Prevent Mass Atrocities and Genocide with Real Action
Increasing Threats Force Victims to Flee
The question is not if President-elect Donald Trump will be faced with atrocities and genocide, but how will he respond in the face of violence and navigate existing and future political challenges, and—perhaps most importantly—to what extent will preventing conflicts before they begin be a policy priority?
Trump will face significant policy and political challenges related to mass atrocities and genocide immediately upon taking office in January 2017. In addition to ongoing violence and risks to civilian lives in places like Iraq, Syria, the Central African Republic, Myanmar, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Yemen, he will need to address transnational challenges like the unprecedented global humanitarian and refugee crises that are a direct result of this violence, and the rise of violent nonstate actors.
This is a unique moment. Thanks to major bipartisan and interinstitutional policy initiatives like the 2008 Genocide Prevention Task Force—whose report, Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers, made specific and practical policy recommendations to contribute to atrocity prevention—the current administration has made some significant headway in implementing policy recommendations that have worked to improve US government structures, tools, and resources to better prevent and respond to genocide and other mass atrocities. The next president will either seize upon this foundation as an opportunity to build on the existing atrocities-prevention framework or choose to turn away from these hard-won investments in favor of late, less effective, and more costly responses.
US moral obligations and national security interests related to early prevention of mass atrocities and genocide have long been recognized. However, advancing these efforts will not be without challenges. To provide the next president with a clear road map on how to advance atrocities prevention in 2017 and beyond, the Prevention and Protection Working Group—a coalition of nongovernmental organizations dedicated to improving US policies and civilian capacities to prevent mass atrocities—convened a group of experts from across the political spectrum to develop specific policy recommendations, which are detailed in the A Necessary Good: U.S. Leadership on Preventing Mass Atrocities.
Foremost, the next president must recommit to atrocities prevention as a national security priority. Without presidential leadership, policy advancements around structures, tools, and resources will mean very little. There must also be increased emphasis on early prevention, work to address related policy challenges like limited funding and the role of nonstate actors, and implementation of agency-level changes that can improve atrocities-prevention tools and increase capacities.
In addition to the prevention and mitigation of mass atrocities, there must also be a longer-term focus. Early prevention—what the report defines as “initiatives that aim to reduce social marginalization and conflict; strengthen legitimacy, accountability and resilience; and promote respect for human rights”—must also be prioritized and institutionalized. All of this work will require funding. While Congress is critical to providing resources, the next president must exhibit leadership in support of funding for early prevention in addition to an expansion of existing conflict- and atrocities-prevention accounts like the Complex Crises Fund.
While atrocities prevention has gained traction, it remains a niche issue that is not effectively connected to a broader national security framework, despite its elevation to coordination by the new Atrocities Prevention Board out of the National Security Council at the White House. When up against competing interests or urgent response needs, atrocities prevention is often sidelined.
Marginalization of the issue area has also increased in light of emerging policy prioritization on countering violent extremism (CVE) to address violence by nonstate actors. While there is significant overlap between the goals and approaches of atrocities prevention and CVE, stovepiping has prevented more-effective connections between these streams of work. For example, when atrocities are committed by extreme Islamist groups, US responses tend to fall under CVE, which too often prioritizes military action over civilian tools that can most effectively address root causes. The atrocities-prevention toolkit should be expanded to better address violence by nonstate actors.
The current landscape requires that the next president demonstrate leadership to engage meaningfully with the American public and Congress in order to move the atrocities-prevention agenda forward. The 2016 election has brought up significant questions, including what should be done about ongoing atrocities, the role of the State Department in conflict contexts post Benghazi, issues surrounding masses of refugees fleeing violence, and US engagement in the world more broadly. Expanding violence in places like Syria and Iraq clearly demonstrates why the prevention of atrocities is a worthy and imperative goal.
The next president does not need to reinvent the wheel on atrocities prevention. However, presidential leadership is critical to making the case for prevention as a renewed and expanded priority.
Finally, there must be recognition that despite its best efforts, the United States may not be able to prevent all violence. And the ultimate success—the prevention of atrocities—is difficult to prove. The next president will have to address these fundamental political challenges so that they do not cast a shadow that hinders effective prioritization of and policy implementation for prevention.
Allyson Neville coordinates the Prevention and Protection Working Group (PPWG), a coalition of human rights, religious, humanitarian, and peace organizations dedicated to the prevention of deadly conflict and protection of civilians. She joined the Friends Committee on National Legislation in March 2014.
— Allyson Neville
The Winter 2016 issue of Courier features policy insights for the President-elect and new US leadership to improve our peace and security in nuclear policy, genocide prevention, and climate change. The issue also includes an in-depth interview with a survivor of the Phnom Penh, Cambodia genocide in the late 1970s. The full Winter 2016 issue. PDF (1.0 MB) Subscribe for FREE.
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