Preventing Mass Atrocities: Progress in Addressing an Enduring Challenge

Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Council on Foreign Relations
Washington, DC
March 30, 2015

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Thank you very much, Jared, for the opportunity to join you at the Council on Foreign Relations. It’s a pleasure to be here this evening. Before we get started, I have to tell you who recently reminded me how important it is to discuss publicly US atrocities prevention efforts. It wasn’t President Obama or Secretary Kerry. It was Alex Trebek – at least, indirectly. In January on the famous game show Jeopardy, America’s brightest trivia contestants were working their way through the category, “Bad Words.” When they reached the $1,000 question, the most difficult in the section, Trebek posed this question in classic Jeopardy-style as a clue: “In 2012, the State Department put out an APB – a new ‘prevention board’ for these terrible crimes.” One contestant buzzed in with the response, “What is an assault?” “Incorrect,” Trebek replied, and none of the others even ventured a guess. What makes matters worse is that Mr. Trebek’s clue was inaccurate. The Atrocities Prevention Board was not launched by the State Department, but rather by President Obama and the National Security Council. I have tried to reach out to Mr. Trebek to clear up this confusion – I’ve even tweeted at him – but no luck, so here I am at CFR, the epicenter of IR trivia knowledge, to explain the Administration’s commitment to elevate within U.S. foreign policy efforts to prevent the mass killings of civilians.

Three years ago, the President identified the prevention of mass atrocities as a core national security interest and core moral responsibility, and he committed the United States to becoming a global leader in preventing large-scale violence against civilians worldwide. He made clear that the U.S. cannot and should not intervene militarily every time there is an injustice or an imminent atrocities threat. Instead he called for the U.S. government to use its full arsenal of tools, including diplomatic, political, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement capabilities to prevent these crimes.

The U.S. government is working to put this prevention approach into practice. As one element of this approach, the President established the Atrocities Prevention Board, commonly referred to inside the government as the APB, to bring together senior officials from across government to focus and coordinate their respective efforts. This interagency forum serves a horizon-scanning function by identifying atrocity risks and then developing coordinated, whole-of-government responses to mitigate them. Each month, as part of an early warning exercise, the intelligence community helps the APB identify countries experiencing or at greatest risk of atrocities. The Board then has an opportunity to consider which cases need additional policy focus, and usually, the Board bears down on one or two at-risk countries in particular.

The Atrocities Prevention Board feeds into a larger interagency process of decision-making. It is meant to complement and enhance, not supplant, ongoing regional work that is done every day at the State Department and throughout our government. In practice, this means that the APB is not spending the bulk of its time where threats to civilians – such as Assad’s brutalities against the Syrian people – are well-recognized and addressed in ongoing regional policy discussions. Most of the APB’s attention is devoted to potential or ongoing violence that might escape focused attention in existing policy fora. I apologize for the mind-numbing bureaucratic-speak, but as anyone who has worked in government knows, the key to getting things done and effecting change is to be a bureaucratic catalyst. The APB is one tool to help create more effective prevention catalysts. It speeds up the cogs of our government’s bureaucracy by bringing attention to cases earlier in the build up to violence, and in turn, giving the U.S. Government – or other international partners – additional reaction time to plan and implement appropriate de-escalation interventions. And when threats emerge, the APB assists by helping marshal personnel, technical expertise, and occasionally financial resources to strengthen our embassy-led responses on the ground.

In the intervening three years since the President’s call to action, the U.S. Government has achieved significant progress in bringing atrocities prevention into the mainstream of our foreign policy process. The government’s new coordination efforts elevate the profile of the issue within the interagency and the State Department. For example, within State, we’ve established an Anti-Atrocities Coordination Group, which serves as a kitchen cabinet in elevating and addressing atrocities risks. Regional and functional bureaus collaborate on at-risk cases in the weeks leading up to the monthly interagency meetings, and the prevention perspective is well-integrated into our policy work from Central African Republic, to Iraq, to Nigeria. Atrocity prevention is also becoming integrated into our embassy-level work. Frontline officers are now often the first to sense and report on emerging atrocity risks, and chiefs of mission can request that the APB conduct risk analysis of their host countries as well as identify appropriate interventions to mitigate the risk.

Since becoming Under Secretary for Civilian Security, I’ve worked to strengthen the State Department’s internal response to mass atrocities and to build a closer relationship with our prevention partner, the U.S. Agency for International Development. For example, pursuant to the J strategic roadmap, the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations has dedicated expertise and assumed a formal analysis, planning, and coordinating role in support of APB priorities. As the new hub for State planning and implementation of our atrocities prevention work, the bureau works with USAID to produce assessments of the drivers of conflict in a targeted set of countries at risk for atrocities and then produces corresponding risk assessments. This new analytical atrocities assessment framework, developed in coordination with USAID, allows CSO to work with the Department’s regional bureaus to develop evidence-based, civilian-focused intervention options, including diplomatic, programmatic, multilateral, and economic efforts. CSO is also developing a growing collection of best practices that are informing more targeted, effective government responses.

