This week’s “American Voices” essay is from Sadia Hameed, director of the crimes against humanity program at Human Rights First.
I was born in London but raised in Pakistan, and I moved there when I was five in the midst of the end of a fairly brutal dictatorship that changed the face of the country. And for me growing up in that environment, I think that it’s always sort of been part of who I am and what I do. The first really substantial research project I went out to do was with Save the Children U.K. and their regional office in Pakistan. I was studying child labor, and I was going house to house to interview families and sort of the underage workers in factories. And there was one young boy — he was probably no more than 6 or 7 years old — and I remember during the course of the interview he looked straight at me and said, “You know, what we have so many people come out from different NGOs, international organizations, national organizations. They ask us questions, they promise that things will change, they leave and nothing ever happens. Tell me why you’re different and what you’re going to do.”
And I think that I have used him as a marker ever since my very early career to make sure that anything I am doing is actually going to go back and benefit the people who need that assistance the most, and whose rights need to be defended the strongest.
To me, the United States is a country that believes in upholding fundamental human rights and freedoms. It has influence and reach that goes the world over. And we’ve seen under the Obama administration for the first time a desire for the U.S. government to really institutionalize the priority of atrocity prevention and genocide prevention within the United States administration. And he’s done this — he did this through a presidential study directive that came out last August that called for an interagency atrocity prevention board to be set up. And our hope is that this atrocity prevention board will finally mark the fact that it is in fact a priority — a policy priority, foreign and domestic — for the United States to be taking action on instances of mass atrocity and assessing what more it could be doing.
Whether you are looking at Cambodia or Rwanda or Bosnia or a situation now like Syria, you are looking at attacks that go on for a fairly long period of time. And I think that until we can start looking at early warning signs, you will continue to see history repeat itself because if you don’t dismantle the networks that allow those perpetrators to commit those atrocities in the first place, then you still leave there the means for someone else to come and commit similar violations.
Tackling enablers needs to be a priority for the United States government and its policy-making. And certainly we would very much want it to be a priority for all foreign governments that are looking to prevent genocide and mass atrocities from taking place.