Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

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New Tools to Prevent Atrocities: Beyond Syria

by Stewart M. Patrick
April 24, 2012

A survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime Hem Sakou, 79, stands in front of portraits of victims at the Tuol Sleng (S-21) genocide museum in Phnom Penh May 31, 2011. She was part of the more than 300 villagers brought to the Khmer Rouge notorious security prison S-21, now museum, by the court on a regular tour basis. Sakou said that she found the photos of her son who was killed at S-21, appealing to the U.N. backed tribunal to sentence the former regime leaders in detention to life in prison for crimes they committed. (Samrang Pring/Courtesy Reuters)


No U.S. President, with the possible exception of Bill Clinton, has devoted as much attention as Barack Obama to preventing mass atrocities and ensuring that their perpetrators are held accountable. Yesterday, in a reflective speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the president announced several initiatives that will help the U.S. government put its “never again” rhetoric into practice more often. The most important of these were the creation of a high-profile Atrocities Prevention Board, the authorization of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the global risk of mass atrocities, and the imposition of targeted sanctions on those who exploit information technology to facilitate grave human rights abuses.

If implemented and preserved through subsequent administrations, these welcome innovations will give President Obama and his successors an institutional system and policy tools to work with other nations to anticipate, deter, and respond to crimes against humanity.

In the company of Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, President Obama invoked the memory of the Holocaust, and the faith in the survivors that one must never forget, and never give up. And yet for decades after World War II, from the killing fields of Cambodia to the bloody streets of Syria today, the promise of “never again” has yielded to the reality of “all too often”.

In 1999, the Clinton administration made some progress when it orchestrated a messy, but ultimately successful NATO air offensive to reverse a Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. At the time, Kofi Annan, then UN secretary-general, called for the articulation of new norms of humanitarian intervention. The ultimate result, thanks to the work of the Canadian sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, was the unanimous embrace by the UN General Assembly in 2005 of a new global norm, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

In March 2011, President Obama presided over the first unambiguous military enforcement of R2P, deploying critical American military assets in a NATO-led coalition operation to prevent impending mass atrocities by Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. The administration’s leadership secured passage of two critical UN Security Council resolutions, 1970 and 1973—the first referred Qaddafi and his henchmen to the International Criminal Court; the latter endorsed the use of “all necessary means” to end the threat to civilians.

Lest one imagine that the United States regarded the Libya operation as an isolated incident, on August 4, 2011, the Obama administration released Presidential Study Directive Ten. That document designated the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide as a “core national interest and core moral responsibility” of the United States and directed an agency-wide review of gaps in fulfilling this mission.

President Obama’s speech on Monday represented the culmination of that review. Of the many recommendations it generated, three endorsed by the president stand out:

  • Elevating Genocide Prevention to the Highest Level: In creating an Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), the Obama White House is making it clear to senior leaders of executive branch agencies that stopping genocide is a U.S. national security priority—and one for which they will be held accountable. The APB will include representatives at the assistant secretary level or above, drawn from the departments of state, defense, justice, treasury, homeland security, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Joint Staff, and the Office of the Vice President. Appropriately enough, the chair of the APB will be the National Security Council senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights, Samantha Power, whose Pulitzer prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, has done more than any other work to put the imperative of atrocities prevention on the agenda of official Washington.
  • Ramping Up Intelligence Efforts: A key to heading off mass atrocities is timely knowledge regarding the intentions of genocidal regimes and the vulnerability of target populations. In directing the first NIE on mass atrocities, President Obama is sending a clear signal to the intelligence community to prioritize the collection and analysis of all-source intelligence on genocide and gross human rights abuses. And unlike existing strategic warning products, which typically focus on a six-month to two-year time frame, the NIE will look farther over the horizon, to examine how internal dynamics and global trends might affect populations at risk. While early warning is no substitute for (and can hardly guarantee) a robust policy response, accurate intelligence is a precondition for effective preventive action.
  • Targeting New Sanctions at Technology Abusers: Obama’s most innovative step was to sign an executive order authorizing sanctions and visa bans against officials, entities, and individuals who commit or facilitate “grave human rights abuses via information technology.” These so-called “GHRAVITY” sanctions reflect a painful reality. While the ICT revolution, including new social media platforms, can empower citizens (witness the catalytic influence of internet activist Wael Ghonim in the toppling of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak) the same technology can be used to harass, silence and persecute critics. According to the White House, this novel sanctions tool allows the United States to sanction not just the oppressive governments, but the companies that enable them with technology they use for oppression and the ‘digital guns for hire’ who create or operate systems used to monitor, track, and target citizens for killing, torture, or other grave abuses.

