Remarks at Partners in Prevention: A Global Forum on Ending Genocide Conference

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Washington, DC
May 19, 2016


Mr. Fenves, it is an honor to be here with you today. And I want to salute your extraordinarily eloquent testimony. It is deeply appreciated. Your courage and strength reflect that of a generation of survivors who refused to allow their searing experiences with evil to diminish a commitment to the cause of progress and peace.

Your willingness to confront the demons of your own past is evidence of extraordinary personal courage, and I have some knowledge of how difficult that is. But your willingness to do that, to bear witness, to share your experience with the world has had a powerful impact on a common commitment that to the best of our ability we never see this happen again. You remind us that humanity is capable of the best, as it is of the worst. So thank you for all that you’ve done to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive so that we may remember, we may learn, we may understand, and we may act.

I’m deeply grateful to the team here at the Holocaust Museum and at its Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide led by Cameron Hudson, who I know is here with us today.

In a world that is fraught with complexity and uncertainty, this museum’s voice is a clarion call to moral leadership – a clear reminder of our shared duty to confront denial with truth, indifference with action, and unconscionable crimes with the full might of our resistance.

The museum is an invaluable partner in this solemn mission – a resource of unmatched research, analysis, expertise for policymakers in the United States and indeed around the world who seek to prevent the darkest chapters of the 20th century from repeating themselves in the 21st.

Like I suspect many of you in this room, my own connection to the museum is not simply professional, as important as that is. It’s also personal.

The history safeguarded within these walls is shared by my own family – by my grandfather, Maurice Blinken, who fled pogroms in eastern Europe; by my stepmother, Vera Blinken, who fled Communism in Hungary; and by my late stepfather, Samuel Pisar, the sole survivor of 900 students at his grade school in Bialystok, Poland, whose lifelong work as a peacemaker was his answer to a childhood lost to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Growing up with their stories, I learned that my generation had inherited something more than a haunting comprehension of man’s inhumanity to man.

We’d actually inherited a framework to act on it.

Seventy-one years ago, out of the rubble of war and the pain of unfathomable national loss, our predecessors made one of the wisest decisions in history.

With foresight and temperance, they resisted the impulse to seek vengeance or to concentrate power in the hands of the victors. Instead, they built an international system of institutions, of norms, and rules dedicated to the peace, stability, and prosperity of every single nation.

Within this system, new organizations were built to safeguard public health, to defend human rights, to respond to humanitarian crisis.

A force of blue helmets was stood up to keep the peace and protect civilians.

Age-old adversaries were bound together through a new common architecture of commerce and trade.

Courts were created to prevent and punish crimes that would shake the conscience.

Their purpose seventy-one years ago was to prevent for all time a return to war between and among the great powers, and for the most part, they got the big picture right. It’s a feat that in some ways seems almost unremarkable today but remains herculean in the context of history.

But as we know, theirs was a construction project only just beginning.

As the decades passed, new cases of atrocities exposed the deep inadequacies of a system not yet strong enough to contend with humanity’s extraordinarily inventive capacity for cruelty – a system with gaps that allowed safe areas to become massacre sites and peacekeepers to pull out as genocidaires moved in.

I began my own service in government in 1993 – and Mr. Fendez referenced this – as the Balkans descended into chaos, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.

I still remember feelings of outrage and also feelings of frustration felt by so many both inside and outside of government – feelings echoed in the pained plea of Elie Wiesel that day in April that this museum opened its doors to the world.

Some of you were probably there. With the rain pouring down and his coat pulled tight around him at that outdoor dedication ceremony, Elie turned to President Clinton. and he said, “Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something. I’ve been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since, for what I have seen.”

Thanks to an unrelenting, uphill battle, the United States would ultimately meet its responsibilities in the Balkans – but not soon enough.

And still, we know that for all the public pressure to attend to and act on atrocities in Bosnia and then in Kosovo, there was virtually none to halt the slaughter in Rwanda.

For a generation of policymakers and diplomats – a generation that bore witness to these failures – the imperative to prevent genocide and mass atrocities became unmistakable.

When President Obama was sworn into office, a task force – convened by this museum, the U.S. Institute of Peace, the American Academy of Diplomacy – this task force told the new Administration that the United States was not well organized to fulfill this responsibility. And they presented those of us in positions of responsibility within the Administration a blueprint for concrete steps to address the flaws in our own architectures that permitted violence to escalate unchecked.

We took those recommendations very, very seriously.

Six years ago, the National Security Strategy of the United States committed us – for the first time – to engage in a strategic effort to prevent mass atrocities and, if prevention fails, to mobilize means of response.

Four years ago, in the first-ever presidential directive on this challenge, President Obama established the Atrocities Prevention Board and – in the words that he repeated standing here at the Holocaust Museum – he declared that “preventing atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”

And just yesterday, President Obama released an Executive Order to help ensure the Atrocities Prevention Board remains a fixture of American foreign policy into the next administration and beyond.

