Commentary Magazine


Topic: Atrocities Prevention Board

Time to End the Atrocities Prevention Board

It has been less than four months since President Barack Obama announced the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board, sometimes called the “Genocide Prevention Board.” Speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Obama announced:

Now we’re doing something more.  We’re making sure that the United States government has the structures, the mechanisms to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities. So I created the first-ever White House position dedicated to this task. It’s why I created a new Atrocities Prevention Board, to bring together senior officials from across our government to focus on this critical mission.

The idea that it takes a new bureaucracy to identify genocide, as a White House fact sheet explained, was always silly; the private media does just fine reporting on atrocities. If anything, the creation of new government bodies at taxpayer expense simply suggests the inefficiency of previous government agencies, none of which ever seem to fade away.

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It has been less than four months since President Barack Obama announced the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board, sometimes called the “Genocide Prevention Board.” Speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Obama announced:

Now we’re doing something more.  We’re making sure that the United States government has the structures, the mechanisms to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities. So I created the first-ever White House position dedicated to this task. It’s why I created a new Atrocities Prevention Board, to bring together senior officials from across our government to focus on this critical mission.

The idea that it takes a new bureaucracy to identify genocide, as a White House fact sheet explained, was always silly; the private media does just fine reporting on atrocities. If anything, the creation of new government bodies at taxpayer expense simply suggests the inefficiency of previous government agencies, none of which ever seem to fade away.

A new interagency board will never be able to enact policies against the will of the White House, the State Department, or Congress. Syria is a case in point: Atrocities have only accelerated since the board’s inauguration, yet the White House remains uninterested in much more than symbolic action. Nothing is more corrosive to the credibility of the United States than the gap between rhetoric and action which now exists. Nor will the board ever inform Obama that his policies–for example, talking to the Taliban–will almost certainly lead to renewal of atrocities in Afghanistan.

Obama rewarded Samantha Power with the chairmanship of the Atrocities Prevention Board. Power, a Pulitzer prize winner who has focused on genocide since her days as a freelance reporter in Bosnia, provided the intellectual push for the board, and she has made a career out of the often mutually exclusive lament that the United States does too little to prevent genocide and that the United States should work more through the United Nations in resolving conflict.

By chairing such an impotent board, however, Power now has the ability to make real change, although not as she had initially planned. If she remains the head of a meaningless board powerless to prevent genocide, she effectively exposes herself as a partisan hack, willing to put her affinity for Obama and her love for the title above principle. However, if Power refuses the temptation to posture rather than prevent atrocity, she could show herself to be a woman of principle and, in so doing, stop giving cover to those who, against the backdrop of mass murder, would turn and look away.

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Dead-End Diplomatic Initiatives in Syria

Last Friday, in a village near the Syrian town of Houla, a horrifying massacre unfolded. After government forces attacked an opposition rally, they shelled the town and then sent in the shabiha, the notorious Alawite-dominated, pro-government militia that carries out the same role in Syria as Serbian goon squads did during the Bosnian civil war. The shabiha went door to door, killing people either by shooting them or slitting their throats. At least 108 people were killed, among them 49 children and 34 women.

Given the terrible nature of these atrocities, the response from what is known as the international community is almost comically ineffectual. The UN Security Council voted to condemn the massacre–but not to do anything about it. Now UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan has traveled to Syria to try to “salvage” his ineffectual peace plan. He thunders from his high perch:

“I urge the government to take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully, and for everyone involved to help create the right context for a credible political process.”

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Last Friday, in a village near the Syrian town of Houla, a horrifying massacre unfolded. After government forces attacked an opposition rally, they shelled the town and then sent in the shabiha, the notorious Alawite-dominated, pro-government militia that carries out the same role in Syria as Serbian goon squads did during the Bosnian civil war. The shabiha went door to door, killing people either by shooting them or slitting their throats. At least 108 people were killed, among them 49 children and 34 women.

Given the terrible nature of these atrocities, the response from what is known as the international community is almost comically ineffectual. The UN Security Council voted to condemn the massacre–but not to do anything about it. Now UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan has traveled to Syria to try to “salvage” his ineffectual peace plan. He thunders from his high perch:

“I urge the government to take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully, and for everyone involved to help create the right context for a credible political process.”

Were this quote not contained in the New York Times, I could swear that it came from the Onion–it is such a pitch-perfect parody of the weasel words that international bureaucrats use to avoid assuming responsibility for doing something about an assault on human rights. (What steps could the government of Syria possibly take to convince Annan that it’s NOT serious about resolving “this crisis peacefully,” short of using chemical weapons on the protesters?) Only it’s not a parody.

And nor is this Times headline: “U.S. Hopes Assad Can Be Eased Out With Russia’s Aid.” The administration must be living in some alternative universe if it thinks that Russia–Syria’s second-closest ally (after Iran) and one of its chief sources of weapons–will suddenly turn on the Assad regime after having stood by it during the massacres of the past year.

All of the attention being devoted to such dead-end diplomatic initiatives is simply indicative of the fundamental lack of seriousness in Washington regarding events in Syria. President Obama may have created an Atrocities Prevention Board, but he is doing nothing serious to prevent the ongoing atrocities in Syria.

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Where is Atrocity Prevention on Syria?

Lee Smith has already noted at the Weekly Standard’s site the irony of the Obama administration creating the Atrocities Prevention Board at the very moment the administration is choosing to do nothing substantive to stop the atrocities being perpetrated in Syria.

