This month marks the release of “Allies Against Atrocities: The Imperative For Transatlantic Cooperation To Prevent And Stop Mass Killings,” a report that I co-wrote with Lee Feinstein, dean of Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies and former US Ambassador to Poland, through the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide and the Stanley Foundation.
The report’s core argument is that transatlantic cooperation is fundamental to preventing atrocities—and that atrocity prevention is a first-order international security challenge that calls for coordinated strategic action and an institutional response. The purpose of the report is twofold: we identify practical steps that the U.S. and its Atlantic partners can take to prevent mass atrocities, and we provide some specific findings and recommendations to that end.
Below is a brief overview of these findings and recommendations.
For a policy brief that closely tracks our executive summary and sets forth our five principal recommendations, see here. In February, the American Bar Association's House of Delegates passed a resolution urging governments and organizations to implement those five recommendations.
Libya and Syria
Our findings begin with an analysis of the cases presented by Libya and Syria. As we explain:
In the case of Libya, we have the most dramatic action the transatlantic partners have undertaken for the sake of atrocity prevention since NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo—and unlike Kosovo, action that looks, a few years later, to have been a failure in terms of creating a stable and satisfactory outcome. In the latter case, Syria, we have the most dramatic example of transatlantic inaction to prevent atrocities since Darfur or even Rwanda, with an outcome to date even more appalling that that in Libya.
Although in the case of Libya, the U.S. and its transatlantic partners pursued what could be described as “model” intervention, several undesirable consequences followed. Most notably, intervening states grossly underestimated the capability of the regime succeeding Qaddafi to maintain security in a fast-deteriorating Libya, in which rival armed forces and militias competed for power and al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates seized on circumstances to gain influence. In Syria, although the Obama administration was later successful in using diplomatic channels to persuade Bashar al-Assad to disgorge himself of large chemical weapon stockpiles, the United States and its partners declined to take forceful action during the early phase of the crisis after Russia and China blocked Security Council action demanding that Assad cease his attacks on civilians, and the connection between ISIS’s political aims in Syria and its deliberate policy of mass killings was poorly understood or addressed with preventive action.
The report moves on to a number of international findings. First, we explain that the principle of the responsibility to protect (R2P) is at a crossroads. Although the concept enjoys wide international acceptance, the durability of the norm, efforts to build capacity, and the will to enforce it are still in question. Second, we find that UN peacekeeping is central to the effort to deter, stop, and prevent mass atrocities. But peacekeeping efforts and effectiveness remain limited because of certain gaps in human capital, such as a lack of senior-level staff officers and well-trained and combat-experienced troops, and because of the persisting inability of the United Nations to send forces to conflict zones in a timely manner.
We also find that atrocity prevention can take place under a variety of labels, and that there is value in ongoing efforts to regularize interaction among officials whose responsibilities include atrocity prevention; that the legal basis for intervention to halt atrocities remains disputed; and that civil society has an important role to play in prevention.
Findings on US Efforts to Internationalize and Institutionalize Atrocity Prevention
The Obama administration has made significant strides in reforming internal US government processes to identify atrocity risks and take preventive action. In particular, we applaud President Obama’s Presidential Study Directive 10, which directed the establishment of an interagency Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) convened by a senior director of the National Security Council staff and comprising representatives from all relevant executive departments and agencies, from the Department of State to USAID.
We also note that government agencies have begun to take atrocity prevention seriously, with the Obama administration building on precursors from the George W. Bush administration. For example, the intelligence community provides the APB briefings that ensure all relevant agencies receive a common intelligence analysis of countries at risk.
Recommendations to the US and Broader Transatlantic Community
Devise and Implement Coordinated Transatlantic Atrocity Prevention Efforts. We call on the new administration and all of our transatlantic partners to reaffirm that the prevention of genocide and atrocities is a core, first-order national and collective security interest and moral responsibility, and to devise internal processes to coordinate prevention efforts and internationalize prevention strategies and policies.