By taking these steps, the President catalyzed an effort across the government to improve our ability to identify and address atrocity threats, to develop new tools and policies to meet and defeat them. Simply put, the President has sought to incorporate atrocity prevention into the DNA of government.

Our analysis now draws upon the Intelligence Community’s first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on the Global Risks of Mass Atrocities, the State Department’s first-ever Global Atrocity Risk Ranking, and the Holocaust Museum’s Early Warning Project.

When irregular armed forces mobilize, when weapons are stockpiled, when dehumanizing speech targets a particular group, when emergency or discriminatory legislation is passed, when crimes go unpunished, the red flag is raised.

We put these cases under a microscope that considers local context, identifies social and institutional sources of stability, grievances, resiliencies, examines the motives and means of potential perpetrators, enablers, victims, and calibrates recommendations for preventative action – including civilian surge support, dedicated conflict prevention advisors, sanctions, alert systems, dispute resolution programs, and coordinated, high-level diplomatic pressure.

The goal is simple and straight-forward: to act before it is too late – before the choices become too narrow, the time too limited, options too risky, too costly, and our ability to affect change is winnowed down to long shots and last hopes.

Where we have seen a gathering risk of mass violence – in Burma, in Burundi, the Central African Republic – this dedicated prevention process has helped us engage earlier and more effectively. And it will continue to help ensure that no case of potential mass atrocity or genocide is ever allowed to fall under the radar again.

We’ve also jumpstarted the important work of institutionalizing atrocity prevention throughout our government. The State Department now has trained more than 400 action officers across the world to identify early warning signs and to know what to do about them. USAID has developed a comprehensive field guide on atrocity prevention and is working to ensure its officers deploying to countries at risk receive the training they need to identify the potential for mass atrocity. The U.S. military has incorporated the prevention of atrocities into its own doctrine and planning.

We’ve also worked to inspire other governments to take similar steps because we’re stronger and more effective when we act together, recognizing that the leadership of the United States is often necessary to rally international political will and mobilize collective action.

More and more governments are beginning to assign dedicated officials with explicit responsibility for atrocity prevention. More and more we find ourselves partnering bilaterally and multilaterally to advance this common agenda. Just last week, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to this purpose by joining 28 other nations in supporting the Kigali Principles, an effort to ensure civilians are never again abandoned by the missions mandated to protect them.

Improvements to process and coordination may not sound like much now that we actually have them – but those of us working in government 20 years ago still live with the memories of what it was like when we didn’t have those processes and mechanisms for coordination.

These are gradual evolutions, they don’t come with banners, they don’t come with parades – but they do help ensure that our actions better reflect our values and actually uphold our promises.

They represent our work – as best we can – to shape and adapt an international system that actually lives up to the vision of those who first built it, a journey that remains for us – as it did for them – one for the generations.

Alongside our dedicated work in atrocity prevention, over the last seven years, we’ve pursued a range of related efforts to try to protect civilians, end conflict, and pursue accountability.

We have renewed our leadership in the United Nations – rejoining the Human Rights Council where we’ve redirected its focus, strengthened the case for principled, balanced, proactive leadership, and amplified its attention to gross human rights abuses.

We bolstered the capacity of UN peacekeeping operations to try to ensure that its forces are well-trained and well-equipped to respond to critical humanitarian needs. Last September, the Leaders’ Summit on Peacekeeping convened by President Obama exceeded all expectations – with countries committing 50,000 new military personnel and police to peacekeeping operations. As we speak, these new units are deploying to fill existing gaps.

We’ve strengthened our nation’s longstanding commitment to international criminal justice – supporting mobile courts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, documentation efforts in Cambodia, the landmark establishment of a special domestic court for crimes in Kosovo, the identification of victims in mass graves in Guatemala.

We played an important role in the surrender of fugitives from international justice to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

We’ve stood for peace from Colombia to Sri Lanka helping to end long-running conflicts, account for the past, and affirm the dignity and rights of their people.

And we’ve deepened our investments around the world in the infrastructure of peace – the schools, the health clinics, the civil society centers that keep communities healthy and strong.

And yet for all of this, we know, every single day, that it is not enough.

Today, we face one of those times when our fervent wishes for the world seem to outpace our ability to realize them – when human manifestations of evil once again stretch the limits of our imaginations.

In Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, the challenges before us defy silver bullet solutions.

The steps that we’ve taken to prevent and respond to mass atrocities have strengthened our hand in dealing with many crises – but not with all of them.

We cannot prevent for all times the rise of tyrants hell-bent on the destruction of their own people or guarantee the protection of innocent lives in all places at all times.

We cannot determine or dictate outcomes or decide the fate of people for them.

But we also cannot walk away.

While the early hope for South Sudan’s independence has been deeply darkened by the shadow of widespread displacement, violence, and atrocities, we’ve remained engaged at the highest levels to press for an accountable government of national unity that delivers on the aspirations of its people.

While our intervention in Libya prevented an almost certain massacre, the demise of the old order left a vacuum filled by malevolent forces, but we’ve worked unrelentingly to support the emergence of a legitimate government that can start to bring the country together again.

