The United States and "atrocity prevention"

The formation of an official agency charged with helping Washington identify and address threats of atrocity around the world is notable. But the United States's own foreign-policy record raises serious questions over its likely impact, says Martin Shaw.

Martin Shaw
Martin Shaw
27 April 2012

In a speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) on 23 April 2012, President Barack Obama launched a "comprehensive strategy" to "prevent and respond to atrocities". He has charged his new  Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) with "helping the US government identify and address atrocity threats, and oversee institutional changes that will make us more nimble and effective".

The APB - chaired by Samantha Power, author of an an indictment of earlier US inaction on genocide, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide [Harper Collins, 2003]) - will be strengthened by the inclusion of representatives of all the main departments of the US government. In addition, the National Intelligence Council will prepare a national-intelligence estimate on the global risk of mass atrocities and genocide, and there will be new peacekeeper training and diplomatic initiatives.

There will also be a new capacity for "civilian surge" to respond rapidly to crises, and new sanctions for companies that aid the Syrian and Iranian governments track and target civilians for abuse. Perhaps most important, the US military will incorporate counter-atrocity planning into its operating procedures, and senior officers will meet - at the USHMM - to plan this.

Between morality and policy

This follows a presidential study directive (number 10) issued in 2011 that aimed to bridge the gap between national interest and altruistic intervention. It claimed that "preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest" as well as "a core moral responsibility of the United States. Our security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods. America's reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide."

A White House release accompanying Obama’s speech claims "an unprecedented record of actions taken to protect civilians and hold perpetrators of atrocities accountable", including "leadership of the successful international military effort to protect civilians in Libya" as well as of of various international efforts over Cote d'Ivoire, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, and Syria; efforts to ensure "peaceful and orderly" independence for South Sudan; action against the Lord's Resistance Army and to apprehend Joseph Kony (anti-hero of a recent YouTube hit), and supporting the capture of Ratko Mladic.

Obama’s moves have been welcomed by the US’s increasingly active genocide lobby. The principal campaigning group, United to End Genocide, webcast Obama’s speech to supporters, and its president, Tom Andrews, hailed it in an email to them as "a major victory for genocide prevention" and campaigning, indeed as "a result of three years of hard work and over 200,000 of your emails, phone calls, letters and meetings".

Between claim and reality

It is clear that counter-atrocity policy, now institutionalised in a way that entrenches its role as a "national interest", is taking ever-stronger shape under Obama. However, genocide campaigners should beware functioning as the administration’s cheerleaders. Even if atrocity-prevention is a national interest, that hardly means it will trump other national interests - strategic and commercial, for example.The fate of the "ethical dimension" of New Labour’s foreign policy is a warning: it remained just a dimension, and an increasingly subordinate one at that.

The US administration's claims immediately suggest specific reasons for scepticism. Some civilians were protected by western military support for Libya’s rebels, but many others died in the civil war, moreover, it is egregious to claim that the policy was merely one of civilian protection, when the main driver was regime-change. The US’s support for peace and order in Sudan has not prevented the Sudanese government’s new aggression in border provinces, which genocide activists have been quick to protest. Joseph Kony, despite his new notoriety (or celebrity), is still at large.

Although the administration sees atrocity-prevention as multilateral rather than unilateral, it makes no commitment to consistent multilateral action against atrocity. It is one thing to sanction your enemies in the name of fine ideals, but if you don’t mobilise the United Nations to do the same against your allies, these ideals are tarnished. Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s hesitation over acting against Hosni Mubarak and his military successors in Egypt, and against the repression carried out by the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies, suggests a strong danger in tying "atrocity" campaigning closely to official US policy.

It could be objected that repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has not reached genocidal levels, but it has surely included atrocities. The new policy and board are framed, after all, in "atrocity" rather than "genocide" terms. It is surely the point of "preventative" policy to act at lower levels of violence, to stop escalation. Why are there no sanctions against companies that aid these regimes to track and abuse activists? Why, indeed, is there no withdrawal of US military collaboration with these (and similar) regimes that have also been responsible for atrocities?

The linkage to sanctions against Iran and Syria is also problematic - not because these regimes are not guilty of atrocities, but because of the link this could easily provide to Israeli campaigning for a military strike on Iran to halt the Iranian nuclear programme. Israel’s leaders, the pro-Israel lobby in the US, and some "genocide scholars" are already framing their proposed attack as "genocide prevention". Yet the last thing genocide prevention needs is to be linked to aggressive war, which will severely discredit the whole idea.

Such a war will surely bring its own atrocities against innocent Iranian civilians, just as the Iraq war did against Iraqis and the Afghan war against Afghans. There are direct victims of US policy, currently including Pakistani citizens who are dying from US drone attacks, and Afghan villagers (such as the wedding parties regularly strafed by US aircraft, as explored by Stephen Rockel — see his chapter in Philip G Dwyer & Lynndal Ryan eds, Theatres of Violence: Massacre, Mass Killing and Atrocity throughout History [Berghahn, 2012]). There are also indirect victims, notably the thousands of Iraqis who are still dying in the low-level civil war provoked by the United States-British invasion in 2003, a war that at one point reached genocidal dimensions as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were forced to flee their neighbourhoods, mostly into exile.

Are not these all cases of atrocity? The Atrocities Prevention Board, to live up to its name, cannot ignore the way that US military policies daily produce atrocities. Genocide campaigners need to be alive to these dangers, and campaign against US policy when it too causes violence against civilians. The potential of the Obama administration’s latest moves to prevent some atrocities should be noted, but there must be sustained vigilance lest they end up being mobilised to produce other atrocities.

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