Burma is in crisis. In the wake of last month’s coup, people from all walks of life have taken to the streets in some of the largest protests in Burma’s recent history. Amid an increasingly violent crackdown and uncertain international consequences, the military junta may yet again escape accountability, not only for jailing the newly democratically elected government and killing peaceful protestors, but also for its 2017 genocide against the Rohingya.
However Burma — referred to by the military as Myanmar — emerges from this impasse, these events serve as a powerful reminder of the tragic failure to prevent mass killings. Time and again in the last few decades — Burma, Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Syria — the international community has failed to make good on the famous promise “never again,” made in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Each time, U.S policymakers have been caught on the backfoot, often ensnared in a false binary choice in moments of crises: either take military action to “stop” the violence or do “nothing.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Mass atrocities can be predicted – the same structural phenomena drive violence and armed conflict: resource scarcity, zero-sum political and economic competition, and human rights abuses. A new report by the progressive foreign policy advocacy organization Win Without War Education Fund finds it is the U.S. over-reliance on military means, its prioritization of global military dominance as its core national security priority, and its crisis management approach to violence that has prevented it from effectively preventing atrocities. A review of U.S. responses to mass atrocities in Kenya in 2007, in Syria since 2011, and in Burma in 2017 reveals that atrocity prevention will remain an aspiration unless the U.S. fundamentally reorients its overall approach to violence. (Disclaimer: I was the report’s primary researcher and author while a Herbert J. Scoville Peace Fellow at Win Without War Education Fund.)
The U.S. government doesn’t have to start from scratch. By divesting from destabilizing security partnerships and unneeded military capabilities, and investing in a coordinated conflict prevention and peacebuilding strategy that builds on current prediction, prevention, and accountability tools, the United States can end its role in exacerbating violence and become a credible actor for peace. That could include a range of peacebuilding work that builds lasting trust, dialogue, and interconnection among communities to reduce and prevent violent conflict.
But first, U.S. prediction tools (most often early warning systems across and outside the U.S. government that track indicators of potential mass atrocity violence) must evolve to include the nontraditional and transnational security challenges of this century – the climate crisis, inequality, and authoritarian ethno-nationalism. In Syria prior to 2006, for example, new technologies like Peace Rising used publicly-available data to identify specific areas that were most vulnerable to the drought, which could have been used by U.S. and international policymakers to target food assistance, sustainable agricultural development, and other local needs. Doing so could have helped build local resiliency and minimize the resulting forced urbanization and economic downturn that contributed to the popular uprising in 2011.
Missed Opportunities at Prevention
Furthermore, policymaker discussions must shift from trying to pinpoint when an atrocity may occur, to how the U.S. can positively impact local drivers of conflict preemptively to prevent violence from occurring in the first place. In the years leading up to the Rohingya genocide in 2017, for example, non-government monitors were tracking incidents of hate speech, state rhetoric, and policy measures designed to obstruct international observation, and those civic activists identified and repeatedly warned of the risk of atrocities. But despite three years of such warnings and advocacy, the Obama administration equated limited liberalization in Burma with democratization, and prioritized perceived geopolitical interests over human security. As a result, the executive branch repeatedly rebuffed appeals to take action such as targeted sanctions against Burmese military-owned or -controlled businesses.
It has long been the case that U.S. policymakers have confused conflict prevention with urgent responses. The U.S. government often waits to act until an atrocity is already underway. If the United States seeks to prevent mass atrocities, it must lead with diplomacy and peacebuilding early, to address threats to human security like rights abuses and climate shocks, before violence occurs. By prioritizing conflict prevention in its bilateral and multilateral engagement, the U.S. could help empower local communities to build long-lasting – rather than fragile — peace and security that addresses the root causes of violence.
In practice, such empowerment could take many forms — for example, providing small, flexible, thematic-based grants that focus on helping civil society and community organizations increase their capacity and allow them to adapt their interventions as needed in rapidly changing situations. In the case of disputed elections that risk turning violent, prevention could mean public diplomatic pressure on electoral candidates to call for calm, or, in the case of gross violations of human rights and grand corruption, especially by a head of state, prevention may involve targeted sanctions on individual perpetrators.
Accountability can be both a punitive and preventive tool to help establish tangible costs for current and potential harms. Political and financial investments in transformative and restorative justice measures are essential to building sustainable peace, but they should be locally-designed to ensure that the right balance of accountability and reconciliation is met for the communities that have been harmed. Ending military assistance, meaningfully engaging with the International Criminal Court, targeted Global Magnitsky and multilateral sanctions on specific individual perpetrators, and universal jurisdiction are all tools the U.S. could be using consistently to strengthen the international norms and laws to which it hopes to hold others accountable.
With Security Partners Like These
Overall, however, accountability remains a concept the U.S. government loves to wield against perceived adversaries but is loath to consistently implement when it comes to ostensible “security partners.” Mere months after the Rohingya genocide, for example, the U.S. invited the Burmese military to a military exercise meeting in the Pacific, essentially signaling that military cooperation and perceived geopolitical interests would continue to trump genocide. Sadly, this type of impunity for the perpetrators of violence is par for the course in the U.S. This inconsistency – along with the United States unwillingness to recognize and address how some of its bilateral policies and military alliances actively help fuel conflict – represents a key challenge to U.S. credibility on human rights and democracy. Without a change in how the U.S. approaches international accountability, it is unlikely to succeed in successfully implementing the strategy proposed by the report.
Any reform of the U.S. approach to atrocity prevention must therefore be linked to a wider transformation of foreign policy strategy as a whole and an acceptance of accountability for past harms. The U.S. over-reliance on military means for resolving security challenges around the world – especially over the past 20 years – has led to a capricious U.S. approach to resolving political violence and armed conflict. The concept of human rights has been selectively applied and instrumentalized in pursuit of counterterrorism missions that arm and train the very people the U.S. military later faces on the battlefield. An overinvestment in a militarized national security approach has given undue political power and influence to defense contractors and generals, a trend that has only reinforced the crisis-management approach to mass atrocities.
That dynamic is compounded by institutional challenges like the lack of staff capacity, an inability to mobilize long-term resources, a reticence to take bad news to the president, and the ready availability of hard security tools. So policymakers often avoid focusing on an issue when the costs of early nonmilitary action is low, and instead wait until a crisis breaks out, when there are enormous potential political — and often deadly — costs to making the wrong decision.
It’s clear the United States has the foundational tools necessary to stop enabling some of humanity’s most heinous crimes and to meaningfully account for the needs of people in its approach to violence and armed conflict. Congress and the administration can immediately bolster this new approach by, respectively, conducting robust oversight and implementing the Global Fragility Act. Moreover, the upcoming Presidential Budget Request to Congress and the appropriations cycle that follows provide further opportunities for both the Biden administration and lawmakers to signal that they understand piecemeal reforms will recreate failures of the past. The two branches should, respectively, request and appropriate a significantly reduced Pentagon budget and a doubling of the foreign operations budget that funds the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and related support overseas.
A new U.S. approach to violence – one that empowers the relevant agencies and multilateral partners to use diplomacy and peacebuilding to track and defuse local and international drivers to violence before they explode — is urgently needed if the U.S. hopes to play a credible role in building human security this century.