One week after Holocaust Remembrance Day and a day shy of the anniversary of the Armenian genocide, President Barack Obama stood at a lectern in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, facing an audience of career genocide fighters and a front-row phalanx of Holocaust survivors.
“‘Never again,’” the president said, invoking the familiar slogan, “is a challenge to us all to pause and to look within. For the Holocaust may have reached its barbaric climax at Treblinka and Auschwitz and Belzec, but it started in the hearts of ordinary men and women. And we have seen it again—madness that can sweep through peoples, sweep through nations, embed itself.”
Obama was speaking as much about the present as about the past. As the Sudanese threaten to tumble back into war, and Syria faces an escalating humanitarian disaster, the president spoke at length about the responsibility of government in the face of human disaster. “We are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save,” Obama said.
Sheathed in the language of the Holocaust (and embedding in that message an assurance that he stands with the state of Israel and against anti-Semitism), the president announced the creation of an Atrocity Prevention Board, an interagency mechanism that calls for a new means of preventing mass atrocities and genocides. The board’s creation was the result of a White House statement issued last summer that "preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national-security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.” It was the first time the U.S. government had made such a statement.
Also on Monday, the president announced an executive order targeting governments and individuals who use information technology as a means of abusing human rights. Specifically focused on Iran and Syria, the order will effectively deny visas and strengthen sanctions.
The message sent by the APB’s creation is clear—the question is whether it can be implemented.
“It sounds blue-sky perfect,” said Sarah Margon, associate director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress. But Margon called attention to several sticking points—including how we train our embassies and foreign-service officers to respond and understand the challenges we face, as well as how to gather intelligence on the ground. Additionally, she said, “it will require more funding, and flexible funding. If Congress is not on board, that will pose a lot of problems for implementation.” So far no money has been allocated to the board.
Finally, Margon said, the administration will need to broaden its definition of atrocities to include conflict itself. There are “not a lot of Rwandas, but a lot of slow-burn horrific conflicts,” she said.
Other observers were skeptical that the board would be backed by the willpower needed to succeed.
“The problem is often political and diplomatic will. Do we have the political will for efforts which may be costly or risky?” said Matthew Waxman, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Columbia University Law School, “Often, by the time we are talking about military intervention, it is too late.”
Waxman pointed to the differences between the recent conflicts in Libya—where military intervention seemed viable—and Syria, which presented a broader geopolitical bundle of problems.
“I think this is a useful step,” he said of the APB, “but it is not itself a solution. When a situation deteriorates to the point where the leader of a country is willing to massacre large segments of its population, finding effective tools for rolling back those atrocities is very, very difficult.”
The new board, chaired by Samantha Power, author of The Problem from Hell and the senior director for multilateral affairs at the National Security Council, will include a who’s who of the president’s cabinet, including representatives from the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, and Justice, among others.Its efforts will be first and foremost diplomatic, not military.
The board will meet on a monthly basis, and mechanisms are in place for intelligence gathering and response, as well as new tools, including targeted sanctions and civilian- as well as military-response-team training.
The APB isn’t the first time Washington has tried to bundle genocide or prevention of mass atrocities into foreign policy. Five years ago, a team including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen attempted to address how to stop atrocities before they occurred.
“The idea was to provide a focus for early warning from the intelligence community and for the authority to conduct early planning,” said Paul Stares, who participated in that effort and is now senior fellow for conflict prevention and director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. But they were concerned that the project would be “orphaned bureaucratically.”
In introducing Obama, the well-known writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel underscored the concerns of the community that so desperately wants this initiative to succeed. “The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented had the civilized world spoken up, taken measures in 1939. In 1940. In 1941. In 1942. Each time, in Berlin, Goebbels and the others wanted to see what the reaction would be in Washington and London. There was no reaction. So they felt they could continue. So in this place we may ask, Have we learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power?”