Background Briefing on the U.S. Government's Comprehensive Approach to Atrocity Prevention and Response

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior Administration Officials
Via Teleconference
May 18, 2016

MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining us. Today’s background call is on today’s executive order regarding a comprehensive approach to atrocity prevention and response. We’ve got two great speakers today. The first is [name and title withheld]. From here on out, [Senior Administration Official One] will be known as senior Administration Official one. Our second speaker is [name and titled withheld]. From here on out, [Senior Administration Official Two] will be known as senior Administration Official two. I want to remind you that this call is on background – this is a background call – and our speakers should be attributed as described just now. With that, I’ll turn it over to [Senior Administration Official One].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, [Moderator]. And thank you, everybody, for joining us for this call. It’s a really great moment for us to talk a little bit about the Atrocity Prevention Board, with which you may be familiar, and I’m going to just summarize it and give you some examples of the way in which it works, because it really remains the centerpiece of the broader executive order, which I will turn to my colleague from [agency withheld] to talk about in greater detail.

It was about four years ago, a little more than four years ago, when President Obama announced that preventing mass atrocities was a national security priority of the United States in addition to being a moral imperative. And it’s since then that we’ve been working through the Atrocity Prevention Board to ensure that the possibility of mass killings of civilians in countries abroad is something that we are constantly scanning the horizon for, that we are ensuring is discussed and placed at the right level of attention within the U.S. Government, that we are developing tools to address and mitigate the consequences of mass casualties, and that we are doing this in a way where we’re consciously learning lessons and institutionalizing the responses to become better both ourselves and as part of a broader multinational community that’s committed to atrocity prevention.

So the APB itself convenes monthly to review the intelligence and other non-classified information about the potential for mass civilian harm throughout the globe, and it considers individual countries both as they arise by virtue of the events going on in the world but also takes a more conscious and strategic review approach to cases that have been identified as being at risk.

The main goal of the Atrocity Prevention Board as it has functioned is to move upstream in the prevention realm. Because the interagency process is well developed for ongoing crises that receive significant attention from policymakers, the main value added of the APB as it has evolved has been to do the over-the-horizon scanning and to get us ahead of the curve both unilaterally and multilaterally in doing conflict prevention work that bears on atrocities.

The board itself includes some 11 departments and federal agencies, and we’ve worked very hard not just to improve our awareness and predictive ability and the refinement of our priorities for focus, but to really develop a process in which we are focusing on the policies and the programs and the specific actions that can be taken on individual cases to mitigate risks.

And I want to just run through three typologies that are examples of the three different phases in which we’ve been working. One is to get – to galvanize interventions before it is even on the screen of the international community that there is the potential for mass atrocities, and Burundi would be our case in point, where years before the international community was seized of Burundi, we were concerned about the early warning signs of atrocity risk. We sent a team to go and examine the drivers and the potential for mitigation, doing their risk assessment. We put together a resource plan with some 7 million of programming – and this was three years ago – doing community leader training on conflict resolution, helping civil society with tools to monitor hate speech, to amplify messages of peace – those types of interventions. We also sent a prevention advisor to the embassy there to do more intensive analysis and we supported civil society assessments. And then we worked on the sticks piece as the situation evolved, eventually making it clear that we would be denying visas to those who ordered, planned, or perpetrated violence, and we coordinated with our European allies to reinforce this message.

Obviously, the situation in Burundi has evolved to a place where it remains at significant risk for mass atrocities, but I think that we feel confident that we were working on this case earlier and in ways that have contributed to the relative – let me put this a different way – we have helped to mitigate the risks that civilians have been killed as the crisis has continued to unfold.

Second case – and I’ll be more brief on the second and third case – but Central African Republic is a great example of how the Atrocity Prevention Board, having identified in the post-December 2013 violence escalation – having identified the need to focus on the stabilization after the political resolution there, ways to focus the government’s efforts on DDR, on security sector reform; the need to get a special representative and get President Obama to do a peace message; the need to find ways to engage the urban youth that typically at times of political mobilization have been most inclined to actually carrying out violence – a whole host of stabilization measures with an aim to preventing the return to past cycles of violence that we’ve seen that have targeted civilians.

