To Prevent Atrocities, Break Bureaucratic Silos, Don’t Build A New One

Beth Van Schaack’s “good governance paper” on atrocities prevention and response is chock-full of good ideas. From improving risk analysis to developing surge capacity to redoubling efforts to prevent atrocities in multilateral fora, U.S. government leaders would do well to follow her advice.

With twelve “musts” and thirty “shoulds,” it is a very ambitious set of proposals. One of Van Schaack’s “shoulds” — better integration of atrocities prevention with related agendas — is at risk of getting lost in the long list of more tangible to-dos. Rather than getting lost or tossed, better integration should be a priority for the next phase of atrocity prevention policy in the U.S. government.

“Atrocities prevention and response cannot be pursued in a vacuum,” writes Van Schaack. “The atrocities prevention agenda should be better integrated with adjacent imperatives, such as counterterrorism/preventing violent extremism, addressing state fragility, engaging in conflict prevention, protecting civilians in our own operations, and providing humanitarian assistance where needed.”

In previous presidential transitions, most atrocity prevention advocates focused on getting incoming leaders to demonstrate special political priority to the prevention of mass atrocities and establish governmental processes dedicated exclusively to these goals. This approach — exemplified in President Obama’s 2011 declaration that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States” and his creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board — has yielded significant gains. But it also has led to the reification of “atrocity prevention” as a niche issue with an overemphasis on the distinctiveness of preventing mass atrocities from “adjacent imperatives.”

This leads to two problems for atrocity prevention in practice.

First, it creates an unhelpful “threshold” question when addressing a country situation: Is it truly an “atrocity prevention situation,” to be handled by the dedicated atrocity prevention policy process? In many cases the answer will be no, because either a different cross-cutting issue, such as countering extremism, is deemed to be more salient, or officials responsible for all policy toward the country or region judge an “atrocity prevention” framing unhelpful. Too often this leaves atrocity prevention specialists working only on countries where atrocities have already begun or where the United States has few traditional interests, like Burundi and Guinea, and political costs of applying the term atrocities are manageable. But analyzing how mass atrocities would affect U.S. interests and developing policy measures to mitigate these risks are at least as important for countries where other strategic interests and significant risks of mass atrocities coexist, as in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Turkey, for example.

A second, parallel question is often raised about potential preventive actions: Are policy recommendations about preventing atrocities specifically or “just” about preventing conflict, addressing fragility, or advancing human rights? The core problem here is the misconception that because mass atrocities are distinct from violent conflict and other negative outcomes, that actions to prevent mass atrocities must be likewise distinct from those undertaken for other goals. Scholars Serena Sharma and Jennifer Welsh, for example, lament “the tendency to conflate the prevention of atrocity crimes with the more general prevention of armed conflict.” By appropriating a small amount of funds for atrocity prevention, alongside separate funds for human rights, reconciliation, and response to complex crises, the U.S. Congress may have inadvertently reinforced the notion that atrocity prevention actions are wholly distinct. But it is good strategy, not conflation, to recognize that many actions will contribute simultaneously to multiple goals. Imagining that the action agendas associated with atrocity prevention and “adjacent imperatives” are fully distinct is faulty logic, just as it would be fallacious to suggest that strategies for preventing cancer and for preventing heart disease must be wholly distinct.

The problems that flow from overemphasizing distinctiveness become increasingly plain as one moves “upstream” — to situations where risks are apparent, but large-scale violence and atrocities are neither ongoing nor imminent. Yet, it is widely accepted that upstream prevention is likely to be more effective than efforts to manage hot crises and influence actors after they have begun to commit atrocities.

How can better integration be achieved in practice?

Bureaucratically, it should mean having fewer separate country-focused policy processes. It is critical that contributions of subject matter experts on fragility, extremism, and atrocities be closely coordinated with each other and with the usually-dominant regional specialists. This doesn’t mean giving up on a dedicated interagency body like the Atrocities Prevention Board or Atrocity Early Warning Task Force (as it was renamed in 2019). Convening atrocity prevention specialists from multiple agencies under White House leadership can be extremely valuable for developing specific capacities, such as atrocity documentation, and overseeing lessons learned studies. But it makes little sense to have separate interagency discussions on a given country — or worse yet, arguments about which is the most suitable venue (e.g., should Zimbabwe be discussed by an interagency committee on fragile states, atrocity prevention, or Southern Africa?). For country-focused policymaking, it is time to give atrocity prevention specialists a seat at the table where major decisions are made, not their own table.

Strategically, better integration should mean more consistent emphasis on preventing, rather than responding to, a range of negative outcomes. This requires assessing risks holistically, engaging early, and adapting strategies over time. The Global Fragility Act’s mandate to develop a “comprehensive, integrated, ten-year strategy” and apply it to at least two priority “prevention” countries or regions should encourage this kind of approach. In spite of the bureaucratic instinct to see adjacent agendas as competition for scarce resources, in most cases, attempts to reduce risks of mass atrocities will be stronger by embracing overlap with efforts to prevent conflict, address fragility, and counter extremism. In those instances when preventing atrocities is actually in tension with other U.S. foreign policy goals, a less fragmented policy process should encourage direct debate about priorities. National Security Council (NSC) Deputies and Principals should ensure that this kind of debate includes all relevant perspectives, even unwelcome ones.

The main risk of greater integration is that concerns about mass atrocities might always be overridden by other foreign policy interests. This leads to the last key to effective integration: a clearly articulated commitment from political leaders to preventing mass atrocities and genocide.

Every U.S. president in this century, at least, has included preventing or responding to genocide in the National Security Strategy. Obama went furthest by declaring it “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility” (though Stephen Pomper reports two former senior officials felt that “strong” or “important” better matched the administration’s approach in practice). In a 2020 report to Congress, the Trump administration called preventing and responding to atrocities a “a key national security and foreign policy priority.” Regardless of exactly how political leaders characterize the interest in preventing mass atrocities, persuading rank and file U.S. officials and observers abroad that it is more than aspirational rhetoric will require repeated statements and — most important — demonstrations of how interest leads to action.

Thus, the challenge and opportunity for U.S. leaders is to communicate anew how the prevention of atrocities advances U.S. interests and to build a policy process that reflects the importance of atrocity prevention, without setting it apart from other important foreign policy goals.

IMAGE: A child stands through a curtain of traditional fabrics in Alamata, Ethiopia, on December 8, 2020. (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Lawrence Woocher

Lawrence Woocher is research director at the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The assertions, opinions, and conclusions in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.