Can Democrats and Republicans agree? They can when it comes to atrocity prevention.

In an era marked by political division, it is worth remembering issues that unite lawmakers. Genocide prevention is one of the them.

Over the summer, the US House of Representatives passed the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act by a vote of 406 to five. This legislation is designed to strengthen the US government’s capacity to prevent and respond to atrocities globally. As drafted, the Elie Wiesel Act requires systematic assessments of countries and regions where people are at risk of atrocities; training of Foreign Service Officers on the early indicators of such crimes; and regular coordination of government agencies to predict, prevent, and respond.

The legislation is currently making its way through the US Senate. If both chambers pass the bill and it is signed into law by the president this year, it will coincide with the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Genocide Convention, which formally defined the crime of genocide.

Every generation since the Holocaust has had to confront the challenges of mass atrocities. The word “atrocity” refers to systematic, large-scale violence against civilians; they include ethnic cleansing, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Over the past 30 years, US policy and government structures have adapted and evolved based on lessons learned from both Republican and Democratic administrations. These past cases have informed the Elie Wiesel Act.

Lessons from the 1990s

The bones of victims are displayed at a genocide memorial in Rwanda (2007). Credit: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

In 1988, the Proxmire Act, which ratified the Genocide Convention, passed both houses of Congress unanimously. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law — and made genocide a federal crime. Reagan called the legislation “a strong and clear statement by the United States that it will punish acts of genocide with the force of law and the righteousness of justice.”

President George H. W. Bush was the first to take action with explicit humanitarian and atrocity prevention objectives when he authorized the US military to participate in international operations to aid and protect Iraqi Kurds fleeing the Saddam Hussein regime (1991). He later took action to assist Somali civilians facing starvation in the midst of civil war (1992).

The infamous Black Hawk Down incident of 1993 — in which 18 American military personnel were killed in Somalia — influenced President Bill Clinton’s decision not to intervene in Rwanda (1994) and at Srebrenica (1995). Clinton has expressed regret for the US government’s lack of action during his presidency. ‘’We must have global vigilance,’’ he said. ‘’And never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence.’’*

After US officials witnessed the scale of atrocities and the costs of inaction in those two cases, US policy shifted. In 1997, Clinton created the Office of War Crimes Issues at the State Department — now the office of Global Criminal Justice — to direct US policy responses to atrocities. The US joined other NATO forces in conducting military strikes to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo (1999). By the end of the Clinton administration, an informal Atrocities Prevention Interagency Working Group was meeting once a month to review intelligence and make policy recommendations for US action.

US Policy Evolves toward Prevention

Clinton was the first president to make an explicit link between atrocity risks and US national security interests as part of the 2000 National Security Strategy.

In addition to being a cause for concern on humanitarian grounds, ethnic conflict can threaten regional stability and may give rise to potentially serious national security concerns. We will work to strengthen the capacity of the international community to prevent and, whenever possible, stop outbreaks of mass killing and displacement.

Since then, every president has made a reference to mass atrocities in at least one of their National Security Strategies. Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama explicitly outlined moral and national security arguments for prevention. George W. Bush, also shaken by international inaction in Rwanda, directed his administration to declare the violence in Darfur a genocide in 2004.

Obama, drawing on lessons from his predecessors — and a 2008 report from the Genocide Prevention Task Force — undertook a government-wide effort to predict, prevent, and respond to the threat of mass atrocities. In 2016, he issued an executive order that outlined a comprehensive approach to atrocity prevention and response. The same year, Obama established a position within the National Security Council to oversee war crimes, and created the interagency Atrocities Prevention Board (APB). Since its creation, the APB has recommended the mobilization of resources to mitigate the risk of widespread violence in Burma, the Central African Republic, Iraq, Syria, and Burundi.

A Yezidi woman prays at the temple in Lalish, northern Iraq. Credit: Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Obama also supported the NATO-led military intervention in Libya (2011) and authorized operations to rescue 40,000–50,000 Yezidis trapped by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq (2014). Unfortunately, his administration failed to address the grave crimes perpetrated by the Assad regime in Syria, where more than 11 million people have now been displaced by state-sponsored violence.

A Jordanian border guard helps Syrian civilians as they cross into Jordan (2014). Credit: Lucian Perkins for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Since taking office, the Trump administration has maintained the Atrocities Prevention Board and taken a number of important steps in response to atrocities. Those steps included ordering limited air strikes after the Assad regime used chemical weapons in Syria; instituting sanctions against Burmese military officials responsible for some of the violence against the Rohingya Muslim community; and sanctioning multiple individuals responsible for sowing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In December 2017, President Trump issued an executive order instituting financial sanctions against serious human rights abusers. In July 2018, the US Department of State hosted the first-ever Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom. The resulting Potomac Plan of Action included the following clause:

States should use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, and other necessary means to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, including when based on religious convictions.

Trump currently faces a multitude of atrocity contexts, but he has a bipartisan legacy of lessons — and should soon have action from Congress — to build upon.

Where We Are Today

A man looks through a gate of a mosque in an internment camp outside of Sittwe, Burma. Credit: Courtesy of Paula Bronstein/Getty Images Reportage for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Seventy years since the adoption of the Genocide Convention, people around the world remain at risk of genocide and other atrocities (the Museum’s Early Warning Project assesses those risks.) Among other grave crimes, the Assad regime continues to commit crimes against humanity against innocent civilians in Syria. Burma’s military continues to target Rohingya, Shan, Kachin, and other minorities across the country. In Iraq, Yezidis, Christians, and other religious minorities remain vulnerable to attack.

Successive US administrations have learned it is more difficult and costly for the international community to respond after atrocities have been committed. Prevention saves lives.

The provisions of the Elie Wiesel Act are an important, bipartisan contribution to strengthening US efforts to prevent atrocities. By introducing and advancing such legislation, Congress affirms that atrocity prevention is a nonpartisan issue and that the US government has a critical role to play in such efforts. Ongoing, bipartisan oversight and engagement from Congress can ensure implementation of the provisions, if the bill is signed into law.

It would be fitting tribute for the late Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Museum founding chairman. When he addressed the crowd at the Museum’s opening, Wiesel said: “We have learned some lessons [from the Holocaust] — minor lessons, perhaps. That we are all responsible and indifference is a sin and a punishment. And we have learned that when people suffer, we cannot remain indifferent.”

Janelle Johnson is a policy assistant in the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

* James Bennet, “Clinton In Africa: The Overview; Clinton Declares U.S., With World, Failed Rwandans.” New York Times, March 26, 1998.