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Groups Hail Obama’s Order for Mass Atrocities Board

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Aug 4 2011 (IPS) - Human rights groups here have welcomed Thursday’s directive by President Barack Obama to create a new, high-level inter- agency mechanism designed to help prevent mass atrocities overseas before they occur.

They also praised a second White House order barring the entry into the United States of persons “who organize or participate in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and serious violations of human rights”.

“These actions are critical steps toward institutionalising prevention mechanisms in a more permanent way, rather than relying on the personal commitment and passion of current officials in key posts,” said Elisa Massimino, the executive director of Human Rights First.

“If ‘never again’ and ‘not on our watch’ are to be more than feel- good slogans, the United States must untie the bureaucratic knots that have at times undermined its ability to prevent and effectively confront mass atrocities,” she added. “Today’s announcement charts a promising way forward to achieving this vital national interest.”

“Streamlining the system won’t resolve the difficult question of whether and how the U.S. should respond when a Rwanda-type genocide happens,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“But these directives should help to overcome the bureaucratic resistance and indifference that often delays steps that might prevent such catastrophes in the first place,” he noted.

While the visa ban on perpetrators of atrocities and serious rights abuses takes effect immediately, the “Mass Atrocities Prevention Board” – which will include the departments of State, Homeland Security, Treasury, and Justice, the Pentagon, the major intelligence agencies, as well as the National Security Council – will be launched in 120 days.

Obama’s national security advisor, Tom Donilon, has been charged with putting it together and establishing its protocols and structure.

“Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility,” Obama declared, noting as well that, “Sixty-six years since the Holocaust and 17 years after Rwanda, the U.S. still lacks a comprehensive policy framework and a corresponding inter-agency mechanism for preventing and responding to mass atrocities and genocide.”

“Governmental engagement on atrocities and genocide too often arrives too late, when opportunities for prevention or low-cost, low-risk action have been missed. By the time these issues have commanded the attention of senior policy makers, the menu of options has shrunk considerably and the costs of actions have risen,” he noted.

Obama added that the proposed board would be designed to provide an “early warning” of potential mass violence and marshal the relevant agencies – and foreign allies – to prevent it.

In a “Fact Sheet” that accompanied the directives, the White House noted that the administration has “prioritised the protection of civilians and the prevention of mass atrocity and serious human rights violations” in Kyrgyzstan, Cote d’Ivoire, Libya, Sudan, among other countries.

The idea for a high-level inter-agency board to prevent mass violence has been circulating here since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, during which Washington not only remained silent but also opposed action by the United Nations.

It gained traction with the publication of a report by a bipartisan task force of former top national security policy makers in December 2008, shortly after Obama’s election.

The task force, which was co-chaired by former President Bill Clinton’s Pentagon chief, William Cohen, and secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, called for, among other things, the creation of an inter-agency panel overseen by the National Security Council, incorporating guidance on preventing and responding to mass atrocities into U.S military doctrine, and building the capacity of international institutions to more effectively address these threats.

The report, “Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers”, was co-sponsored by the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP), the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the American Academy of Diplomacy.

Both Albright and Cohen welcomed Obama’s directives Thursday.

“The president’s directive represents an unprecedented commitment on America’s part to implement the internationally-agreed upon (sic) ‘responsibility to protect’ civilian populations threatened by massive violence and to ensure that genocide prevention and response become integral components of America’s national strategy,” the two co-chairs said in a joint statement.

The Genocide Intervention Network/Save Darfur Coalition, a coalition of human rights, humanitarian and religious groups, also welcomed the initiative, citing both ongoing attacks by Sudan’s government on Nuban communities in South Kordofan state and the repression of protestors in Syria as evidence that “strong action to stop mass atrocities is needed now more than ever”.

The same examples, as well as Cote d’Ivoire, were also cited by HRF’s Massimino.

“Too often, such impending human rights disasters are orphans in the bureaucratic process – everyone cares, but nobody drives action until it’s too late,” she said. “Today’s announcement promises a new approach: Presidential priority, senior-level responsibility, and a direct line to the top for urgent action.”

She also urged, however, that the administration include in the new structure a strategy for going beyond the direct perpetrators of mass atrocities to include “third-party enablers” – individuals, commercial entities and foreign governments that provide the means and resources on which the perpetrators rely to carry out their acts – as targets for pressure and other measures to prevent mass violence.

Both she and HRW’s Malinowski also praised the directive barring all serious human rights violators from entering the U.S., noting that current U.S. law targets only those responsible for torture and extrajudicial executions.

The new directive significantly expands the list of those who are to be denied visas to include violators of international humanitarian law, and international criminal law, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Moreover, it would also target government officials who exercised “command responsibility” over subordinates who committed serious human rights abuses. In other words, according to HRW, “senior political or military leaders who knew or should have known that such abuses were occurring and did not stop them or punish those responsible”.

Visas could be granted to such individuals, however, if the secretary of state deemed it in the national interest or if the ban would violate U.S. treaty obligations, according to the White House.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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