Sunday, August 21, 2011

Obama's Atrocities Prevention Board

On August 4, the Obama Administration issued a press release calling for an Atrocity Prevention Board, where the president is calling upon the US to strengthen its ability to prevent mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. As the release makes clear, the directive establishes "a standing interagency Atrocities Prevention Board with the authority to develop prevention strategies and to ensure that concerns are elevated for senior decision-making so that we are better able to work with our be responsive to early warning signs."

Clearly, such an initiative should be applauded, especially given the US track record vis-a-vis genocides and mass atrocities. I suspect that Samantha Power is having an influence on the president, given that her book, a well-written and researched playback of how the US has time and again turned its head during times of international crisis, is a must-read on the subject of US non-intervention. Situations like Bosnia and Rwanda are the obvious ones in recent history, but the calamity in Cambodia following on the heels of the Vietnam conflict is also top of mind, and one cannot neglect mentioning the Holocaust, when it was known by the West what Hitler had in store for European Jewry early enough where some action could have been taken to prevent the number murdered to reach 6 million. It's known today that the intervention in Kosovo was done to prevent a possible genocide, as Milosevic was determined to create a pure Greater Serbia, whereby he was going to cleanse the former autonomous province of its Albanian population.

This directive puts the wrongs committed by the US on the table in the past and seeks to create a new framework from which the US will operate under should there be, or perhaps when there will be, the next opportunity to prevent massive crimes against humanity. It adds two key elements to the discussion, the first ensures that the US "does not become a safe haven for human rights violators or those responsible for other atrocities....such as participants in genocide, torture, extra-judicial killings or certain violations of religious freedom." The second element acts as a deterrent for groups wishing to carry out a crime by shaming them before the actual act were to take place.

With regards to the first element, watching current events one will see that the US has been fairly proactive in deporting former Nazi soldiers, with the most notable one coming in 2009 when John Demjanjuk was sent to Germany and has since been convicted of killing some 28,000 Jews at Sobibor. And I believe the US has acted on Hutu Rwandans who have sought safe haven here, with one seemingly coming to mind who was living in Texas over the past 2 or 3 years. So this directive puts in place, at least in theory, a mechanism that keeps these people from entering the US in the first place after the crime was committed.

As for the second element, Power expresses outrage in her book in at least one chapter at the lack of shaming to come out of the US government in the past. This now aims to correct that and rightfully so.

Many Jewish organizations have come out and applauded the administration for the directive, not surprisingly given the history of the Jewish people.

But if there is a concern about all this, it goes back to the question of intervention. In the Power's book, if we were to take each situation and see to it that the US intervened militarily each time, the American people would, in my view, express outrage. The US is already seen as the world's policeman; it's not something to celebrate, especially at a time when state building at home is in dire need. Given that the military is already over-stretched, and the cost for military deployment has drained the US economy, stopping mass atrocities from happening militarily seems almost out of the question. Of course, there are non-military levers that can be pulled, shaming constituting one of those, that would leave the military out of it, but not necessarily stop the atrocities from occuring. One would hope that all diplomatic mechanisms would be pulled first before sending in the military, but an adventurous president is not necessarily a rare breed.

With all that said, Obama would like to see the Atrocities Prevention Board operational within 120 days. While the directive is no doubt a lofty and admirable goal, one hopes that the US can live up to the obligations it is setting out for itself. Establishing leadership in the world is a wonderful thing, but now the US has to make good on its promises. Only time will tell if it has the political will, and the American people have the stomach, for more interventions in far away places that may or may not directly impact the United States and its national security.

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