There is another layer of irony, as noted by Michael Dobbs at Foreign Policy, namely that the driving force behind the Atrocities Prevention Board, NSC staffer Samantha Power, the author of an important history of American responses to genocide, had noted the propensity of U.S. officials to oppose “genocide in the abstract while simultaneously opposing American involvement in the moment.” It is hard to better that as a description of the U.S. response, or lack thereof, to the massacres occurring in Syria.

The U.S. has responded with empty calls for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation and tough sanctions which have done much damage to the Syrian economy but have not stopped the killing or shaken the regime, which continues to be supported by Iran, Russia, and other unsavory actors. The latest attempt to save the Syrian people has come courtesy of the UN, which is introducing monitors to Syria. Not surprisingly, the Syrian regime has not been cowed by the presence of these unarmed observers; Syrian security forces have cracked down hard in cities such as Homs where the people have dared to protest the regime during the fleeting visits of the UN observers.

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Lee Smith has already noted at the Weekly Standard’s site the irony of the Obama administration creating the Atrocities Prevention Board at the very moment the administration is choosing to do nothing substantive to stop the atrocities being perpetrated in Syria.

There is another layer of irony, as noted by Michael Dobbs at Foreign Policy, namely that the driving force behind the Atrocities Prevention Board, NSC staffer Samantha Power, the author of an important history of American responses to genocide, had noted the propensity of U.S. officials to oppose “genocide in the abstract while simultaneously opposing American involvement in the moment.” It is hard to better that as a description of the U.S. response, or lack thereof, to the massacres occurring in Syria.

The U.S. has responded with empty calls for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation and tough sanctions which have done much damage to the Syrian economy but have not stopped the killing or shaken the regime, which continues to be supported by Iran, Russia, and other unsavory actors. The latest attempt to save the Syrian people has come courtesy of the UN, which is introducing monitors to Syria. Not surprisingly, the Syrian regime has not been cowed by the presence of these unarmed observers; Syrian security forces have cracked down hard in cities such as Homs where the people have dared to protest the regime during the fleeting visits of the UN observers.

This is not a serious policy; it is in fact the absence of a policy. As Elie Wiesel said at the Holocaust Museum, in introducing President Obama to give a speech on how he would prevent atrocities, “How is it that Assad is still in power?…Have we not learned? We must know that evil has power. It is almost too late.” (Wiesel also demanded to know how it is that Ahamedinejad remains in power in Iran and how it is that Iran is on the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons.)

That situation does not appear likely to change anytime soon. Barring greater action led by the U.S., Assad will remain in power. And I fear that the U.S. may not do anything serious until after the November presidential election. Unfortunately, the way things are going, the killing will still be in full swing then.

 

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Obama Sends Message on Technology Human Rights Abuse

As Jonathan wrote, President Obama unveiled his new Atrocity Prevention Board at the Holocaust Museum this morning. The inception of the board was actually announced in August, but it’s convening for the first time tomorrow, which tells you all you need to know about how efficient this new bureaucratic creation will probably be:

The White House’s new Atrocities Prevention Board will meet for the first time Monday, as President Barack Obama outlines steps aimed at ensuring the U.S. has the “mechanisms and structures” to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities and war crimes, an administration official said Sunday. …

“This unprecedented direction from the president, and the development of a comprehensive strategy, sends a clear message that we are committed to combating atrocities, an old threat that regularly takes grim and modern new forms,” said Samantha Power, the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights, who will serve as chairman of the Atrocities Prevention Board. The panel’s creation was announced in August.

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As Jonathan wrote, President Obama unveiled his new Atrocity Prevention Board at the Holocaust Museum this morning. The inception of the board was actually announced in August, but it’s convening for the first time tomorrow, which tells you all you need to know about how efficient this new bureaucratic creation will probably be:

The White House’s new Atrocities Prevention Board will meet for the first time Monday, as President Barack Obama outlines steps aimed at ensuring the U.S. has the “mechanisms and structures” to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities and war crimes, an administration official said Sunday. …

“This unprecedented direction from the president, and the development of a comprehensive strategy, sends a clear message that we are committed to combating atrocities, an old threat that regularly takes grim and modern new forms,” said Samantha Power, the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights, who will serve as chairman of the Atrocities Prevention Board. The panel’s creation was announced in August.

As Ben Smith tweeted, “an ‘Atrocities Prevention Board’ sounds like a parody of what one would do about atrocities.” The board is supposed to inform senior administration officials about potential genocides and mass human rights abuses, as if some might accidentally slip by without notice. It’s also tasked with using “new tools” to develop “mechanisms and structures” to deal with atrocities, whatever that means.

The president also announced a new measure to prevent Iran and Syria from using technology to commit human rights abuses, a laudable move. But addressing atrocities often requires making tough choices that are not widely-supported, and the administration has often failed on this front. If they were serious about preventing human rights abuses, they would be putting far more pressure for reform on countries like China and Russia, they wouldn’t be abandoning the women in Afghanistan, and most critically, they would be vigorously supporting Israeli action against Iran, instead of trying to pressure the government to hold off on a strike behind the scenes. They would support a policy of regime change in Iran, the only outcome that there can be. The atrocities that America looks back on with guilt and shame for not having acted sooner are ones that required tough and potentially unpopular decisions at the time.

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