And then finally, the third sort of typology I want to share with you is the case of Burma, where, as you know, the potential for mass atrocities remains high, in particular in Rakhine state, with tensions between the Rohingya communities and the Rakhine community – the Burmese Rakhine community. 2012, we saw a lot of violence. What has been done on the ground there is to create a heads-of-mission group that has focused our posts and their tools on preventing violence – six different countries working with the UN and international humanitarian organizations with a coordinating mechanism that is focused on a unified diplomatic strategy that is built around atrocity prevention and the deployment of full-time advisors there to monitor dynamics to support the heads-of-mission group. So that’s an example of something that’s very forward-looking and that is focused on activity in the field.

So as you know, we’re going to have a chance to really take stock of atrocity prevention efforts within the U.S. and more broadly at an event on Thursday with the U.S. – that’s tomorrow, on Thursday, with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Conference, 9 to 5, open to the press and the public. You are more than invited to come there, where you will hear Deputy Secretary Blinken give a keynote at 9 a.m. outlining in greater detail what the U.S. has done institutionally to cement the President’s commitment to atrocity prevention. And it would be, I think, a real opportunity for those who have a deeper interest in the details of this subject.

So with that, I’ll turn things over to [Senior Administration Official Two] to talk about the executive order itself.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Hi, everybody, and thanks for joining this call. I am going to be very, very brief. People probably know by now that within the past hour, the President released an executive order entitled “A Comprehensive Approach to Atrocity Prevention and Response.” The executive order sets out the structure and protocols of the Atrocity Prevention Board. As [Senior Administration Official One] mentioned, this is a board that now has existed for four years. It was stood up in 2012 to coordinate prevention efforts among departments and agencies. At the time that it was created, I think we spoke about the possibility of an executive order that would basically codify its responsibilities and protocols, and this executive order is sort of the culmination of that commitment.

You may have already had a chance to look at it, but just very briefly, it restates the policy set forth in Presidential Study Directive 10, which dates back to 2011, which states that preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States. It offers a very brief definition, a non-legal definition of what we mean by mass atrocities in this context, which is these are large-scale and deliberate attacks on civilians, including acts that fall within the definition of genocide. It lays out the responsibilities that the board has, which I think is very useful in terms of creating a blueprint for any next administration that wants to take up the work of the board – and we believe that this is an institution that is worth enduring through to the next administration as some comparable bodies do in other policy spaces. It lays out the structure and protocols of the board, which we haven’t previously made public, and then it talks about the work the departments and agencies belong to the board are going to be doing to support the agenda sort of within their own structures.

So that’s the executive order. Again, we see this as sort of the culmination or the realization of a commitment that was made four years ago, and it benefits from four years of experience and track record and operations of the board.

I think that’s all I really will say about this now. And I guess now we’re open for questions.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * followed by the 1. You will hear a tone indicating that you’ve been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. Once again, for questions please press *1 at this time. One moment, please, for our first question.

We will go to the line of Margaret Brennan with CBS. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. My question is meant with all due respect, but given that the Administration has recognized that there is an ongoing genocide against various groups, including the Yezidis, wouldn’t you say that the board has failed in its mission to prevent such atrocities?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, with equal respect, no, I don’t think that’s the measure of the board. I mean, let me first speak to that and then let me talk about the specifics of the genocide determination against the Yezidis.

So the board was designed to ensure that we did not have a situation in which senior officials were unaware of mass atrocities and the U.S. did not have every opportunity to take action in response. The highest value added for the board in a government that, by definition, is constantly dealing with atrocity issues in the context of ongoing issues in which the government is deeply involved, is to focus the board’s attention on the upstream preventive measures, we all know and agree that we would prefer to prevent atrocities than respond to them.

But there are many cases in which the ongoing conflict means that there are atrocities going on. To suggest that those cases implicate the board as having failed, I think is an unrealistic expectation for any single government let alone any one piece of government.

