Remarks at a Briefing to the Diplomatic Community on the Atrocities Prevention Board

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Dean Acheson Auditorium
Washington, DC
April 23, 2012

Good afternoon. I am Maria Otero, the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights. It is my pleasure to welcome all of you here to the Department of State. I am glad to see that the topic of prevention of mass atrocities is one that draws so many ambassadors and other members of the diplomatic corps.

This morning at the Holocaust Museum, President Obama commemorated the Holocaust by officially launching the U.S. government’s new Atrocities Prevention Board or APB. The establishment of this Board reflects President Obama’s commitment to finding ways to make “never again” a reality in the 21st Century.

Last August, President Obama issued Presidential Study Directive Number 10 on Mass Atrocities. The very first line of that directive reads, “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”

To make sure we further that interest and fulfill that responsibility, the President directed the first-ever comprehensive study of the U.S. government’s atrocity-prevention capabilities. Today, President Obama approved nearly 50 recommendations from the Study to institutionalize the coordination of a whole-of-government approach to preventing mass atrocities. Among those recommendations are ideas that we hope will:

  • Allow us to see warning signs of atrocities earlier;
  • Help us develop a wider range of options to prevent atrocities sooner;
  • And allow us to act before the costs become too great.

The President also noted that it is important that we work with partners in the international community, with UN organizations, and with civil society in our effort to prevent atrocities. As one example, today at the White House, the Board met with activists and NGOs who have been responsible for campaigns to stop atrocities, such as those perpetrated by Joseph Kony and the LRA.

Following the President’s speech, the Atrocities Prevention Board met for the first time. The Board is comprised of a dozen U.S. federal government agencies and offices -- including the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, Defense and USAID. It is chaired by Samantha Power, the President’s Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights. Secretary Clinton asked me to represent the State Department on the Board, allowing me to ensure that the Board has the benefit of the strengths of all the Offices and Bureaus in my new Under Secretariat for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights.

This includes not only the colleagues on the stage with me today, but also Bureaus handling population and refugee issues, democracy and human rights, narcotics and law enforcement and counter-terrorism. Leading roles in the State Department Task Force on Atrocity Prevention have also been played by our Bureau of International Organizations, the Office of our Legal Advisor, and our regional bureaus, all of whom have representatives here today. Together, we will work closely with our regional bureaus, drawing from their expertise, to ensure that the U.S. government recognizes and acts on early indicators of potential mass atrocities.

We will use new tools and improve old ones to prevent and respond to atrocities. The State Department and USAID are increasing the ability of the U.S. government to rapidly increase and deploy experts in protecting civilians to crisis areas. We will track lessons from atrocity-prevention and response, increase the capacity of the foreign service, armed services, and development professionals to engage in smart prevention.

And we will continue to encourage deep and broad support among our global partners, including international and regional organizations, to share the burdens of atrocity prevention and response.

The launch of the Atrocities Prevention Board is an important step but it is just the beginning of the hard work. Just because we have organized ourselves better to prevent and respond to atrocities does not mean that atrocities will not continue to happen. But we seek as part of this Study Directive to better understand, prevent, and respond to atrocities wherever they might happen in the world.

I will now introduce the other panelists. First, Ambassador Rick Barton is the Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations. CSO has deployable civilian engagement teams that focus on the early stages of conflict in particular countries, including those in which risks for mass atrocities are evident. Ambassador Barton has a deep background in conflict prevention having worked in Rwanda, Bosnia, Guatemala, Nigeria, among many others.

Next we will hear from Stephen Rapp, the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice. The office coordinates U.S. government support for existing international and hybrid courts that are trying persons responsible for mass atrocity crimes. The office also helps support domestic tribunals to investigate, judge, and deter atrocity crimes in every region of the globe. Before joining the State Department, Ambassador Rapp served as Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone as well as Chief of Prosecutions at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Finally, we will hear from Assistant Secretary Esther Brimmer, who leads the Bureau of International Organization Affairs. That bureau works on topics including human rights, peacekeeping, and humanitarian relief through the United Nations and other international organizations. Immediately prior to her appointment, Dr. Brimmer was Deputy Director and Director of Research at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at The Johns Hopkins University. Earlier in her career she served on the staff of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict.