(Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment in a symposium on “The Future of Atrocity Prevention,” organized in collaboration with the Programme on International Peace and Security at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. An introduction to the symposium and links to all installments can be found here.)
Fifteen years ago, the Genocide Prevention Task Force released its final report, Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers. Led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, the group of former officials and politicians was charged with developing recommendations to improve the U.S. government’s ability to prevent and respond to mass atrocities. The task force found that, despite a rhetorical commitment to “never again,” high-level U.S. officials rarely paid much attention to mass atrocity threats, and responses typically occurred in an ad hoc manner, leading to a “mixed” record.
At the time, the United States had no law, official policy, or strategy on the prevention of mass atrocities. There was no standing interagency process dedicated to atrocity prevention, no congressional appropriations devoted specifically to atrocity prevention, and no regular forum to coordinate atrocity prevention action among “like-minded” countries. When the report was released in 2008, virtually no U.S. government official would have been able to point to helping prevent mass atrocities in their job description, and no official training on atrocity prevention was required – or even existed.
All of these specific deficiencies have since been addressed. The 2011 Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities declared for the first time that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States,” a statement that has been reaffirmed across multiple administrations. A dedicated interagency body has existed since 2012 – first as the Atrocities Prevention Board, then as the Atrocities Early Warning Task Force, and now as the Atrocity Prevention Task Force. Since 2017, Congress has appropriated at least $5 million annually for atrocity prevention programs. A 2016 Executive Order, which remains in force today, made official many actions initiated by the 2011 directive. The Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act became law in 2019, mandating atrocity prevention training for certain Foreign Service Officers. Following the Elie Wiesel Act’s endorsement of a government-wide strategy, in 2022, the State Department released the first ever US Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities.
When summarized this way, U.S. progress on atrocity prevention is breathtaking. If you had told me and others who contributed to the Task Force report in 2008 that so much progress would be made toward implementing the atrocity prevention “blueprint,” we surely would have expected these reforms to result in more crises averted and atrocities prevented.
While the United States can claim success in some specific cases, overall the reforms of the last 15 years have not produced a world where mass atrocities are less and less frequent and are quickly contained when they do occur.
The lack of progress toward these goals is partly because of global changes that have tended to increase risks of mass atrocities and make their prevention more difficult, and partly because U.S. government reforms have been less transformative than it might seem. In a period of greater uncertainty and constraints on U.S. action, investing in two relatively neglected priorities – early prevention and continuous learning – could help reinvigorate U.S. leadership on atrocity prevention.
The Stubborn Persistence of Mass Atrocities
Data on mass killings from the Early Warning Project, a joint initiative of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, show no obvious decline in their frequency over the last 10 to 15 years. The number of ongoing mass killing episodes has remained virtually unchanged since 2008, following a 15-year period of decline. In addition, more new mass killings occurred from 2009 to 2013 than any other five-year period since the immediate post-Cold War period.
Several mass atrocity situations in this period have been especially severe. For example, the civilian fatalities from mass atrocities in Syria, South Sudan, and Ethiopia are each estimated in the hundreds of thousands.
In addition to fatalities, the impact of mass atrocities can be measured in today’s historically high number of refugees. More than half of the world’s 35 million refugees fled violence in Syria, Ukraine, and Afghanistan. The Burmese military’s attacks on Rohingya between 2016 and 2018 forced about 800,000 people to flee to Bangladesh, representing the largest government-sponsored mass expulsion since former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic expelled a similar number of Kosovar Albanians between 1998 and 1999. Azerbaijan’s attacks in Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023 led more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians to flee in a matter of days.
Evaluating the effectiveness of U.S. government reforms on an issue like mass atrocities is difficult. Among other challenges, it requires assessing multi-layered counterfactual scenarios. (For example, how would U.S. action on the Central African Republic in the 2010s have differed in the absence of a presidential atrocity prevention directive? Would these different actions have resulted in more or less violence against civilians?) It is always possible that mass atrocities across the world would have been significantly worse had the reforms not been implemented. Nevertheless, no one who cares about preventing atrocities should find the recent record satisfying.