These new sanctions will initially be limited to Syria and Iran, but they will surely gain wider use as a new arrow in the U.S. foreign policy quiver; a spokesman stated that administrations will possess the authority to impose them on individuals or groups. One intriguing possibility—sure to be watched closely by Beijing and Moscow—is that the administration will be pressed by human rights groups, or indeed Congress, to apply such sanctions to a wider array of oppressive authoritarian governments.

In the end, these tools will only impact situations on the ground gradually—and their use is unlikely to slow the brutal oppression in Syria soon. But they hold promise for future atrocities prevention and response, by elevating the battle against genocide to the highest level of government—and putting the onus on U.S. officials to react in a timely manner when the threat emerges.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    Was it not Richard Haass who said in one of his essays that the NATO intervention in Libya was for political, and not humanitarian, purposes? I’ll quote: “The ‘humanitarian’ intervention introduced to save lives believed to be threatened was in fact a political intervention introduced to bring about regime change.”

    One must be able to distinguish between true humanitarian intervention and politically motivated intervention using humanitarian grounds as a pretext. One would not want to have R2P used as a tool for engaging in a proliferation of “wars of choice,” particularly if America is to be on the road toward “restoration,” as Mr. Haass likes to put it.

    We must ask what course would have been the preferrred one when Abraham Lincoln set his country on a course to preserve the Union while “killing his own people.”

  • Posted by Global Citizen

    R2P’s first scalp – Libya. What were the Global Governors protecting Libyans from exactly? Or was it a case of seizing the – too good to miss – opportunity for regime change? The story of Gaddafi planes strafing peaceful protesters has been debunked – one of the most often used justifications. Global intriguer Bernard Henri-Levy still cites this non-event as fact. The next most widely used justification was Gaddafi’s verbal threats – surely actions speak louder than words; are matters of war really judged by the words of a notorious loud mouth? Words previously so often disregarded.

    Then there was the mercenary claim. This unproven war propaganda had the unfortunate effect of legitimising barely suppressed, racist hatred of black Libyans and non-Arabs. By giving credence to this rumour, the ‘international community’ inadvertently co-signed the death warrant of many Libyan blacks and African migrants in the wrong place at the wrong time, at the hands of such noble NATO partners as ‘the brigade for purging slaves, black skin’

    The ‘evidence’ used by trusted ICC prosecutor Moreno Ocampo came from such neutral sources as a long time anti-Gaddafi, London-based exile group and al Queda affiliate LIFG. The ICC has been scrabbling around desperately seeking charges they can use against the Gaddafi’s ever since – perhaps to soften the images of Gaddafi lynch mobs; posthumously condemn the regime. New vague reports of rape used as a weapon have been posited which follow on from the earlier dubious reports of Viagra being handed to the Libyan Army, all the better to rape poor Libyans with. Amnesty International and the US military put a damper on these wild claims as well.

    When you weigh the balance of crimes – Ghaddafi / Libyan Army v Rebels, can anyone really claim intervention was justified, let alone under R2P; even barring hindsight and post-intervention crimes. Most early rebel casualties were as a result of the initial attacks on army bases. Most civilians were killed by pre and post intervention rebel death squads and post-intervention ‘collateral damage’. Considering the trend for greater, more effective ‘global governance’ structures, federalism, the importance of multilateralism, alliances and conformity to the new ‘norm’ of R2P, why were the views and wishes of the African Union and South American nations so roundly ignored?

    Once bitten, twice shy. R2P may be un-‘norm’ed. Russia and China wont allow creeping extensions to Chapter 7 language. Nations will be extra suspicious of terms like ‘available means’. Libya probably had no effect on Russian policy towards Syria; at the most it may have hardened prevailing attitudes. But Libya surely hasn’t helped the Syrian people, just as the end of Saddam didn’t transform the middle east (except, if you believe Tony Blair, ironically bringing Gaddafi in from the cold). If R2P was born of good intentions, the quest for human rights, its been dirtied by the usual Western pursuit of regime change, resource/contract extraction – cynical, dishonest usage. Whose to say when there’s a real chance at avoiding a genocide, it wont be missed due to a lack of trust and sensitivity to setting precedence.

    Then theres the fatigue of globalism and supra-national bodies in general. The EU, Euro, UN, IMF, WTO, ECB, WB… People are reassessing what globalism has actually done for them in terms of living standards, peace, democracy, corruption. Is it possible for ‘global governance’ to catch up with globalism, is it desirable? Isn’t localism, devolution more sustainable, more empowering than ever more integration?

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