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New Obama Directive Aims to Prevent Genocide, Violent Outbreaks

A tourist at the Choeung Ek killing fields memorial in Cambodia. Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images.

President Obama signed a directive Thursday setting up an interagency board to come up with a coordinated governmental approach in the next four months to prevent mass atrocities and genocide.

According to the new directive:

“The actions that can be taken are many — they range from economic to diplomatic interventions, and from non combat military actions to outright intervention. But ensuring that the full range of options is available requires a level of governmental organization that matches the methodical organization characteristic of mass killings.”

“I think it is those places that are not yet in crisis that this kind of mechanism could be extremely valuable in actually keeping them out of the headlines rather than so much resolving the conflicts that we’re already seeing in the headlines,” said Lawrence Woocher, senior program officer in the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention.

He explains more about the significance of the directive:

What will happen under the directive that wasn’t previously getting done?

LAWRENCE WOOCHER: The most notable step is the creation of an atrocities-prevention board, which will be a high-level interagency mechanism to both develop preventive strategies and to coordinate U.S. government policy across the relevant government agencies. The gaps that this seeks to fill are really about first bringing the relevant analysis and warnings of potential atrocities to senior decision-makers at an earlier stage when a wider range of policy options might be available and effective, and then to make sure that U.S. government responses are coherent and coordinated across the various agencies.

Is there anything the directive doesn’t address that concerns human rights groups?

LAWRENCE WOOCHER: One thing is the directive calls for a comprehensive assessment over the next 100 days, and so a number of the detail questions about how this will actually work in practice remain to be outlined after that study is completed. So a couple of questions that come to mind for me are how this new body will relate to the kind of mainstream national security interagency process, the National Security Council, its deputies committee, and so forth. Whenever you create a new body on a specialized topic such as this, there’s a risk of it either getting marginalized or creating unnecessary seams where you then have debates about which is the appropriate venue for a particular problem. I think they’re aware of those challenges, but the exact way they’ll approach them still is not settled.

I think the advocacy community, as far as I can see, is generally very supportive of these steps but at the same time is craving a sense of what the responsibility is to specific crises that are already ongoing, particularly in the Nuba Mountain region of Sudan, where the advocacy community has been very active, but also in Libya and particularly in Syria now. And I think there are questions in some people’s minds about how exactly these kinds of bureaucratic steps, as laudable as they may be, will make a difference in some of these fast-escalating crises that might not have been foreseeable.

Then to what situations will the directive apply?

LAWRENCE WOOCHER: This kind of mechanism is probably most valuable for places that aren’t yet in the headlines. Perhaps it’s a place like Kenya which has presidential elections upcoming. The last time there were presidential elections, [there were] disputes [and] significant levels of violence. And then there was a major international response to staunch the violence. But I think the idea behind this board is to identify those kinds of places and risks and moments of vulnerability early to generate serious debate and policy strategies in advance and then tee those up for decisions by senior U.S. policymakers.

What else is notable about the president’s announcement?

LAWRENCE WOOCHER: Perhaps the most important thing in the directive is the very beginning in which the president states that preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States. That’s an extremely clear, strong and unambiguous statement about the importance of this objective that we haven’t seen before. We’ve seen in national security strategies and other speeches language about genocide and mass atrocities, but nothing quite so crystal clear and forceful about the role it plays. That, I think, should have a kind of signaling effect at the working levels of the U.S. government; people should be energized and motivated to look out for these kinds of potential crises and act more robustly early on.

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