And while Yemen remains beset by violence and strife, we remain fully committed to work with our partners to bring the war there to a close and to put the country back on the path to peaceful transition.

We are not naive about our prospects. Even when we act decisively and intervene militarily to prevent slaughter, as we have, nations this distressed still remain exceedingly vulnerable, especially to power vacuums that can be filled by civil strife, by violent extremism, by atrocity, and a cycle of hopelessness and frustration that feeds unrest and may lead again to collapse.

And we found that there are no easy, quick fixes.

We cannot deny the lessons that we’ve learned over a decade of sacrifice about the effectiveness and sustainability of military interventions that have vast unintended consequences. We cannot overlook that the most sustainable solutions are best generated locally with our strong support, not imposed from the outside. And we cannot ignore the fact that to have a lasting impact, dealing with the underlying political and economic drivers of conflict is as important as anything we do militarily.

But even acknowledging the complexity, the difficulty of all these challenges, we also can’t retreat, and we can’t rest in our pursuit of better days.

We can’t rest when victory in battle – in our time, on our watch – means killing a town’s last pediatrician.

When hospitals are barrel bombed and children purposefully starved as a tactic of war.

When Assad’s regime stops convoys of medicine and food, including baby formula, and then shells those waiting for them to arrive.

When half a population flees for their lives, driving men, women, and children to risk everything on the fierce seas or in the sealed trucks of smugglers.

So we need to confront our shortcomings and our failures by acknowledging them and then acting with relentless determination to overcome them.

That’s why, every day, eight days a week, Secretary of State John Kerry is working to stop the bloodshed in Syria by bringing an end to the civil war and forging a framework for a genuine political transition. And as he does so, continuing to work around the clock to preserve and extend a cessation of hostilities and get food and medicine to besieged areas in desperate need. We are deeply, deeply concerned about those areas beyond our reach, the willful denial of life-saving aid, the routine practice of attacking clinics and humanitarian workers.

At the same time, we’re working with heroic local partners on the ground to collect, document, preserve, and analyze the evidence of atrocities that thrive in the shadow of ungoverned spaces and civil strife – none more appalling than Daesh’s campaign of terror, rape, and abuse of civilian populations in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and beyond.

It was the strong evidence of atrocities that led Secretary Kerry on March 17 to state that, in his judgment, and I quote: “Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions – in what it says, in what it believes, in what it does. Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at those same groups and in some cases also against Sunni Muslim, Kurds, and other minorities.”

Indeed, it was the enormous risk to tens of thousands of Yezidis – men, women, children – trapped on Mount Sinjar that prompted us to launch airstrikes in August 2014 to break that siege. Without our intervention, it was clear many more would have been slaughtered.

There is no doubt in my mind that we will defeat Daesh. We will eliminate the sanctuaries it uses to launch attacks abroad. We will stop its recruitment, radicalization, and mobilization of young people to violent extremism. Today, 66 nations around the world contribute to the Counter ISIL or Counter Daesh Coalition, some providing life-saving humanitarian aid, some striking Daesh targets, some supporting the air campaign that’s deprived Daesh of 45 percent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria.

The evidence of atrocities so bravely collected, the testimonies so courageously shared – we’re going to need them.

The judgment of history is clear: leaders whose regimes of inhumanity were once shrouded by impunity are ultimately held to account.

Nazi leadership in Germany. Pol Pot’s cabinet in Cambodia. Milosevic in Serbia. Charles Taylor in Liberia. LRA commanders and armed militia chiefs in the DRC and the Great Lakes Region.

It takes time. It takes perseverance. But the great arc of history does bend toward justice, and so it will for the mass atrocities committed today.

Seven years ago, President Obama spoke to humanity’s long pursuit of a just and lasting peace. “I do not believe,” he said, “that we will have the will, the determination, the staying power to complete this work without something more, and that’s the continued expansion of our moral imagination, an insistence that there’s something irreducible that we all share.”

There are deeply unsettling undercurrents in the world today – rising tides of hate speech, of anti-Semitism, of demagoguery, of violence against civilians, of political rhetoric in our own nation and abroad that preys on people’s fears and demonizes those seeking shelter from persecution. In these moments, it can feel like we’re moving backward, that somehow we have lost our north star.

But these trends, as potent as they seem, pale in comparison to the sweeping currents of a much more powerful force – the resilience, the hope, the eternal aspirations of the human spirit.

Nowhere does the light shine brighter than right here in this museum, a place not only to reflect and understand history, but also a place of action.

In developing a field of practice and practitioners dedicated to atrocity prevention, you have galvanized the rare combination of political will and policy tools. Yours is a global community of conscience – of activists, of survivors, of scholars, of diplomats, of soldiers, of students, journalists and jurists – who chose the toughest battles and then summoned our determination and expanded our moral imagination.

May your endeavors grow and your voices build in the hopes that we will see the day that they are no longer needed.

Thank you very, very much.