Last week, the international community commemorated Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. For Jews, the day is a somber interplay between resilience and mourning, honoring the memory of Jewish victims and survivors of the Holocaust. For anti-genocide activists, Yom HaShoah is a firm reminder of humanity’s greatest failure, and of the persistent need to mobilize around, condemn, and take action to address mass atrocities.
Today, President Obama will acknowledge the moral burden of mass atrocities, and commit the U.S. government to confronting their continued occurrence. Inspired by a high-level report on U.S. foreign policy, the interagency process, and genocide prevention, the president will announce the creation of a new Atrocities Prevention Board, as mandated by a presidential directive last August. The Board is a crucial step towards mobilizing an effective, sustainable U.S. response to mass atrocities, ensuring the coordination of civilian, military, and intelligence resources to stem the tide of escalating political crises.
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During past crises, early intelligence on atrocities has not coincided with policymaking and preventive diplomacy; the Board’s initiatives can bridge the gap. Preventive measures have existed in piece-meal form: in the aftermath of Kenya’s 2007 elections, Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 polls, and South Sudan’s 2011 independence referendum. However, as South Sudan’s continued crisis demonstrates, the United States’ capacity to address atrocities, mediate political crises, and prevent conflict leaves much to be desired. With conflict raging in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan’s border states, and Syria, the Atrocities Prevention Board has a challenging task at hand.
Even before its creation, the Board’s relevance to the interagency policy process is an uphill climb. Atrocities prevention plays third fiddle to more prominent strategic priorities — counterterrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, and regional stability, to name a few — and policy decision-making is a persistent battle for limited resources, limited funds, and limited wills. The circumstances where atrocities prevention advocates “win,” as in the early days of the Libya crisis, are few and far between; and, as the present instability in northern Mali indicates, the causal consequences of such policies are often challenging to deal with.
However, the Obama administration’s announcement comes at an opportune time: the international community, thrown into diplomatic disarray over the inconsistent implementation of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, is struggling to craft a way forward for international atrocities prevention approaches. In addition to Brazil’s “responsibility while protecting” addendum to the R2P doctrine, international advocates have urged a renewed focus on R2P’s second pillar, which concentrates on national and local capacities for conflict prevention. The administration’s Board can construct an interagency framework for engaging new actors, new constituencies, and new organizations in peacebuilding, prevention, and early warning strategies for conflict-affected states. In terms of money, political will, and effectiveness, external intervention remains an unsustainable mechanism for preventing atrocities. Over the long-term, localized capacity-building, national leadership, and conflict mediation will craft a more productive future for atrocities prevention.
Of course, human rights advocates in the United States must continue to play a role. The Kony 2012 debate has revealed an essential truth of human rights advocacy: grassroots advocacy has a variety of functions, which operate over the short- and long-term. As the Atrocities Prevention Board’s creation indicates, grassroots movements — assisted by external policy advocacy — have proven moderately effective at crafting short-term victories. However, the development of long-term constituencies of foreign policy leadership will define the sustainability of atrocities prevention. In twenty years, the effectiveness of our advocacy will not rely on the quantity of bills we pass, but on the number of our fellow advocates on future administrations’ Atrocities Prevention Boards.
Today, as we consider the Atrocities Prevention Board’s daunting challenges, an introspective approach is essential. Rather than centering our advocacy on new sanctions, we should turn our gaze to new constituencies, both foreign and domestic. For decades, human rights advocacy has suffered from a remarkable lack of empathy; new, strategic partnerships with diaspora communities throughout the United States can help us create more empowering, engaged advocacy narratives. Similarly, we can work with the Atrocities Prevention Board to engage global civil society organizations on atrocities prevention, creating sustainable human rights movements in democratizing states and emerging economies. A new, progressive human rights community requires disruptive thinking; let’s use this opportunity to shake things up.