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Institutionalizing Atrocity Prevention

April 24, 2012

I’m sure there will be plenty of skeptics, but President Obama’s speech this morning at the U.S. Holocaust Museum (see Charli’s post below) and today’s first meeting of the atrocity prevention board at the White House is a positive development. For the past twenty years — since the beginning of the Bosnian War — the U.S. has gradually increased the resources and institutional capacities for collecting and analyzing intelligence, preventing, and coordinating responses to mass atrocities.

Yet, it is clear that even with these efforts, the U.S. government efforts have continued to be plagued by too many ad hoc structures, coordination challenges, and persistent organizational cultural biases against human security.

Twenty years ago this month, as an analyst in INR at the State Department, I began coordinating the collection and analysis of U.S. intelligence on war crimes and atrocities in the Bosnian war. A year and a half later, I, along with two of my colleagues resigned out of frustration with U.S. indifference to the mass violence. Samantha Power later reported in A Problem from Hell that after we resigned, a number of senior State Department officials thought our “problem” was that we had become “too emotional” and a whisper campaign attacked us for “our unprofessional stands.”

Much has changed since then, but skepticism of human security issues and concerns about institutionalizing mass atrocity prevention (especially with Samantha Power at the helm) remain deeply entrenched in many parts of the foreign policy and military establishment.

The challenge of course is that effective prevention and response to mass atrocity events is enormously complex. In its call for papers for this summer’s 3rd Global Conference on Genocide, the International Network of Genocide Scholars lamented:

The failure of the international community to develop effective mechanisms to prevent genocide finds its parallel in academia’s failure to critically reflect on the state of prevention or to develop new theoretical approaches to respond to it.

Furthermore, as the debates on Syria demonstrate, prevention and response is complicated by a wide range of strategic, political, historical, and military factors. Assessments of mass atrocity events (and of response) are almost always probabilistic and open to political, analytical, and legal contestation. These complexities and challenges aren’t going to disappear with a presidential speech and a new board.

Still, this board is the first time there will be a standing body with the specific task of managing the U.S. prevention and response to events of mass violence. It is a positive development.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.