What Went Wrong?
Why, then, has the impressive U.S. action on the atrocity prevention blueprint not translated into more success in preventing mass atrocities around the world?
First and probably foremost, the world has become more complex and challenging. The strongest mass atrocity risk factor – armed conflict – reached a 30-year high in 2015. Exclusionary ideologies such as extreme forms of nationalism – another key risk factor – have gained support among politicians and the public in many regions of the globe. Increasing political competition among great powers has complicated multilateral action to manage crises and prevent atrocities, most notably by stymying action at the United Nations Security Council. Other global trends, such as climate change and new technologies, are also likely contributing to mass atrocity risks. Regardless of how well-prepared the United States may be, global factors seem to have made mass atrocity crises more frequent and more difficult to address.
Second, despite consistent rhetorical commitment for more than a decade, all indications are that the U.S. government has not treated preventing mass atrocities as a “core national security interest” in practice. The robust U.S. response to Russian atrocities in Ukraine – including tens of billions of dollars in security and humanitarian assistance, multiple rounds of economic sanctions, a crimes against humanity determination announced by the vice president, and a presidential visit – stands in sharp contrast to cases such as Burma, Ethiopia, and Sudan, where other U.S. interests do not align so neatly with atrocity prevention. Stephen Pomper, a key player in the Obama administration’s prevention initiatives, cited two former senior officials who acknowledged that “‘strong’ or ‘important’ interest might have been better calibrated to the administration’s actual approach.”
For example, the interagency atrocity prevention process has almost never engaged National Security Council (NSC) deputies or principals, the most senior U.S. national security officials. Congressional funding for atrocity prevention has been very small: $6.5 million in FY23, a fraction even when compared with other non-traditional national security priorities (for example, $150 million in FY23 for women, peace and security), let alone funding for priorities like international security cooperation ($1.51 billion in FY23). The International Atrocity Prevention Working Group, which was created to coordinate actions among “like-minded” countries, has functioned mainly as an information-sharing venue, with less success in promoting joint action in specific cases. Pushing for more high-level attention, more funding, and more international cooperation is still sensible. But the immediate future does not look auspicious, as great power competition, climate change, and other issues compete for time, money, and attention.
On top of these points is another important challenge that has been largely neglected: the difficulty of determining what measures or approaches will be effective at forestalling any particular atrocity crisis. Looking back, the Task Force’s recommendations stood on a critical, yet unstated assumption that U.S. decisionmakers would have little trouble choosing effective actions in a specific case, as long as they had proper warning, suitable tools available, and direction from the top to prioritize atrocity prevention. Or as Pomper put it, the Task Force report “was a call to action premised on the notion that with sufficient confidence, commitment, and help from like-minded friends, the United States could create a genocide-free world.”
Adapting to Greater Uncertainty and Constraints
French genocide scholar Jacques Sémelin wrote about this limitation to the Task Force’s blueprint in 2009:
The Albright-Cohen Report notes that ‘‘action before or at an early stage of a crisis holds the greatest promise.’’…But action of what kind? There is simply no discussion in the report of what can be—or not be—effective.
Sémelin’s critique is even more relevant now. The changing global context means that lessons learned from earlier periods may not hold today or in the future.
For example, among the main lessons from the 1990s was that force was sometimes necessary to prevent atrocities and that diplomacy was much more effective when backed up by the threat of force. As the Task Force stated, “The credible threat of coercive measures, including ultimately the use of force, is widely seen as a necessary complement to successful preventive diplomacy.”
Today, it is less clear that the threat or use of force by the United States is a reliable way to prevent atrocities. NATO’s military intervention in Libya, on top of U.S. invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq (granting that neither of the latter two was designed to prevent atrocities), have rightly increased skepticism about the ability of military force to achieve ambitious political or humanitarian goals.
