what role for obama’s atrocities prevention board?

Yesterday, I had the privilege to participate in the White House’s unveiling of the Obama administration’s Atrocities Prevention Board, an interagency policy mechanism for mass atrocities prevention. The Board is a long-awaited policy achievement for the atrocities prevention community, dating back to the Genocide Prevention Task Force’s 2008 call for U.S. policymaking leadership on genocide and mass atrocities. The Board’s creation headlined the day’s events; however, the administration took the opportunity to unveil a melange of human rights-related policies, including restrictions on atrocities-enabling technology companies, an extended mandate for U.S. military advisers operating in LRA-affected areas, and a first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on mass atrocities risk. Many of the policy proposals appeared wonky and uninteresting, if essential (woo, strategic planning!); others, such as USAID’s innovation grants partnership with Humanity United, demonstrate potential areas for public/private/social sector collaboration on atrocities prevention.

I was fortunate enough to participate on a panel at the unveiling, focusing on grassroots mobilization and the future for atrocities prevention policy. I centered my commentary on “disruptive” approaches to human rights advocacy–that is, crafting grassroots opportunities for new policy narratives, new constituencies, and new strategic partnerships. I gave a brief plug for STAND’s work on diaspora outreach, as well as our nascent forays into civil society outreach in emerging societies and democratizing states. Additionally, I discussed STAND’s evolving theory of change, which I’ve explained on this blog: as I put it, “[i]n twenty years, the effectiveness of our advocacy will not rely on the number of bills we pass, but on the number of our fellow advocates on the Atrocities Prevention Boards of future administrations.” Over the long-term, moral, compassionate participation in U.S. foreign policy decision-making matters, and should remain a priority for grassroots constituencies. You can find a brief summary of my talking points at PolicyMic, where I published a piece yesterday morning. (Also, in the video above, I start speaking at 22:10, or so.)

To its credit, the White House facilitated the active participation of online and offline constituencies throughout the day’s events. Advocates, practitioners, and academics of all stripes offered their two-cents, noting the opportunities and shortcomings associated with the Atrocities Prevention Board’s implementation. For many, the administration’s symbolic chutzpah was too much to handle: at the event, as well as online, Sudan advocates observed the disparity between President Obama’s “Never Again” pledge and the persistence of mass atrocities in Sudan. Syria, too, represents a challenging factor on the policy radar. I remain skeptical of the United States’ continued influence in both circumstances, but atrocities’ ever-present stain on the human conscience raises a critical question: How do U.S. policymakers and human rights advocates balance the implementation of immediate and structural priorities? And, more topically, how can we envision a role for the Atrocities Prevention Board in bridging this seemingly irreconcilable gap?

First, let’s start with the Board’s composition. The Board is a manifestation of the sum of its parts, which may strengthen or hinder the Board’s initial work. As with all interagency bureaucracies, individual leadership, trust, and reliability determines the effectiveness of political decision-making. Judging from Power’s presentation of the Atrocities Prevention Board, the new body is a mixed bag. The State Department and USAID representatives–human-security champion Maria Otero and Don Steinberg, respectively–are both high-level, credible officials, with extensive backgrounds in atrocities prevention work, and high levels of credibility within their individual agencies. Otero is, unfortunately, the only woman on the board, but I was pleased to see her take a commanding role in the subsequent discussion–she has Clinton’s ear, and appears willing to use her credibility to push the atrocities prevention agenda forward. On a related note, the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control’s Adam Szubin has an extensive, cross-issue background in sanctions implementation; the administration’s expansion of “smart sanctions” to confront Syria, Sudan, and similar regimes will emanate from Szubin’s office.

Next, what will the Board do, and how can we establish standards for success? Judging from the Twitter discussion, a widespread misperception of the Atrocities Prevention Board’s political purpose abounds. The Board can do little to “stop atrocities”; as human rights advocates, policymakers, and scholars have observed, atrocities escalation is a steep slope, and the opportunities for external policy intervention are, in fact, limited. As an interagency body, the Board’s contributions to full-scale atrocities and rapidly escalating conflicts will be limited–as Princeton Lyman observed during his comments, the Sudan policymaking process will continue, with or without the Board’s stamp of approval. There are wheels in motion, so to speak, and the Board’s convening, coordinating, and information-sharing authorities can do little to shift the strategic, political, and intra-organizational dynamics of the moving policy process. As Otero discussed in her comments, you won’t see the Board pushing for the ratification of the ICC’s Rome Statute, or proposing a no-fly zone over South Kordofan (thank goodness), or encouraging the deployment of military advisers to Uganda. Throughout his USHMM speech, President Obama highlighted a variety of policy decisions, but don’t take that as an indication that the Board will play a role in the policymaking process, strictly defined.

As the administration’s fact sheet makes clear, the Board’s real value-added stems from its bureaucratic capabilities, ones which appear irrelevant to the unassuming eye. The Atrocities Prevention Board will encourage the training of diplomats, development practitioners, military officials, and intelligence officers in atrocities prevention strategies; facilitate cross-national trainings of foreign militaries, law enforcement, and peacebuilding authorities; and, where relevant, provide greater support to the distribution and identification of early warning and atrocities risk. The bureaucratic mechanisms within which these processes will operate are unclear–the Board will not receive a dedicated staff, and there was little honest discussion of Congressional cooperation on and support for the administration’s new initiatives. In “responsibility to protect” terms, the Board is a second-pillar initiative, intended to build national capacity, craft training-based partnerships with national governments and local institutions, and strengthen the tools, intra-organizational will, and policy mechanisms through which atrocities are prevented. The institutionalization of atrocities prevention does not refer to the normalization of humanitarian intervention; rather, the Board will encourage the long-term diffusion of human security norms throughout foreign policy institutions.

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