In the case of the Yezidis, the charge, I think, is even more wrong, to be honest, because the U.S. is leading an international coalition to fight Daesh. So Daesh has been the source of the atrocities against the Yezidis and we are currently engaged in leading an international coalition to fight Daesh. So I think it’s – it would be inaccurate to imply that the Atrocity Prevention Board has failed because there have been atrocities against Yezidis.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Josh Lederman with Associated Press. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks for doing the call. I’m just trying to understand exactly what you’re announcing or doing today with this executive order. We had this Presidential Study Directive that set up the board. The board has ostensibly been operating. So this executive order, other than laying out sort of the structure of the board and how it operates, does this have any other effect or power that is new today?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So thanks, Josh. That’s a good question. As you’ll remember, the Presidential Study Directive that dates back to August 2011 ordered a 100-day review to precede the establishment of the board. The idea of that 100-day review was to develop protocols for the board, to suggest sort of gaps in our capabilities that the board could help oversee the filling of, and then the board was to be stood up. That was an internal U.S. Government product. The board has been sort of operating off of that blueprint for the last four years.

But one thing that we said at the time back in 2012 was that, at a certain point, it would make sense, once we had a track record behind us and a little bit of knowledge about what would be the optimal protocols and best way to describe the responsibilities of the board, that it would be appropriate to memorialize those in an executive order. And I think the feeling is that the executive order both sort of captures what we think is the state of the art for the way that the board operates. It lays out a blueprint that, again, we hope will be sustainable across administrations. And it also sets out a model for other governments that are thinking about how to organize themselves to be better about atrocity prevention. And when we meet with allies who are interested in being more effective in this space, they have lots of questions about how we’ve organized. They consider this to be a useful model. So we think this makes it easier to have that conversation. It gives them something that they can share within their governments.

OPERATOR: Did you have a follow-up, Mr. Lederman?

QUESTION: No, not really.

OPERATOR: Okay. And ladies and gentlemen, if there are any additional questions, please press *1. And we will go the line of Nahal Toosi – please go ahead – with Politico.

QUESTION: Hi, can you guys hear me?



QUESTION: Okay. My question basically is if you guys can tell us a little bit about what future things you’re seeing now, like what parts of the world that you haven’t mentioned already that potentially are those horizon issues where you guys are particularly worried about atrocities.


QUESTION: Sorry. It’s a tough one.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: We’ve got to be a little bit careful – yeah – about that. Well, let me talk about one country in particular that we’ve got our eye on. Obviously, countries that are approaching major transitions are always at risk. So if there’s an election on the horizon, and if a country has a history of conflict and atrocities, then that’s going to be always a country that you have to have your eye on. So the Democratic Republic of Congo would be a country where we want to make sure that as they approach this sort of big moment with upcoming elections, that that transition goes smoothly and doesn’t descend into a – into the kind of problems that they’ve had there in the past.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Elise Labott with CNN. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi there, Elise Labott here. Thank you for doing this call. I just want to follow up on Margaret’s question about the ongoing genocide against Yezidis and other minorities and whether you think that this – given the fact you’ve been operating under this – these assumptions for several years, do you feel that it gives you new tools to stop what’s going on on the ground? I’m just – I’m just trying to – I’m struggling with a little bit that as you – Margaret asked, that you have an ongoing genocide, whether you think that that – this initiative that you’re talking about today helps you strengthen your efforts.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: The one thing about the situation with the Yezidis is be mindful that we intervened to – at Mount Sinjar and actually helped address that – the situation at least at that very acute moment. And --

QUESTION: But – can you hear me? I mean, even afterwards, you – but the determination that it was still ongoing, your intervention notwithstanding, acknowledged that it was still ongoing. And I’m not saying --


QUESTION: I’m not saying that you didn’t intervene. We know that you did. But it didn’t stop the genocide, and so I’m just wondering if there’s anything that you feel that these tools give you to help strengthen your efforts.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So, again, we’re not – we are not claiming that this is a panacea. We do think it gives us more tools. It’s given us a national intelligence estimate that’s made us smarter about where things are happening. It’s given us the capacity to surge civilians into situations like Burundi to help develop action plans that have made us, I think, more effective at preventing mass violence there. It’s helped us rally the Administration behind a piece of bipartisan legislation that gives us new authorities to create rewards for war criminals who are wanted by international tribunals. I could go on in terms of the tools that it’s created.

But we can’t tell you that there was going to be 100 percent success rate, and particularly when you’ve got a situation that’s caught fire like Syria, which, frankly, was already blazing when the board was created back in 2012. Those narrows – those options become a lot narrower, and there are going to be situations where we’re not going to be able to get to the outcomes we want as quickly as we would wish.

