Obama Takes Steps to Stop Atrocity Crimes

August 11, 2011

I have held foreign policy positions in the last three Republican administrations. Therefore, it is not surprising that I am a skeptic of President Obama’s foreign policy and, on occasion, have been a critic. Nonetheless, I am an enthusiastic supporter of the President’s recent initiatives to address the scourge of atrocity crimes.

The past 100 years have seen a numbing number of innocents victimized by vicious violence, genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Armenian genocide, Stalin’s extermination of tens of millions of his own people, the Nazi Holocaust, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Cambodian Killing Fields, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, the eastern Congo and the genocide in slow motion in Darfur are only the most horrific. There are many more places less well known where innocents have been the victims of devastating deeds, terrible crimes and systematic cruelty.

While President Bush’s Special Envoy to Sudan, I often visited internally displaced persons in Darfur. I would hear the stories of unspeakable sorrow told by innocent victims. They told me about fire from the sky as Sudan Armed Force Antonov aircrafts and attack helicopters would drop bombs and 55 gallon drums of burning oil down upon villages, followed by army soldiers on the back of flatbed trucks rushing through the village shooting AK 47s indiscriminately. This would be followed by the Arab Jangaweed militias, the so called Devils on horseback and camels, riding into their village burning homes, destroying crops, poisoning wells, killing males – young boys to old men – and then raping women and branding them on their thighs with burning hot knives so they could never escape their shame. They would tell me about gathering their surviving children and walking into the desert for days with little water or food to get to camps where they now live in desperate conditions. These poor souls had their homes, their loved ones and their dreams ripped out and destroyed by indiscriminate violence. They struggle to survive. They dare not hope.

And these atrocities continue. Just last month I was in the eastern Congo where, in the past 15 years, 3 million have died due to conflict and 4 million have been displaced. Some experts estimate that one in every three women has been raped in the eastern Congo.

In June, the Government of Sudan began an ethnically targeted military campaign in South Kordofan, an area on its southern border. Their planes dropped bombs. There are reports that Sudan Internal Security forces are going door to door committing summary executions based on ethnicity and political affiliation, including how black you are.

Moreover, the grisly sights of the Syrian government’s brutal crackdown on innocent demonstrators in Hama and elsewhere in that country crowd our television and newspapers daily.

It is a mistake to conclude that these atrocity crimes are the result of ancient tribal rivalries or ethnic divisions and therefore inevitable, unstoppable or unpreventable. It is true that such circumstances can be dry kindling for the fire to ignite. But these awful events are invariably the result of powerful people willing to exploit those divisions, to wreak havoc and destruction, to target innocents in order to secure or retain power. Someone, some ones, consciously with clear malice aforethought decided to open the gates of hell. There is planning, organization, usually prepositioning, and often rhetorical conditioning for the atrocities to come. It is unconscionable. It is horrific. But it is not unintentional. It is not spontaneous.

Therefore, there are things that can be done to prevent these crimes before their onslaught. The only options are not benign neglect or military intervention to stop the slaughter of innocents already unleashed. We can and should be on the lookout for these gathering storms and act to derail the chain of events that will lead to massive murder, misery and mayhem.

After World War II when the full horrors of the Holocaust became known, the civilized world pledged Never Again. Then came the Cambodian Killing Fields, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, the eastern Congo and Darfur. The casualties of innocents mounted, the ravages of rape, dismemberment and other forms of torture continued, the rivers of innocent blood overflowed. When will we give meaning to the pledge Never Again? Do we not have some responsibility to protect these innocents?

After 800,000 Tutsis were killed, mostly by machetes, in Rwanda in just 100 days of carnage, President Clinton did act in Bosnia and Kosovo to end ethnic killing. President George W. Bush led in getting a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan. The United Nations deployed former Secretary General Kofi Annan to Kenya in 2008 to negotiate a power sharing arrangement to end the outbreak of ethnic violence following a flawed election. President Obama provided a diplomatic surge to help keep the Referendum for South Sudan’s independence on time and peaceful. He also supported the recent UN actions in Cote d’Ivoire to stop a breakout of ethnic killing following President Gbango’s reluctance to accept his defeat at the polls. These actions deserve praise. But they are episodic, personality driven and set guardrails against atrocity crimes that remain weak and unreliable.

With added appreciation of the ravages of atrocity crimes and a gathering political will to be more proactive to prevent and mitigate such horrors, it is important to move beyond personality driven actions and reactions to gathering storms. It is important to begin to institutionalize early warning systems, develop doctrines and capacities to respond diplomatically and more robustly when needed, and have an institutional focal point and mechanism to consider intelligence, develop options, and present emerging issues to decision makers. This was the message of an important group headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen in 2008. Their Anti-Genocide Task Force report outlines a number of important specific steps the United States Government could take to deal with these most difficult issues.

President Obama deserves praise for taking this issue seriously and initiating work for implementation of many of the Task Force’s recommendations. For example, he appointed David Pressman as director for war crimes and atrocities within the National Security Council as a focal point for this issue and created a Mass Atrocity Prevention and Response Operations initiative at the Department of Defense. Furthermore, the Obama Administration has given rhetorical support for Genocide prevention in U.S. doctrine and planning documents such as the National Security Strategy, the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review and supported a recent non-binding resolution passed by the Senate that states that genocide prevention is in the national security interest of the United States. And earlier this month he took further actions that have been too little heralded.

On August 4th, President Obama directed new steps to prevent mass atrocities and impose new restrictions on serious human rights violators. He created a standing interagency Atrocities Prevention Board to develop prevention strategies and to insure gathering storms in this area are elevated for senior decision-making. This should help identify places of growing concern and provide more time to work with allies and partners to respond and prevent potential atrocities. He also issued a proclamation explicitly barring entry into the United States of any persons who organize or participate in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of human rights.

Will these steps stop atrocity crimes? Will they ensure our pledge of Never Again finally is fulfilled? Unfortunately, surely the answer is no. Tragically man’s inhumanity to man and powerful people willing to open the gates of Hell and sponsor horrific actions to gain or keep power will continue. But these concrete steps are important and deserve recognition and support. They will better prepare the United States to anticipate and deal with these horrific crimes, and therefore undoubtedly help prevent some situations from roaring out of control and temper or stop some already inflamed.

These efforts to imbed combating atrocity crimes into America’s foreign policy and to institutionalize various bureaucratic mechanisms for early warning of gathering storms and developing broad ranges of response options are consequential. They are steps in the right direction. And the lives of some innocents will be saved. For this, notwithstanding whatever other differences one might have with the administration, President Obama deserves praise and support.