction of the United States’ efforts to prevent mass atrocities and genocide.


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