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New US Atrocity Prevention Strategy Signals Potential and Challenge

Today, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman announced the release of the United States Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities. This marks the first time the US government has made public a written strategy concerning mass atrocities, signaling the potential for a stronger, more coordinated effort across the US government. The Simon-Skjodt Center welcomes its release, especially at a time when atrocities have been on the rise globally. Yet, the strategy document is ultimately just a tool to improve US government action. US officials must now live up to the commitments in the strategy, while keeping their focus on the ultimate goal: helping save civilian populations from large-scale, deliberate attacks.

What is the strategy?

The strategy follows directly from the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018, which states, “It shall be the policy of the United States to…pursue a United States Government-wide strategy to identify, prevent, and respond to the risk of atrocities.” The Trump and Biden administrations both submitted reports to Congress in accordance with the Act, but the new report goes further in defining the government-wide strategy.

According to the new report, the interagency Atrocity Prevention Task Force (APTF) will coordinate the US government's implementation of the strategy. White House-led bodies such as the APTF have played an important role in steering atrocity prevention policy since the Atrocities Prevention Board was established in 2011. Through the coordinating activities of the APTF, the strategy seeks to enable “timely and effective action to anticipate, prevent, and respond to atrocities.” The goals include (1) pursuing early action and locally driven solutions in priority countries; (2) promoting international cooperation, civil society engagement, and strategic public messaging; and (3) enabling an effective, integrated US government prevention architecture. 

Priority actions under the strategy include identifying at-risk countries for intensive atrocity prevention focus, generating atrocity assessments on priority countries, implementing flexible and responsive policies, and developing and providing agency-wide training for personnel. These actions are consistent with the priority actions outlined in the Elie Wiesel Act.

Why is it important?

Mass atrocities exact a staggering toll on victims, leaving lasting trauma and devastation on individuals, families, and communities. The strategy addresses three major issues that have hamstrung past US government responses to mass atrocity threats.

First, the strategy reaffirms that preventing mass atrocities is “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” Being clear that atrocity prevention is a “core” interest, not something that is optional or secondary to other interests, should encourage officials across the government to devote the requisite priority, attention, and energy.

Second, the strategy firmly establishes the APTF as a White House-led coordinating body. This also follows from the Elie Wiesel Act’s “sense of Congress” declaration that interagency coordination through the Atrocities Prevention Board or its successor is “critically important.” Many former US officials, such as former Simon-Skjodt Center fellows James Finkel and Stephen Pomper, have found that a White House-led interagency body empowered to coordinate atrocity prevention efforts can provide leadership and serve as a useful forum for issues and situations that might otherwise be neglected.

Third, the strategy provides greater clarity about the specific roles and responsibilities of over eight federal departments and agencies, including the Departments of State, Defense, and Justice; USAID; and the Intelligence Community.

What now?

While the strategy’s goals and objectives signal promise, the more important challenge will be to ensure that these commitments on paper translate into tangible action. Effective implementation of this strategy will require steadfast commitment from leaders across the agencies involved. Such leadership will require the willingness to develop and implement atrocity prevention efforts even where they may be in tension with other US priorities. In addition, making the strategy’s commitment to locally driven solutions and consultations with civil society effective will require sustained, meaningful contact with representatives of communities at risk of mass atrocities. We will also watch how policy actions that relate to atrocity prevention are aligned with other whole-of-government strategies, such as those relating to global fragility or women, peace, and security, while ensuring that atrocity prevention objectives do not become completely subsumed by these other important efforts. Finally, the task at hand is so urgent that policy makers will need to fully embrace the commitment to evaluation and course correction described in the strategy. Sober and regular evaluation, paired with the humility and willingness to make changes based on that information, will be essential to make sure that policy responses meet the enormous challenges before us.  

Common themes with Simon-Skjodt Center priorities

The Simon-Skjodt Center seeks to be a resource for US government officials working to help prevent and respond to mass atrocities. In that vein, we took note of multiple common themes between the new strategy and the Center’s ongoing areas of work.

Early warning: The strategy cites the importance of risk assessment and early warning many times. For example, it calls for training US officials in atrocity warning signs, better information sharing about atrocity risks, and use of quantitative and qualitative assessments to identify countries at greatest risk. This theme dovetails neatly with the work of the Early Warning Project (EWP), a longtime partnership between the Museum and Dartmouth College. US officials reportedly use EWP analysis routinely; the Center might also be able to support implementation of the strategy’s commitments related to risk assessment and early warning. 

Lessons learned: One of the strategy’s core observations is the importance of learning from past atrocity responses through evaluation and adaptation, including commitments to develop, share, and utilize lessons learned and promote data collection about past responses to mass atrocities. The strategy’s emphasis on the importance of learning from past atrocity responses reflects the same basic tenets that motivate the Simon-Skjodt Center’s project, “Lessons Learned in Preventing and Responding to Mass Atrocities.” The results of this multi-year project should support US officials in implementing the strategy’s commitment “to build the atrocity prevention body of knowledge, identify effective tactics, and adapt interventions, as needed.”

Justice and accountability: The strategy recapitulates the US government commitment to promote accountability for atrocities, including “supporting a broad range of transitional justice mechanisms, including domestic, international, and hybrid tribunals; international investigations and inquiries; truth-telling, memorialization, institutional reform, and otherwise strengthening criminal justice systems.” The Center’s Ferencz International Justice Initiative shares this same goal. The Ferencz Initiative’s particular focus on “victim-led justice efforts” should be an important resource for US officials as they implement the justice commitments in the strategy.