More Than Just Remembering

The president's new Atrocities Prevention Board represents a pragmatic -- and timely -- commitment to deterring mass violence worldwide.


New presidential initiatives launched during an election year often suffer from the curse of poor timing — being reduced to a punch line in attack ads or the victim of opposition research. But a critical issue has emerged during this 2012 campaign that should command bipartisan appeal. U.S. President Barack Obama’s planned announcement Monday morning at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum of a new interagency Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) addresses a structural deficit our government has faced for decades across different presidential administrations: What options do we have beyond doing nothing and short of intervening militarily to prevent, deter, and end bloodshed against innocent civilians?

The initiative calls for a group of senior administration officials to meet monthly to develop and implement prevention and response policies that will draw upon the specialized tools and reach of all U.S. government agencies. The options available for strengthening U.S. policy include tightening American immigration regulations to deny human rights abusers’ access to the United States and allied nations, expanding domestic judicial mandates to prosecute perpetrators of humanitarian crimes, and the first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on the global risk of mass atrocities. Equally important, the president’s announcement elevates the importance and value of saving lives — putting that lofty objective on more equal footing with other competing foreign-policy priorities.

This initiative should not be viewed as a new doctrine for humanitarian intervention or global adventurism, as some might suggest. Rather, it is a clear-eyed and pragmatic attempt to expand our government’s toolbox to meet the challenges posed by tyrants who pose an extraordinary threat to their civilian populations. This toolbox is about more than sending in the Marines — it is about better intelligence, more focused preventive diplomacy, and the smarter use of coercive pressures that might deter would-be perpetrators from employing mass violence to achieve their political goals.

We are proud to note that the creation of the APB, along with other initiatives aimed at improving the training of American diplomats in detecting the warning signs of mass atrocities, the U.S. intelligence community’s collection of this information, and the military’s operational preparedness during these crises, borrow heavily from the 2008 findings and recommendations of a bipartisan Genocide Prevention Task Force, which we co-chaired with former colleagues from around the government and across Democratic and Republican administrations.

What brought us together five years ago to begin our work was our deeply shared sense of frustration. We felt that our government was underresourced, poorly structured, and ill-prepared to prevent and respond to the worst forms of violence against civilians, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. The challenges the world faces in protecting civilians today in Syria and Sudan show the problem has not gone away. Much more plainly needs to be done.

Every American president since World War II, irrespective of political stripe, has been charged on his watch with responding to a mass-atrocity situation somewhere in the world. Such problems are almost certain to recur. It is vital that we learn the lessons of the past, so that we may be prepared to act sooner and more effectively in the future. That’s why President Obama’s initiative is so timely and why it deserves broad support.

While an important step forward, the creation of this Atrocities Prevention Board is not in itself a guarantee of an adequate response. The real test will be whether the U.S. government will use this body and the tools it develops to heed the warning signs and to engage early enough at the highest levels of government to prevent atrocities. No longer will bureaucratic inadequacy and lack of prioritization be an excuse for inaction — indeed, this initiative raises the standards of accountability for this and future administrations.

In 2008, the authors co-chaired a Genocide Prevention Task Force convened by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the American Academy of Diplomacy. You can watch a live webcast of the president’s speech at

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