Congressional crossroads on atrocities prevention

When it comes to the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide, it is time for Congress to reclaim its leadership and renew its commitment to this nonpartisan issue. 

Four years ago today in a memorandum to high-level senior officials President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaJohn Bolton slams Obama’s ‘shameful apology tour’ Miss. governor to join lawsuit against Obama transgender policy North Korea calls Obama’s Hiroshima trip ‘childish’ MORE made clear that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” The memo initiated Presidential Study Directive 10 (PSD-10) that would result in the creation of an interagency policy committee known as the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) the following April. 

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World events at the time – the deaths of 45 people in Hama, Syria the day before, and eight months of escalating ethnic violence in South Sudan – only provided increased clarity on the dire need for prevention over reactionary responses. These two conflicts that broke out before the APB was formed are often cited as reasons why the APB has failed when they represent a different story: reasons why the APB was and is still needed. 

While Obama deserves credit for his leadership in prioritizing the atrocities prevention, the idea for a high-level standing interagency committee based out of the National Security Council has much more extensive roots. In December of 2008, the bipartisan Genocide Prevention Task Force (GPTF) – co-chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Cohen and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – lifted up the recommendation as one of the thirty-four detailed in their report.

Following on the idea, Congress also demonstrated leadership. In 2010, the unanimously passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 71 declared support for “the establishment of an interagency policy committee and a National Security Council position dedicated to the prevention of genocide and other mass atrocities,” which would come to be implemented in the form of the APB. The resolution went on to urge Obama “to review and evaluate existing capacities for anticipating, preventing, and responding to genocide and other mass atrocities, and to determine specific steps to coordinate and enhance those capacities,” as was done in PSD-10.

The APB has some “successes.” As Alissa Wilson of the American Friends Service Committee stated in a recent hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, “The Atrocity Prevention Board’s focus on Burundi, beginning over a year ago, is to be commended for ensuring U.S. government attention to conflict prevention.”  

The engagement by the APB in the crisis in Central African Republic (CAR) is also well documented. In CAR, the APB is credited with the unprecedented speed at which the U.S. was able to respond to and mitigate further violence – including the allocation of resources – and for ensuring international prioritization on the prevention of further atrocities. 

Meanwhile, an August 2014 follow-up review assessing headway on GPTF Report recommendations by U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Fellow Jim Finkel found that Obama had made substantial progress on seventy-five percent of the GPTF Report recommendations directed at the White House, while Congress had made little to no progress on sixty-six percent of the recommendations directed at them. 

However, the tide is turning. In June of this year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed the Fiscal Year 2016 Department of State Operations Authorization and Embassy Security Act, which – thanks to the leadership of Sens. Bob CorkerBob CorkerRubio: 'Maybe' would run for Senate seat if 'good friend' wasn't McConnell-allied group: We'll back Rubio if he runs for reelection The Trail 2016: Interleague play MORE (R-Tenn.) and Ben CardinBen CardinSenate GOP ties Iran sanctions fight to defense bill Lawmakers push to elevate Cyber Command in Senate defense bill Baltimore police officer cleared in Freddie Gray case MORE (D-Md.) – contained a provision that would authorize the Atrocities Prevention Board. Unfortunately, the provision includes a clause that would sunset the authorization on June 30, 2017.  

In order to ensure the type of institutionalization that is needed, Congress must provide authorization for the APB without an expiration date, and flexible funding through mechanisms like the Complex Crises Fund that can be leveraged when lives are at risk. Bipartisan Congressional leadership can also be indispensable in helping to push Obama to issue an Executive Order on the APB, and the next president to continue efforts to ensure that the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide is a priority from the start of his or her administration. 

As the GPTF Report found in 2008: “History has shown that prevention is possible with sufficient interest and attention from the highest ranks of our government.” If support for and further investments in the APB can be prioritized now, the U.S. government doesn’t have to risk a reversion to inaction and futility in the face of some of the world’s worst crimes.  

It is time for Congress to reclaim its leadership. 

Neville-Morgan is the legislative associate for the prevention of violent conflict at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

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