When a United Nations (UN) official stated that the UN was in no better position to prevent widespread crimes against humanity, even genocide, in Burundi than they were during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, it took many people by surprise.  In reality, nothing about that statement should be surprising. The international community and the United States are presently ill equipped to prevent episodes of mass atrocities because prevention is not prioritized in foreign policy.

Despite the papers written by scholars and the statements by prominent officials including the UN Secretary General, president of the United States, and decorated military leaders, the US refuses to do what is necessary to prevent mass atrocities from occurring. While there is no silver bullet for mass atrocities prevention, it is clear that atrocities do not occur in a vacuum, and that they can be prevented.


So that gets us to the million-life question, how do we prevent mass atrocities? The answer: address the root causes and drivers of violent conflict that create the conditions that allow for mass atrocities to be committed. This strategy is somewhat commonly known as upstream prevention. By implementing interventions that address the deep-seated drivers of violent conflict, we may be able to prevent the outbreak of violence, and the downward spiral into mass atrocities.

In practical terms, upstream prevention can be broken into two stages. 1. Alleviate the various factors that drive violent conflict (inequity, instability, poor governance, widespread corruption, long-standing grievances, and inter-group conflict to name a few) and, 2. Build stable societies and institutions that are more resilient to the drivers and outbreak of violent conflict. This long-term strategy focuses on establishing conditions necessary for a socially just society that respects human rights and promotes equality. It is not meant to be an ad hoc intervention tactic used to counteract flashpoints of violence. Instead, these prevention strategies, when successful, will create a peaceful society that will no longer require external preventive actions.

This approach stands in stark contrast with current US foreign policy. Instead of expanding the ability to engage in long-term prevention activities, cuts to these programs continue, while funding increases for defense activities. In theory, US foreign policy is based around the Three Ds—Diplomacy, Development, and Defense. In actuality, defense continues to expand while diplomacy and development shrinks. Despite having decorated military officials stating the need for the expansion of diplomatic and development activities, Congress continues to illogically cut civilian diplomatic and development programs. In doing so, it focuses US foreign policy around securitized, reactionary response, not prevention, and in doing so places national security at risk. The analysis of violent conflict, violent extremism, and mass atrocities must change if the US and the wider international community are to be successful in preventing mass atrocities. 

The Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act (GAPA), which was introduced in the Senate on February 11, 2016, is a step in the right direction. If passed, GAPA will do three main things: 1. Authorize the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), a high-level interagency body that brings together principals from across the U.S. government to share intelligence and discuss ways to prevent genocide and mass atrocities. While the APB by itself will not solve all atrocity situations, it positions the US government in a better place to think upstream and devise strategies to prevent the outbreak of violent conflict. 2. Provides training for Foreign Service Officers so they can better address the early warning signs of mass atrocities. 3. Authorizes the Complex Crises Fund which provides flexible funding for the US to better prevent and respond to emerging crises around the world.

Often, those who deride the U.S.’s ability to change the course of events in situations like Syria or Burundi do not take into account the fact that once a mass atrocity situation is underway, the options for action are significantly limited. If the U.S. and the wider international community focus their attention on upstream prevention efforts, the need for reaction will be significantly limited.

Passing GAPA is the beginning of this shift in U.S. foreign policy, and is vital if the US wishes to prevent violent conflict as opposed to continuously acting in response to widespread humanitarian catastrophes.

Brand is the director of Policy and Programs at Jewish World Watch (JWW), an organization dedicated to preventing genocide and mass atrocities around the world. @miketheidealist