We can prevent mass atrocities: It’s time for Congress to pass the Elie Wiesel Act

Thirty years after the United States ratified the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide Congress has the chance to pass a bill that would improve the U.S. government’s ability to prevent genocide and mass atrocities around the world. They should take it!

July 17, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act with a vote of 406 – 5. I have previously written that preventing genocide should not be a partisan issue. I’m glad to see that Republicans and Democrats can agree that genocide is bad and should be prevented.

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The act, named after the Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel, would make it the policy of the U.S. to address the root causes of violent conflict and insecurity as a means of preventing genocide and mass atrocities and protecting U.S. national security interests. The Elie Wiesel Act would also ensure better coordination across U.S. government agencies and mandates Foreign Service Officers receive training in conflict analysis, peacebuilding, conflict prevention, and in identifying early warning signs of atrocities.

Mass atrocities, a catchall phrase that includes genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, wreak havoc on civilian populations, destroy lives, and make it exceedingly difficult for countries to transition from war to peace.

While deaths from violent conflict are at a 25-year high, these conflicts do not just result in mass casualties; they cause displacement, food insecurity, famine, the spread of disease, and more. The global displacement crisis is one of the clearest examples we have of what happens when the world fails to prevent atrocities and violent conflicts around the world.

By the end of 2017, 68.5 million people had been forcibly displaced from their homes, many of whom were fleeing mass atrocities. According to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, of the 25 million individuals who became refugees after fleeing their home countries, two-thirds were fleeing conflict and insecurity in just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia, countries that are all mass atrocity situations.

Responding to these man-made crises requires a huge amount of humanitarian aid to temporarily support populations while the violence rages on and their governments buy more guns. These aid efforts wind up costing far more than preventive measures would have.

According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, preventing atrocities can be 16 times cheaper than trying to respond to crises after they have unfolded. Their report, “Measuring Peacebuilding Cost-Effectiveness,” showed that for every $1 we spend on preventing conflict and atrocities we can save $16 in response.

Despite this knowledge, the US has historically employed an ad hoc reactionary approach, attempting to mitigate the fallout from violent conflicts instead of preventing them. This strategy is fundamentally flawed and will continue to fail as long as it continues to be employed.

As the Elie Wiesel Act states, the U.S. must enhance its ability to prevent these crises before they begin. By investing in efforts that target the root causes of violence (corruption, human rights abuses, inequitable wealth sharing, political exclusion) building stable institutions, and supporting vibrant civil societies that can act as a bulwark against atrocities and violent conflict, the U.S. can improve its ability to effectively prevent atrocities.

The Senate should move to immediately pass the House’s version of the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, H.R. 3030, and put the bill on the president’s desk for his signature. But, Congress can and should do more than just pass this bill.

More money must be appropriated towards upstream conflict prevention efforts. The Department of State and US Agency for International Development are woefully underfunded when compared to the Department of Defense, and cuts continue to be proposed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden, Sanders lead field in Iowa poll The Memo: Cohen fans flames around Trump Memo Comey used to brief Trump on dossier released: report MORE. Investing in long-term structural change will pay off in the long run, but we need to make the investments to see the results.

While Trump continues to promote spending increases to an already bloated Defense budget, the truth is that the military is not the right tool to prevent conflict and atrocities around the world. Despite the president’s rhetoric of, “peace through strength,” no one wants to see the U.S. become the world’s police force and the U.S. military is not able to address the root causes of intrastate conflict. It is the wrong tool for the job.

Congress must ensure the foreign affairs budget does not see any future cuts so that the U.S. can effectively use its diplomatic and development tools to invest in structural changes and effectively run peacebuilding and conflict prevention programs.

The U.S. government also needs a long-term vision and strategy for reducing conflict and insecurity around the world. Another bipartisan bill introduced in the House, the Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act of 2018, seeks to develop a comprehensive initiative to address this need.

Based on past initiatives like President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act would start with ten pilot countries and create a whole-of-government approach to addressing the drivers of violent conflict. Through this pilot, relevant agencies will be able to test programs, evaluate what works and what doesn’t, and improve programming.

The Trump administration has been extremely critical of the costs of foreign aid, peacekeeping missions, and refugee resettlement/response. By investing in atrocities prevention and peacebuilding efforts the U.S. can contribute significantly to the reduction of global violence and displacement which would, in turn, reduce the need for peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, and refugee resettlement.

If the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act and the Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act both pass they would reform U.S. foreign policy to effectively deal with modern day security threats. Passing these two bills would also not only save lives and improve U.S. national security, but would save U.S. taxpayers money in the long-term.

Congress should move to pass both of these bills before the end of the year and President Trump should be eager to sign them into law.

Mike Brand is an independent atrocities prevention and human rights consultant based in Washington, D.C. He is former director of Advocacy and Programs at Jewish World Watch. You can follow him on Twitter at @miketheidealist.