In the 20 years since the horrific 1994 genocide in Rwanda and its terrible spillover into the Congo, it has been clear that the global community remains ill-equipped to address such human-made catastrophic tragedies.
While many have worked to heal Rwanda, crises of unfathomable mass violence have continued to unfold in places like Sierra Leone, the former Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Syria. In each case, the international community has failed to live up to a global commitment to prevention, protection and accountability for mass crimes.
War and mass violence not only halts development, it reverses it — scarring the lives and memories of new generations. This creates traumatized societies — one of the biggest factors contributing to conflict.
Human rights, good governance, rule of law, economic opportunity, and norms of international, restorative and reparative justice all need to be nurtured and encouraged to build peaceful societies. We founded Humanity United in 2005 to connect and support public, private and social sectors with the same vision.
The destructive nature of mass violence must be stopped in order for countries to progress and their populations to thrive. We have worked with partners — individuals, governments and institutions — to strengthen the policies and laws that can help prevent mass atrocities before the killing starts.
President Barack Obama announced the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) during a 2012 speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It was established after a 2008 report by the Genocide Prevention Task Force recommended it, and is supported by a coalition of civil society groups — the Prevention and Protection Working Group — and funded by Humanity United.
The APB brings together every relevant U.S. agency, such as the State Department, the Defense Department and U.S. Agency for International Development to develop new tools for identifying, preventing and responding to escalating crises around the world. But two years later the board’s record is mixed.
There have been some successes, such as the APB’s work with the international community and local civil society groups to prevent election-based violence in Kenya. There was also an early response to violence in Jonglei, South Sudan in 2013. It was successful in focusing public attention on the Myanmar regime’s oppression of the Rohingya people and increased aid to the Central African Republic. The U.S. Treasury Department has increased efforts to locate and punish those responsible for atrocities.
There is no denying, however, that we have failed to prevent and address recent atrocities in places like Syria and South Sudan. In Myanmar, increased engagement is required to prevent more mass violence against minority populations.
Critics cite these cases as APB failures. Yet the solution does not lie, as these critics argue, in dismantling the APB. In fact, the board requires far more support — and should have more investment.
The APB’s mission and mandate is to ensure that atrocities prevention is treated as a core national security priority. But its structure is problematic. One unfortunate consequence of interagency boards is the dilution of leadership and accountability. Clarity on the ultimate responsibility for the APB and its conduct is needed — as well as continued development and better access to the tools, including high-level diplomatic pressure on parties to the conflict, increased humanitarian access and assistance, denial of impunity for perpetrators and strengthened targeted sanctions for the enablers of atrocities. All this is crucial to prevent a tipping point into chaos.
To be effective, the board needs more support from Congress and civil society and it must be made permanent through an executive order so that atrocities prevention will remain a priority in the future.
In our interconnected and interdependent world, preventing atrocities is in everyone’s interest. It remains U.S. foreign policy’s most haunting challenge. The more than 800,000 victims in Rwanda, as well as the millions killed and displaced in Syria, South Sudan and countless other locations, demonstrate the danger of complacency.