Preventing Atrocities

April 23, 2012

Today at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama announced the creation of a new Atrocities Prevention Board, a high-level interagency group that will draw upon varied and specialized tools of the United States Government to prevent mass atrocities and genocide. Pulling these technical tools together matters — recent years have seen important successes, from South Sudan’s peaceful independence to an international mission ending post-election killing in Côte D’Ivoire, NATO’s prevention of mass killing in Libya and efforts to tackle the Lord’s Resistance Army.  We need little reminder of the gravest challenges today, in Syria and Sudan-South Sudan.  As former Secretaries of State and Defense Madeleine Albright and William Cohen write today, “Every American president since World War II, irrespective of political stripe, has been charged on his watch with responding to a mass-atrocity situation somewhere in the world. Such problems are almost certain to recur. It is vital that we learn the lessons of the past, so that we may be prepared to act sooner and more effectively in the future.”

New Atrocities Prevention Board addresses “structural deficit” of government’s ability to use tools between “nothing” and military force to prevent or stop mass atrocities and genocide. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who co-chaired a 2008 Genocide Prevention Task Force convened by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. Institute of Peace and the American Academy of Diplomacy, write in Foreign Policy that, “U.S. President Barack Obama’s planned announcement Monday morning at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum of a new interagency Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) addresses a structural deficit our government has faced for decades across different presidential administrations: What options do we have beyond doing nothing and short of intervening militarily to prevent, deter, and end bloodshed against innocent civilians?”

“The initiative calls for a group of senior administration officials to meet monthly to develop and implement prevention and response policies that will draw upon the specialized tools and reach of all U.S. government agencies. The options available for strengthening U.S. policy include tightening American immigration regulations to deny human rights abusers’ access to the United States and allied nations, expanding domestic judicial mandates to prosecute perpetrators of humanitarian crimes and the first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on the global risk of mass atrocities. Equally important, the president’s announcement elevates the importance and value of saving lives — putting that lofty objective on more equal footing with other competing foreign-policy priorities. This initiative should not be viewed as a new doctrine for humanitarian intervention or global adventurism, as some might suggest. Rather, it is a clear-eyed and pragmatic attempt to expand our government’s tool box to meet the challenges posed by tyrants who pose an extraordinary threat to their civilian populations.” [Madeleine Albright and William Cohen, 4/23/12]

More focused U.S. action, and growing international commitment to prevent atrocities, have saved thousands of lives in recent years.  Sometimes away from the headlines, and sometimes unnoticed because of what did not happen, a new focus on ending and preventing atrocities has yielded major successes, as the president outlined in his speech today:

South Sudan. “When the referendum in South Sudan was in doubt, it threatened to reignite a conflict that had killed millions.  But with determined diplomacy, including by some people in this room, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation.  And our diplomacy continues, because in Darfur, in Abyei, in Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile, the killing of innocents must come to an end.  The Presidents of Sudan and South Sudan must have the courage to negotiate — because the people of Sudan and South Sudan deserve peace.  That is work that we have done, and it has saved lives.”

Côte D’Ivoire. “When the incumbent in Côte D’Ivoire lost an election but refused to give it up — give up power, it threatened to unleash untold ethnic and religious killings.  But with regional and international diplomacy, and U.N. peacekeepers who stood their ground and protected civilians, the former leader is now in The Hague, and Côte D’Ivoire is governed by its rightful leader — and lives were saved.”

Libya. “When the Libyan people demanded their rights and Muammar Qaddafi’s forces bore down on Benghazi, a city of 700,000, and threatened to hunt down its people like rats, we forged with allies and partners a coalition that stopped his troops in their tracks.  And today, the Libyan people are forging their own future, and the world can take pride in the innocent lives that we saved.”

Lord’s Resistance Army. “And when the Lord’s Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony continued its atrocities in Central Africa, I ordered a small number of American advisors to help Uganda and its neighbors pursue the LRA…  It is part of our regional strategy to end the scourge that is the LRA, and help realize a future where no African child is stolen from their family and no girl is raped and no boy is turned into a child soldier.”

[Barack Obama, 4/23/12]

Better information and coordination also leave little room for complacency regarding today’s tragedies

Syria. Marc Lynch of the Center for a New American Security explains the horrors and complications of the situation in Syria: “The growing bloodbath in Syria poses a sobering challenge to policymakers in the United States and the international community. What began as an astonishingly courageous and peaceful protest movement against a repressive Arab regime has evolved into an increasingly militarized struggle, and arguably a civil war. There is no obvious way to prevent Syria from descending into a violent civil war, nor any great hope that the Asad regime will collapse quickly on its own. The regime has lost control over significant parts of the country, but those areas are not yet controlled by the opposition. The Syrian military remains largely loyal, well-armed and willing to kill an opposition the regime portrays as a foreign, sectarian or Islamist conspiracy. While sanctions and an economic collapse fueled by the security situation have hurt the business community badly, it does not yet embrace the opposition. Many Syrians continue to back the Asad regime, whether out of genuine support, distaste for the opposition or fears for their future.

