Even a cursory glance at the news shows that far too many people around the world are suffering today from deadly violence. Major conflicts are wreaking havoc on civilians and many people are being targeted simply due to who they are or the beliefs they hold. In this environment, the United State's Atrocity Prevention Board (APB) is more relevant and needed than ever.

It has been two years since the White House officially launched the APB, which was intended to "oversee the development and implementation of atrocity prevention and response policy." Now Jim Finkel, a Leonard and Sophie Davis Genocide Prevention Fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), has taken a close look at the development of these atrocity prevention efforts, including initial efforts to set up an interagency system at the end of the Clinton administration. (Author's note: my organization, Humanity United, is a funder of another USHMM project.)


Finkel's report is timely, coming a year after the board's first review. An unabashed supporter of the APB, he also points to its struggles to gain influence within an interagency policy that focuses on ongoing crises and is dominated by regional experts. His insider knowledge results in clear recommendations that should immediately be considered by the Congress and the Obama administration.

First, the APB can bring a structured process to identify risks for mass atrocities much earlier — and respond to those risks. The APB has a tremendous opportunity to shift policymakers' focus to look at the moments before crises begin, take steps to prevent those crises that will save countless lives, and promote tools that will bring about success without resorting to resource-intense interventions that take place once violence breaks out. In cases where crises happen despite such efforts (or in places where early warning has not triggered such a response), other regionally oriented interagency mechanisms will take over.

As Finkel points out, the APB may be most effective if it can focus on early prevention and response work. Developing a "common understanding" of atrocity prevention would be a singular achievement that could carry successful policymaking over to the next administration and beyond.

Second, a continuing focus on policy opportunities and tools needs to be reemphasized. Intelligence analysts often note that they provide warnings of potential crises, but the policy community does not take any action. However, as predictive tools and warnings become ever better in the area of atrocity prevention, the policy community needs to up its game on possible prevention responses and adapting existing programs to the new situation. A more formal and cohesive approach may very much help.

Finally, Congress must step up and provide "fenced resources" for prevention, which has never been more urgent than today. 2014 has been a record breaking year for humanitarian crises. There are now over 50 million people displaced around the world — the highest since the end of World War II — and the U.N. has classified four humanitarian emergencies at the highest level of severity. Each of these humanitarian crises — Iraq, Syria, Central African Republic and South Sudan — are in active conflict zones and are manifestations of political problems. Other countries, such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, face multiple ongoing conflicts or a return to violence.

In addition to the immense human suffering created by these crises, there is a significant financial toll to this increase in humanitarian emergencies. By the end of fiscal year 2014, the United States will have contributed $1.2 billion to the U.N.'s refugee agency. Conversely, the United States Agency for International Development's (USAID) Complex Crises Fund, a flexible account that provides rapid response funding to prevent violent conflict and mass atrocities, received just $40 million. Since its inception in 2010, the 20 different countries. During the outbreak of violence in the Central African Republic last year, the Complex Crises Fund was the only account within USAID that was able to rapidly mobilize resources. The account supported humanitarian assistance actors by helping to improve access to timely and accurate information, while also laying the framework for a peaceful political transition by working to prevent further atrocities and rebuilding social cohesion through community peace-building.

Despite its proven impact and need as a flexible tool, the Complex Crises Fund has been subject to significant budget cuts and elimination attempts by Congress. For the last three years, the House State Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee has eliminated the Complex Crises Fund in its bill. The Senate firmly supports the fund, but its current funding levels pale in comparison to the need to robustly invest in prevention. And in the fiscal year 2015 appropriations process, the Complex Crises Fund has been folded into a new fund that, while larger, does not have the goal of crisis prevention, a worrisome development. As demonstrated by the scale and multiplicity of crises around the world, today's underinvestment in the prevention of violent conflict will surely require the U.S. to support costly humanitarian assistance for years to come.

Finkel's report speaks to atrocity prevention as well as to the challenges of setting up new institutions within the executive branch. The analysis, which I hope administration and congressional officials read, not only shows where the U.S. is today on atrocity prevention but how the U.S. can — and must — do better.

Abramowitz is vice president for policy and government relations at Humanity United, a U.S.-based foundation dedicated to building peace and advancing human freedom.