Even more important for the effectiveness of prevention is whether any U.S. official over the next decade could credibly threaten to use force to prevent mass atrocities. Russia and China would be loath to approve any Libya-style intervention in the foreseeable future, so the prospect of acting with the legitimacy of Security Council backing is dim at best. Strategically, the United States is likely to conserve its military forces for a growing list of threats, including potential Russian and Chinese aggression. Domestically, presidents can expect less congressional and public support for the use of force outside of self-defense, as factions on both the left and right seek to avoid “endless wars.” Indications that U.S. public support for military aid to Ukraine may be waning suggest that domestic skepticism about the use of force could extend to indirect engagements as well.
Thus, a key challenge for U.S. leaders in the years ahead will be to forge atrocity prevention strategies that do not rely on the threat or use of force.
Commit to Early Prevention and Continuous Learning
The greater uncertainty and the constraints on U.S. action to prevent atrocities lead to two broad prescriptions.
First, the United States should invest more seriously in “upstream” or early prevention efforts. This has been a common recommendation (for example, see here, here, and here), but has yet to be fully embraced. Ongoing efforts, such as the Atrocity Prevention Task Force’s work on a few “priority prevention countries,” should be both widened and deepened. Widening means working on more than a few countries, focusing on countries at relatively high risk of mass atrocities that are not yet experiencing large-scale violence. Deepening means increasing the amount of foreign assistance funding available – recognizing that early preventive investments are likely to lessen the need for costly response measures – and coordinating assistance programs with diplomacy, defense cooperation, and other levers of influence. The Global Fragility Act of 2019 provides a good model of long-term, whole-of-government engagement, though it remains to be seen whether its implementation will meet aspirations.
Second, the U.S. government should commit more seriously to learning lessons over time and applying them in practice. A strong foundation in law and policy already exists for ensuring that atrocity prevention is “evidence-informed.” Yet, as Julia Fromholz, Tallan Donine, and I concluded in a recent report, major obstacles continue to impede consistent and effective use of lessons learned and other evidence.
Above all, the State Department and other members of the interagency Atrocity Prevention Task Force should seek to foster a stronger learning culture. That means encouraging reflection and acceptance of mistakes (as learning opportunities), and committing to continuous improvement by adapting quickly based on learning. More concretely, U.S. officials should establish regular processes for continuously documenting lessons, large and small. This should take the form of formal after-action reports on major atrocity crises and less formal “pause and reflect” activities on discrete efforts (for example, how did relevant actors respond to an early condemnation of rights abuses?). Equally important is taking steps to promote the use of lessons in subsequent policy decisions. For example, the secretary of state could direct the under secretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights (who oversees relevant functional bureaus) and the under secretary for political affairs (who oversees regional bureaus) to jointly ensure that atrocity prevention decisions are informed by lessons learned and other evidence.
A shifting global landscape also calls for a shift in mindset. Healthy doses of boldness and confidence in U.S. power animated the important atrocity prevention reforms of the last 15 years. To be most effective in the coming years, these should be paired with greater humility and adaptability. This type of mindset was described well by a group of international scholars in 2015:
While urgency continues to require action, acting responsibly in the face of such great uncertainty calls for being less confident in the ability to determine the best possible policy in any situation…All we can do is attempt to identify the most responsible way forward in every case, while being ready and able to quickly react to new developments and improve the policy toolkit.
Fifteen years ago, Albright and Cohen described preventing genocide as “one of the most persistent puzzles of our times.” Their leadership set off a series of important reforms within the U.S. government, yet the puzzle of how to prevent mass atrocities is no less evident today. Investing more heavily in addressing mass atrocity risks early and committing to learning and adapting over time are two ways that today’s leaders can help address new and enduring challenges. Adapting to changing circumstances is critical, but one thing must not change: standing firm in the commitment to prevent the world’s most conscience-shocking atrocities.