Analysis | Three observations on the newly released U.S. atrocity prevention and response strategy

Ryan Conner

Left to right: Michelle Strucke (U.S. Department of Defense), Robert Jenkins (USAID), Amb. Beth Van Schaack (U.S. Department of State), Nidhi Bouri (U.S. National Security Council), Robert J. Faucher (U.S. Department of State), and Naomi Kikoler (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum) gather at the U.S. Institute of Peace on July 20, 2022, to discuss the newly released U.S. Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities. (Image: U.S. Institute of Peace on Flickr)

On July 15, the U.S. government released a new atrocity prevention and response strategy. In line with Executive Order 13729, A Comprehensive Approach to Atrocity Prevention and Response (2016), the strategy affirms that atrocity prevention is both a “core national security interest” and a “core moral responsibility” of the U.S. government. It further builds on a framework first articulated in the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability (2020).

First, the Atrocity Prevention Task Force, led by the White House, will use early warning indicators to identify up to thirty countries each year where atrocities are most likely to occur. The task force will then develop and evaluate “targeted response plans” for the highest-priority countries. Second, the task force will consult with civil society organizations, local populations, partner governments, and international organizations to develop best practices on prevention and response. Finally, the strategy requires that executive agency personnel receive training on how to recognize early warning signs and intervene where necessary. Agencies must also have sufficient resources and personnel to implement the strategy.

Although much of the strategy builds on pre-existing policies, its novelty lies in how it streamlines interagency action, often notoriously difficult to coordinate, on atrocity prevention and response. As panelists at a recent U.S. Institute of Peace launch event explained, the strategy brings together disparate programs and processes. It draws on legal and policy frameworks, including the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act (2018) and the Global Fragility Act (2019). The use of early warning assessments also has precedent. Lawrence Woocher, research director at the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, explains that previous U.S. government initiatives, including the Genocide Prevention Task Force’s 2008 report and President Obama’s 2011 mass atrocities directive, have also used these analytical tools to identify priority countries. However, the new strategy brings together these existing frameworks and tools, enabling offices across the interagency to better work together in pursuit of a common goal: preventing genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

It is too early to assess whether the strategy will successfully meet its goals and objectives. However, it is worth sharing a few observations about the strategy from the U.S. Institute of Peace event:

1) Several panelists emphasized that this strategy enables the U.S. government to better anticipate atrocities and implement programs to prevent them. The officials collectively explained that the strategy shifts the priority from atrocity response to prevention. It is far easier to stop an atrocity, by using early warning indicators, before it has happened than once it has already started. Although such indicators are far from perfect, evidence suggests that they are likely to raise the chances of stopping atrocities before they occur. For example, the Early Warning Project, led by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Dartmouth College, estimates the annual risk of mass killings of civilians in up to 160 countries. Woocher writes that this analysis accurately predicts where the vast majority of such killings eventually occur. By incorporating such analysis into U.S. government strategy, policymakers can strengthen their targeted response plans.

2) Despite the best diplomatic efforts, these types of efforts do often fail to prevent atrocities. Take, for example, the case of Ukraine: despite pressure from the United States, European governments, and the United Nations, Russia nevertheless invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Russian forces have reportedly committed atrocities against civilians in Ukraine, amounting to war crimes.

In this case, then, what is the purpose of a prevention strategy? One could argue that the U.S. government should make mitigation or resolution a higher priority than prevention. Armed conflict is likely to occur with or without U.S. intervention, so the United States should focus on cases where it can mitigate or resolve the conflict. Despite early warning signs, one cannot also always anticipate when or where atrocities are bound to occur.

Although it would fail to stop the atrocity, the development of response plans, as indicated in the strategy, can lay the groundwork for entities, such as the U.S. government, to strengthen their mitigation efforts. For example, at the launch event, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack explained that efforts are underway to document evidence of atrocities in Ukraine. The act of documentation alone does not mitigate the armed conflict or resolve it — in other words, documenting atrocities committed by the Russian army will likely not stop it from further invading Ukraine. However, Van Schaack explained, this act can provide investigators with information to use in eventual transitional justice processes. It can not only support efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable — and discourage them and others from committing such atrocities in the future — but it can also provide the families of victims and survivors with information about what happened to their relatives and why.

3) The major test of the new strategy will be how well it can reconcile interagency disputes between offices with disparate interests — say, for example, ones with human rights mandates and others with traditional security mandates. Despite U.S. government statements over the past decade that atrocity prevention is a “core national security interest,” Matthew Levinger, founding director of the Academy for Genocide Prevention at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, argues that it is still commonly perceived as a “soft” objective, secondary to “hard” ones, including counterterrorism and alliance management.

Other scholars have also argued that atrocity prevention and security interests are in tension with each other. For example, in her book US Foreign Policy on Transitional Justice, Annie Bird uses the cases of Cambodia, Liberia, and Colombia to characterize the U.S. approach to transitional justice as “symbolic,” “retributive,” and “strategic.” She argues that the United States supports transitional justice mechanisms because of the symbolic power of justice in American society. It also prefers international trials and tribunals, which closely align with its own legal system, over other mechanisms, such as truth commissions. However, Bird explains, U.S. strategic interests influence the degree of support for transitional justice measures. Depending on the case, the United States may either support the measures, offer them limited support, or decline to engage with them. “This tension,” Bird writes, “often results in a battle among US foreign policy participants, or with actors outside the US government, until a compromise is reached.”

The panelists at the U.S. Institute of Peace event challenged the assumption that one priority must take precedence over the other. For example, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Robert J. Faucher argued that the United States should maintain its bilateral relationships with countries that may be at high risk of atrocity. These actions complicate these relationships, but they do not provide the United States with reason to disengage. Instead, it can raise the human rights issue with these countries, thereby pressing them to change their practices. In short, cooperation between the United States and other governments on atrocity prevention strengthens bilateral security relations rather than weakens them.

The launch of the strategy and its promotion at the recent event suggest that atrocity prevention is becoming a higher priority in U.S. foreign policy; atrocities potentially lead to further violence and conflict in the future, raising the long-term material and human costs of inaction for the United States. The new strategy, the result of substantial interagency work, represents a notable achievement in its own right. However, the challenge remains: will these new institutional mechanisms enable the U.S. government to prevent atrocities, or will they fail to reconcile interagency disputes? Policymakers have useful tools and data at their disposal, including early warning indicators, to prevent mass killings. It remains for them to overcome competing interests across the U.S. government, and outside it, to ensure that risks of mass violence do not become realities.

Ryan Conner is a research and editorial assistant at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a rising second-year M.A. student in European Studies in the School of Foreign Service. He previously completed internships at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs and the Washington Ireland Program. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanpconner50. He writes in a personal capacity.

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