The U.S. Government has refined and expanded tools to prevent atrocities. In addition to traditional levers of influence, such as diplomacy and economic assistance, we impose targeted sanctions, such as visa restrictions and asset freezes, against perpetrators of human rights violations in certain cases. We now have the first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on global atrocities risks, new mass atrocities response doctrine for our military, and a Presidential Proclamation that gives us an additional tool for watch-listing and denying entry to perpetrators of atrocities and other human rights abuses. The State Department and USAID are also working to empower our frontline officers through a series of internal training programs to identify and respond to atrocities threats. American diplomats are now actively monitoring media and political dialogue for dangerous speech. We have also launched initiatives to strengthen and amplify the voices of non-violent leaders to counter extremists’ narratives. Our embassies are better equipped to engage community voices – religious leaders, mothers, and respected elders – to encourage them to promote messages of peace and non-violence in their communities.

Let me provide some examples to illustrate how the U.S. government is now more prepared to identify and respond to risks of extreme violence. When the Department’s atrocities watchers grew concerned about escalating tensions in Burundi, they sounded the alarm. This concern immediately initiated the APB process, elevating the level of focus on the threat. The State Department and USAID put together an interagency team from both the regional and functional parts of the government to conduct a thorough analysis of potential risks for violence, which led to a broad diplomatic engagement and programmatic strategy that was operationalized by our embassy in Bujumbura. The APB process also galvanized over $7 million in State and USAID funds to address the risks identified in the assessment and the deployment of a prevention advisor to support the embassy in the lead up to Burundi’s 2015 national elections, a potential trigger for violence and mass atrocities. The advisor enhanced the U.S. Government’s monitoring for early warning signals of violence to complement the execution of a set of de-escalation programs specifically targeting potential perpetrators and messengers of violence. Through its programming, the embassy was able to engage local leaders from political party youth groups, facilitate dialogues between regional and national political elites, and support community stakeholders in their locally-developed efforts to prevent conflict.

To offer a different type of example of the APB’s impact, let’s look at the Central African Republic. When violence quickly escalated in that African nation in December 2013, the Board’s atrocity prevention experts worked hand in hand with our regional bureaus as senior leaders from across government identified key interventions, including from DOD, AID, and State. Together, we marshaled up to $100 million in assistance – funding everything from peace and reconciliation programs to the purchase of vehicles desperately needed by peace keeping forces to critical life-saving humanitarian assistance, and now UN forces with their planning and coordination. President Obama recorded a peace message to the people of CAR, which was released in Sango and transmitted on local radio stations throughout the country.

When the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant drove tens of thousands of members of the Iraqi Yazidi religious minority from their homes last year, the APB helped catalyze a swift USG response. Working with our Embassy and consulates in Iraq along with the State Department’s Religious Freedom Office to collect critical information, the US launched strikes that degraded ISIL’s strength and gave the local Kurdish military forces enough momentum to break the siege and free the Yazidis from entrapment on Mount Sinjar.

Although the U.S. Government’s initial atrocities prevention efforts have registered several important achievements, challenges remain. Chief of among these are resource constraints. While the APB coordination process does not require funding, effective prevention tools do depend on resources, particularly sources of funding that can be accessed and mobilized quickly. In this constrained budget environment, we often see prevention needs that we are unable to meet.

In addition to building our own capacity, we are seeking to encourage and collaborate with like-minded partners. I recently led a group of State and USAID officials to meet with UN interlocutors who oversee issues of atrocity prevention, which resulted in a collaborative dialogue that I hope to institutionalize. We are also integrating mass atrocities prevention in ongoing bilateral and multilateral diplomatic discussions, such as the U.S.-EU Civilian Security and Development Dialogue.

It is no small feat to try to change the way the government does business. Institutional change is a difficult, slow process. Yet we have begun to make significant progress in integrating an atrocities prevention lens into the government’s policymaking, and we are working to strengthen agency capabilities as well as the APB.

Some observers have expressed dissatisfaction with the Obama Administration’s commitment to prevent mass atrocities across the globe. I understand their perspective. The APB has not halted violence worldwide; in its three years of existence, it has not protected every civilian from governments, insurgents and terrorists.

As imperfect as our current efforts are, they represent undeniable progress – both in symbolism and in concrete results. As we approach the APB’s third anniversary, we are certainly closer to realizing the President’s intent that the United States government embraces the mission of preventing mass atrocities. It is my hope that three years from now, the United States will have made its decision-making, tools, resources, and actions even more effective in preventing mass violence against civilians.

President Obama took a bold step in 2012 by elevating concern about mass atrocities as a foreign policy priority. Atrocity prevention, he said, is not just a matter of values but also an issue of national security. The President acknowledged that “It can be tempting to throw up our hands and resign ourselves to man’s endless capacity for cruelty,” but he reminded us that Elie Wiesel and other holocaust survivors chose never to give up. Nor can the United States of America.