An Atrocities Prevention Board: Useful Tool or Farce?

President Obama at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

In a speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. last week, President Obama announced the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board.  This interagency body (with members from the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, and others) is designed to monitor situations that could lead to mass atrocities and recommend timely actions to prevent escalation.  This announcement drew swift and scathing responses from a variety of critics.

Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, in an article called “While Syria Burns,” argued that the Obama administration talks tough on preventing atrocities but has stood idly by as 9,000 Syrians have been killed.  He calls the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board “embarrassing,” and suggests it is an excuse for inaction: “I kid you not. A board. Russia flies plane loads of weapons to Damascus. Iran supplies money, trainers, agents, more weapons. And what does America do? Supports a feckless U.N. peace mission that does nothing to stop the killing. (Indeed, some of the civilians who met with the peacekeepers were summarily executed.) And establishes an Atrocities Prevention Board.”

Another critic, realist scholar Stephen Walt, argues that the board is problematic for three reasons: (1) it will increase the likelihood that the U.S. will get involved in more unwise and costly interventions in an effort to be the “global police,” (2) it will do nothing about the core strategic problems that prevent states from intervening in humanitarian crises, and (3) it helps perpetuate the myth that the U.S. has clean hands and should be judging others’ behavior when it has been responsible for atrocities in the past.

But Andrew Miller of the Council on Foreign Relations‘ Center for Preventive Action argues in a response to Walt that the Atrocities Prevention Board has the potential both to prevent genocide and to reduce the likelihood of costly U.S. intervention abroad:

“The APB will help ensure that atrocity situations don’t get sidelined in the policymaking process. The Clinton administration failed to address the 1994 Rwandan genocide in part because White House officials were focused on the dual crises in Bosnia and Haiti. Thus, as hundreds of thousands died in Rwanda, the genocide wasn’t even a side-show for policymakers; it was a “no show” in the words of then-national security advisor Tony Lake…

Does that mean the U.S. military is more likely to find itself in places of negligible U.S. interests such as Rwanda?  Simply put: No.  As the board’s title suggests, it will focus on prevention. Thus, its success will be measured on its ability to prevent tensions from deteriorating to the point where intervention is even considered. With a preventive approach, the United States can save more lives while expending less blood and treasure. Preventive tools such as economic sanctions or threats of prosecution used to deter would-be perpetrators and protect would-be victims are almost always cheaper and less risky than large-scale military operations.”

Who makes a more persuasive case: the advocates of an Atrocities Prevention Board or its critics?  Are we kidding ourselves that this board can actually make a difference, or does it have the potential to be a useful policy tool that saves lives, saves money, and stops budding conflicts from escalating into the worst kinds of atrocities?

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2 responses to “An Atrocities Prevention Board: Useful Tool or Farce?

  1. I doubt this Atrocities Prevention Board thingy can achieve its goals. I think that like R2P it will used as an excuse to pursue strategic goals when it can and ignored when it can’t. If I was feeling especially cynical I would say that it is simply Obama trying to appear more statesman-like before the election, and more broadly speaking, trying to take a moral high ground over countries like Russia and China who veto UNSC resolutions calling for intervention in failing states on the basis of state soveriegnty. I’m also not convinced that policies like economic sanctions work against pariah states, while the threat of prosecution to individual leaders already exists anyway under various bits of international law relating to IHL and crimes against humanity.

  2. Well, based on the given content of what the board would be all about and the arguements presented. I see no further harm in opting for the progression of the Atrocities Prevention Board. It holds no ground in opposing the proposition while no alternative for it is given. Thefore, i would say, indeed prevention is better than cure. Let us atleast try it out!!

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