Human rights groups have welcomed this week’s announcement by the Obama administration of a new interagency initiative to address the threat of impending atrocities or potentially genocidal actions.
“Sixty-six years since the Holocaust and 17 years after Rwanda, the United States still lacks a comprehensive policy framework and a corresponding interagency mechanism for preventing and responding to mass atrocities and genocide,” said President Barack Obama, announcing the Presidential Directive on Mass Atrocities. Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a “core national security interest” of the United States, he said. The directive establishes a standing interagency Atrocities Prevention Board with the authority to develop prevention strategies and ensure that impending threats are addressed at the most senior levels of the government.
The principal advisers to the US president did not convene a single meeting to consider how to respond to the emerging Rwandan genocide in which at least 800,000 people were killed, notes Michael Abramowitz (above), director of the Genocide Prevention Initiative at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The two co-chairs of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission also endorsed the directive, noting that it also prohibits human rights violators from entering the United States.
James P. McGovern (MA) and Frank R. Wolf (VA) today endorsed President Obama’s directive aimed at both preventing mass atrocities and prohibiting human rights violators from the privilege of entering the United States.
“I’ve seen first-hand in places like East Timor, Darfur and eastern Chad what happens when people are in danger and the world fails to act,” said Rep. James P. McGovern (MA), welcoming the “‘no safe haven’ policy against human rights violators and war criminals.”
The United States has a responsibility to prevent genocide, said Rep. Frank Wolf (VA). “By elevating the concerns found by the board to senior levels, we can prevent future tragedies from occurring,” he said.
Human rights and democracy assistance groups have been pushing for a more strategic and consistent approach to anticipating atrocities and genocidal violence, including calls for preventive strategies at recent conferences organized by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Endowment for Democracy on the Democratic Republic of Congo and the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre.
And a senior figure from within the Obama administration has made the case for the US to demonstrate its moral leadership.
“America’s leadership will be indispensable in encouraging U.S. allies and regional and international institutions to step up their commitments and capacities,” wrote Samantha Power, a leading policy adviser on the National Security Council. “The United States should not frame its policy options in terms of doing nothing or unilaterally sending in the Marines,” she wrote in her 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.”
As the Wall Street Journal reports, the Pentagon has already launched its own initiative to facilitate a military response to potential mass killings, inspired by Harvard professor Sarah Sewall’s advocacy of “mass atrocity response operations.”
There remains the challenge of ensuring a consistent approach on the part of the world’s leading democracies.
The allied intervention in Libya has been justified in some parties by reference to the United Nations’ Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. But “R2P at best will be a flawed principle of moral action because it cannot be applied even-handedly,” notes Joshua Muravchik, a Foreign Policy Institute fellow at Johns Hopkins University.
In any case, if Syrian dissidents were to call for outside intervention to stop the regime’s massacre of civilians in Hama and elsewhere, it is more likely that the Obama administration and allied democracies would respond than a UN that is easily paralyzed by autocratic powers like Russia and China [and, he might add, emerging democracies like India, South Africa and Brazil, responsible for a "deplorable" refusal to condemn Assad's actions]:
In this era when violence within states is far more common than between them, cases of extreme abuse will sometimes cry out for outside intervention. But the traditional doctrine of humanitarian intervention, invoked by the United States and other democracies at their own discretion, is likely to offer a more usable basis for such action than the shiny new version called R2P, which places all authority in the paralytic hands of the United Nations Security Council.