Reassess Participation in Peacekeeping. The capable states of the transatlantic community must reassess the ways they support and participate in UN peacekeeping operations, particularly those authorized to carry out a “protection of civilians” mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
Limit the Use of the Veto at the UN Security Council. The United States and like-minded states should take steps to raise the political costs of invoking a veto in atrocity situations, so that the veto is understood as an outmoded and irresponsible approach that undercuts the permanent members’ unique responsibility under the UN Charter to maintain international peace and security.
Broaden the Concept of Civilian Protection. The transatlantic community must aim to prepare UN peacekeeping forces to ensure, in an expansive sense, the protection of civilians against attack by hostile forces. NATO should also include atrocity prevention in its intelligence assessments and comprehensive plans for addressing security challenge.
Improve International Contact and Coordination. The transatlantic community should continue to support informal meetings among officials of like-minded states with day-to-day policy-level responsibility for conflict management and also put its full support behind Track 2 and Track 1.5 initiatives such as the Global Action Against Mass Atrocity Crimes (GAAMAC) network, the R2P Focal Points network, and regional efforts to coordinate atrocity prevention.
Improve Field-Level Coordination. Field-level coordination among states, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs is essential to the effectiveness of prevention efforts and should be adopted as a best practice.
Impose Coordinated Financial Sanctions on Perpetrators and Enablers of Atrocities. The United States should immediately issue an executive order establishing the authority to order financial sanctions and visa bans to deter and punish enablers of mass atrocities. The G7 should announce an agreement to coordinate policy on financial sanctions and visa bans as a new tool available to target those who enable mass atrocities.
Reassess International Law and Norms on Intervention to Halt Atrocities. The transatlantic legal policy community should convene leading international legal scholars to address the problematic prevailing binary wherein in the absence of specific UN Security Council authorization, the choice is either to act illegally to address mass atrocity or do nothing.
Parliamentarians Must Do More. Following the examples set by the United Kingdom and Canada, parliamentarians should convene regularly, at both the national and international level, to discuss efforts of individual states in parliamentary groups.
Emphasize Prevention in Treaty Law. Transatlantic governments should support strong language regarding states’ obligation to prevent atrocities in the international treaty outlawing crimes against humanity currently undergoing the drafting process at the International Law Commission.
Recommendations to the US Government
Build Legitimacy for Atrocity Prevention. The United States should build partnerships for atrocity prevention with states and international organizations in regions at risk.
Work First with Like-minded and Capable Partners. The United States should prioritize cooperation with our transatlantic partners and other like-minded and capable states regarding common approaches to atrocity prevention.
Prepare to Act to Halt Atrocities If Necessary. The United States must be prepared to act on its own to halt atrocities and develop a routinely forward-leaning diplomatic posture on international cooperation to encourage great support for the U.S. if it must act alone or outside Security Council authorization.
Support and Assist UN Peacekeeping. The United States should continue to work with partners to improve UN peacekeeping operations and should be prepared to provide assistance to those operations in areas in which others lack capabilities that the United States possesses, such as in strategic lift and intelligence.
Maintain the Interagency Process for Assessing and Working to Reduce Atrocity Risks. The Trump administration should retain the interagency process established by way of the Atrocity Prevention Board, which should be rechartered and renamed the Atrocity Risk Reduction Board.
Take the Lead on Internationalizing Atrocity Prevention. The United States must play a leading effort in working for greater cooperation and coordination on atrocity prevention. The President and the Secretary of State should endorse the internationalization of these prevention efforts as a priority, and the APB should convene a special meeting in which members are tasked with devising next steps for broadening international cooperation.
Join Atrocity Prevention with Other Strategic Considerations in the Rationale for Fighting and Defeating ISIS and Stabilizing a Post-Assad Syria. The new administration should take measures to turn Syria into a constructive failure—measures such as explicitly acknowledging that the situation in Syria demonstrates that atrocity prevention is “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility” of the United States and our transatlantic partners. The world cannot afford another breakdown on the scale of Syria, and only by acknowledging the costs of our failure to take timely, effective action in Syria will we be able to foster the understanding and political will to prevent one.