QUESTION: On that point – can you still hear me? On that point, you make a good point that it was already blazing when this was created. Could you say whether you think that had this been created beforehand, whether this would have given you any tools to help prevent what took place?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I think – can I try to answer the question a different way? Because I guess it’s confusing to us because we have just a very different frame for coming at this, and so I want to respect your frame, but I want to also suggest that if the goal of the Atrocity Prevention Board is to make sure that we’re elevating these issues about the potential for civilian loss of life early and effectively so that policymakers can make judgments; and if in the case that you guys are citing as a failure, we’re actually fighting a war --

QUESTION: I’m not citing it as a – I’m not citing it as a failure. I’m saying what – I’m actually asking whether you think that this would have given you the tools to do more or to help strengthen your effort.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I guess, again, I want to just – I want to try to suggest that the Atrocity Prevention Board is a process for elevating issues that otherwise might not be elevated. In the case of violence against the Yezidis, or in the case of violence against civilians prosecuted by terrorist groups that are already on our own terror watch lists or on UN terror watch lists, this is not a situation in which the government isn’t aware. The government’s aware. And so there can be critiques of U.S. policy – totally fair game – but they’re not a function of the success or lack thereof of the Atrocity Prevention Board.

What I think we’re trying to articulate is that what the board has done is brought the – those cases where we’re not already focused – in whatever way one wants to judge – on the atrocity risks. So everything having to do with Daesh is already clearly a focus, and we have a policy and we’re executing that policy. The Atrocity Prevention Board is helping to focus the government in places where there might not otherwise be that focus.

And what it’s also doing is bringing together all parts of the government to look at all tools. So with Daesh, we’ve got the fundamental focus on military activity that’s supplemented by a bunch of other activity. But in many of the examples that I’ve just cited, you’re looking at a much broader range of tools. You’re looking at targeted sanctions against individuals that may be – have or are at risk of or expected to commit atrocities. You’re looking at coordinated, diplomatic demarches through the UN to have the Security Council focus on a country.

So I guess – I think maybe the disconnect is simply that they’re – the Atrocity Prevention Board is separate from the interagency process where we’re already seized of an issue that involves the potential for civilian harm. And where the Atrocity Prevention Board has had, I think, its greatest impact is in elevating attention of a government that otherwise might not see the potential for investments to prevent violence against civilians. And that, I think, is a value that is a real legacy of the President’s commitment to try to make sure that we are focusing on those issues as well as the ongoing full-blown conflicts in which we may be engaged in more.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: But if you want to play a game of hypothetical, I think the answer to the question is we would hope that the board would always make us smarter and a little bit more prescient about gathering crises where mass civilian casualties are a risk. It would help us be more attuned to where those flashpoints are and it would help us focus a little bit earlier on what leverage we have to address those flashpoints. That’s certainly what the examples that [Senior Administration Official One] led with are good examples of. It’s why we were able to move out ahead of the game on Burundi; it was why we were able to move out in a very big way – very nimbly – in CAR when the sort of match started to get lit there. I think it’s why we were able to respond ably in Burma to the situation in Rakhine State.

So I think the answer is, without getting into great specifics, again, with regard to every crisis, we hope that this is helping us be a little bit better at looking over the horizon, figuring out where the flashpoints are, and then figuring out what our mitigation strategy ought to be.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: And the fact that we have, for example, a counterterrorism strategy and counterterrorism offices in various parts of the government and an interagency process that’s very focused on counterterrorism doesn’t mean that it’s going to eradicate terrorism in three years. And so I would just ask that or I would suggest that in evaluating the board’s contributions, it has to be seen as other interagency processes, and tool evolutions are seen and not held to a separate standard. Just because it can’t stop everything or do everything at once doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value, and I think we are convinced that there is real value and that this is something that we can build on to get better attuned not only to acting earlier so that we hopefully don’t have as many full-blown crises, but also galvanizing international partners to do the same to move the entire security debate toward a more preventive model.

MODERATOR: Okay, everyone, we have to wrap up the call right now. I’m sorry we can’t run it any longer, but thank you very much to our speakers and thank you to everyone who chose to join us today. Everyone have a great afternoon. Thanks.