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A Comprehensive Approach to Atrocity Prevention, Three Years On

The first-ever Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) is a mechanism chaired at the National Security Council that convenes senior officials from 10 agencies and departments across government to support focused monitoring and response to potential atrocity risks. This month, the APB turned three.

We are far from the first Administration to confront the challenge of mass atrocities committed around the world. But President Obama’s approach differs in a number of key respects. Fundamental to our work is what the President has done to recognize the persistent threat of mass atrocities and to make prevention an institutional priority. In August 2011, he made the determination that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States,” and called for a 100-day, whole-of-government review of U.S. capabilities for preventing atrocities and to make recommendations for filling gaps. Following the completion of that review, he announced a comprehensive strategy on atrocity prevention and established the first-ever Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) — a mechanism chaired here at the National Security Council that convenes senior officials from 10 agencies and departments across government to support focused monitoring and response to potential atrocity risks. This month, the APB turned three.

A cornerstone of the strategy is to identify a wider range of lower cost options that can prevent or mitigate violence against civilians before it burns at full blaze. To this end, we have strengthened early warning so that we have a better sense of when risks are emerging. The first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on the Global Risks of Mass Atrocities gives us an early sense of where the “hotspots” are likely to be in coming years. We have also been taking steps to better isolate, inhibit and weaken those who enable or perpetrate atrocities including by using our diplomatic voice to call early attention to gathering crises and apply deterrent pressure through the use of visa restrictions and other targeted measures. And we are looking at ways to enhance our use of financial sanctions in atrocity situations.

We’re also strengthening accountability at home and abroad — both to restrain perpetrators and deter those who would follow in their footsteps. The Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and Department of Justice jointly work under the Human Rights Violators War Crimes Center to investigate and prosecute war criminals found in the United States, and to prevent violators abroad from entering the United States. We have also supported commissions of inquiry and other mechanisms that help the truth emerge about atrocity-related crimes — in Kyrgyzstan, Syria, Sri Lanka, Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, and North Korea. We are encouraged to see that the U.N. has elevated atrocity prevention as a priority through, among other programs, the Human Rights Up Front initiative, which we strongly support.

Looking ahead, a priority this year and next will be ensuring that the momentum of the APB is sustained across administrations, and we are working across the U.S. government to institutionalize these atrocity prevention tools and strategies. The State Department has directed existing resources to establish a new Department secretariat for atrocity prevention with dedicated experts. USAID has published a field guide to atrocity prevention and is working to ensure that its officers deploying to countries at risk receive atrocity-prevention training. The Department of Defense is incorporating the protection of civilians and atrocities prevention in military planning efforts, training programs, and doctrine development to help align and guide the armed services and combatant commands. 

In a world where barrel bombs rain down on civilians in Syria and thousands of civilians are under siege in Sudan, the challenges that we face are formidable. This makes our mission all the more critical. Working with other governments, international organizations, and our partners in the NGO community, we will continue looking to the range of our capabilities — and seek to develop new ones — for preventing and confronting the worst crimes known to humanity.

We invite you to take a more in-depth look at our atrocity prevention work from across agencies and departments at our new website:

Steve Pomper is Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Mutilateral Affairs and Human Rights.