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Will Obama's new atrocities board lead to more Libya-style operations?

President Obama Monday announced the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board – an advisory panel dealing with potential genocides. The board is seen as a victory for the White House's 'interventionist' wing.

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In his speech, Obama said that this year the nation’s intelligence agencies would deliver the “first ever” national intelligence estimate on the risks around the world of mass atrocities.

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The concept of an international “responsibility to protect” civilians from governments who either cannot protect them or are targeting them is still in its formulative stages. The responsibility to protect was first recognized by the UN in 2005. But international human rights groups and some foreign-policy experts lauded Obama’s actions as positive steps.

“This new ‘all of government approach’ reflects hard-learned lessons from tardy responses to past humanitarian crises,” said Frank Jannuzi, Amnesty International USA’s deputy executive director for advocacy, policy, research, in a statement. Groups like Amnesty suggest that identifying and intervening in mass atrocities early has the potential to save not only lives, but also the cost of heavier interventions – NATO’s intervention in Bosnia is just one example.

And some experts say Obama’s directive targeting the perpetrators of mass atrocities who use new technologies – as well as the suppliers of those technologies to the violators – has particular promise.

“Human-rights groups have argued for years that one potentially effective approach for outsiders to stymie repressive governments was to focus on the means used to commit mass atrocities and on those who provide them,” says George Lopez, a sanctions expert and professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

Mass atrocities should be thought of as “organized crimes” that can be disrupted by targeting the means used to organize and sustain them, such as money, communications networks, and arms, Professor Lopez says. History has “taught us that the architects of atrocities are dependent on direct or indirect support from external actors” – like governments, businesses, and individuals – who can be targeted with sanctions, he adds.

Obama noted in his Holocaust Museum speech that national leaders like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and their supporters around the world (in the case of Syria, a veiled reference to Russia) continue to reject intervention from the outside world in what they claim are internal crises.

But the president rejected those claims, citing one of the central arguments of supporters of the international responsibility to protect. “National sovereignty,” he said, “is never a license to slaughter your own people.” 

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