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.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama and Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel leave after lighting candles in the Hall of Remembrance as they toured the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington Monday.

Declaring that the United States and the world can do a better job of halting – and even preventing – genocide and other crimes against humanity, President Obama on Monday announced creation of a new advisory body to help generate action against human-rights calamities.

The president also used a day focused on human rights to issue an executive order that for the first time will allow the US to impose sanctions on foreign nationals who use new technologies – such as cellphone-tracking software and Internet monitoring – to commit human-rights abuses.  

The new advisory group, to be called the Atrocities Prevention Board, will act as an early-warning mechanism for the White House and other federal agencies. The group, which is made up of key agencies and outside organizations with their ears to the ground around the world, met for the first time at the White House Monday.

Creation of the new board represents a victory for the “interventionist” wing of the Obama foreign policy apparatus. The president’s announcement was hailed by Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations and a key advocate of a forceful US role in Libya last summer.

Ambassador Rice, who is considered by some a leading candidate to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State in an potential Obama second term, said in a statement that “atrocities” like those of Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, and Syria “are not inevitable.” But she added they will only be stopped by strengthening “the world’s will and capacity to make ‘never again’ an enduring reality.”

The new board will be chaired by Samantha Powers, the National Security Council senior director for multilateral and humanitarian affairs and another interventionist hawk.     

Using the Holocaust Museum in Washington as the backdrop for his announcement, Mr. Obama pointed to ongoing oppression and state-sponsored violence in Syria as an example of the kind of crisis that prompted creation of the new body.

“The Syrian people still brave the streets, the Syrian people have not given up, so we will not give up,” Obama said. The United Nations estimates that at least 9,000 Syrians have died in 13 months of political crisis, although independent groups say the toll is closer to 11,000.

Obama’s initiative grew out of a presidential directive last year that the US consider prevention of mass atrocities and genocide “a core national security interest and core moral responsibility” of the 21st century, Rice said.

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.

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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