The opposition to the Asad regime has grown exponentially in the face of the sustained violent crackdown, but it is deeply fragmented and has struggled to translate anger with the regime into a unified political agenda… Moreover, even as the brutality of Asad’s security forces drives more Syrians towards armed opposition, the harsh reality is that the regime enjoys an overwhelming military advantage…. Asad’s fall could take a long time. In the interim, many Syrians will die, and the conflict could evolve into an extended regional proxy war that victimizes the Syrian people. A drawn out internal war could shatter the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Syria and reverberate across the region. Within Syria, a civil war could entrench sectarian identities, shatter communities and stoke a desire for revenge that makes reconciliation after Asad impossible. A civil war would also destabilize Syria’s neighbors, including Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, and the political instability and movement of people and arms could create new security risks for both Israel and Iran. It might also create opportunities for jihadist groups to establish a foothold in Syria, a danger that U.S. intelligence fears is already beginning to materialize.” [Marc Lynch,  2/12]

Sudan and South Sudan. Tensions have risen to dangerous levels between Sudan and the world’s youngest country, South Sudan, which broke away in a referendum last year. The International Crisis Group issued an alert last week saying, “Sudan and South Sudan are teetering on the brink of all-out war from which neither would benefit. Increasingly angry rhetoric, support for each other’s rebels, poor command and control, and brinkmanship, risk escalating limited and contained conflict into a full-scale confrontation between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA). Diplomatic pressure to cease hostilities and return to negotiations must be exerted on both governments by the region and the United Nations (UN) Security Council, as well as such partners as the U.S., China and key Gulf states. The immediate priority needs to be a ceasefire and security deal between North and South, as well as in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. But equally important, for the longer-term, are solutions to unresolved post-referendum issues, unimplemented provisions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) (that ended the civil war in 2005), and domestic reforms in both countries.”

“The most recent fighting between the SAF and SPLA arose amid a murky mix of armed actors and interests in the contested borderlands, including a variety of northern opposition forces and proxy militias. The exact cause is vigorously disputed, but the flare-up is the predictable outcome of negative trends: conflicts in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile; lack of agreement on transitional economic and financial arrangements between the two countries; Khartoum’s seizure of Southern oil; South Sudan’s decision to stop oil production; and sporadic cross-border attacks and bombings. It occurs amid mutual recriminations: of Khartoum arming Southern rebels and the SPLA providing material support to its former brothers-in-arms now fighting for the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, as well as political support to members of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) seeking to topple President Bashir.” [International Crisis Group, 4/18/12]

What We’re Reading

The United States and Afghanistan completed a critical diplomatic deal that would continue cooperation between the two countries after the withdrawal of NATO troops in 2014.

Two state-run Egyptian energy companies suddenly ended a gas export deal to Israel.

Explosions devastated the Syrian city of Homs days after the U.N. Security Council planned to send hundreds of observers to oversee a fragile cease-fire.

The French Socialist candidate, François Hollande, won the first round of France’s presidential elections.

The Dutch government affirmed that it would move ahead with plans to pass an austerity budget.

President Obama pressed Sudan and South Sudan to end fighting and begin negotiations to resolve the conflict between them.

Chinese President Hu Jintao met with a top North Korean envoy to reinforce relations following North Korea’s recent attempted rocket launch.

Japan has promised to provide $7.4 billion in development aid to five Southeast Asian nations to encourage cooperation with countries in the Mekong region.

Sami Samir Hassoun, a Chicago man accused of placing a backpack he thought held a bomb, has pleaded guilty to two weapons charges.

Yemen is working to confront a series of a bold attacks by a resurgent militant movement in the south and a festering political standoff in the capital.

Commentary of the Day

Patrick Cronin suggests Asian security issues that should be debated during this year’s U.S. presidential election.

Doyle McManus affirms the U.S. military brass is standing behind the president’s rebalancing of Pentagon budget and strategy.

The Bloomberg editorial board writes Mitt Romney’s proposals on Afghanistan appear almost identical to Obama’s — and where they’re not, are contradictory.

Arthur Goldhammer parses the French presidential elections.

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