How Can We Focus on Preventive Action Rather than Reaction?

Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. Photo Credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

In 2014, the United States resettled 187 Syrians in cities across this country. In a civil war that has ravaged the country since March 2011, one can’t even consider this a significant effort in supporting the innocent civilians fleeing across their border. What began with peaceful protesting led by pro-democracy groups gave way to the targeting and killing of civilians based on either ethnic background, religious identification, or political designation by both the Syrian Government and elements of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Today, there are more than 9.5 million Syrians who have been forced to flee their homes because of the violence. More than 3 million of those have been taken in by neighboring countries, and everyday I hear NPR discuss the ongoing global refugee crisis. Everyday. Despite advocates’ request that the U.S. should resettle 100,000 Syrians, last Thursday the United States announced that next fiscal year it would welcome only 10,000. This is a step forward, don’t get me wrong, but a disappointing one. It’s only a REACTION to the crisis, not ACTION to address the root causes of the crises in Syria and other places experiencing mass displacement because of violence.

So what can the United States do to focus on PREVENTIVE ACTION rather than REACTION?

The Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), while not a perfect answer, will help the United States move towards actively stopping mass atrocities before they occur, and ultimately be a cost-effective measure that protects our national security interests. This board should be made a permanent part of the U.S. government. The primary purpose of the Atrocities Prevention Board is to coordinate a whole of government approach to preventing mass atrocities and genocide.

The APB was created as a result of the 2008 bipartisan Genocide Prevention Task Force (GPTF) report Preventing Genocide. This report set out concrete proposals for improving the U.S. government’s performance in preventing mass atrocities and mitigating their effects. These effects include the destabilization of entire regions, putting key American allies at risk, strengthening extremist groups, and providing costly aid to the roughly 60 million people displaced around the world. For instance, a recent report estimated that if the conflict in South Sudan ended in 2015 as opposed to 2020, “the international community, particularly Western donors, would not have to spend US $30 billion on peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance.”

As a result of the GPTF report, the Senate unanimously passed S.Con.Res.71 in December 2010 with bipartisan support calling on the Administration to:

  • Establish an interagency policy committee and a National Security Council position dedicated to the prevention of genocide and other mass atrocities; and
  • direct all relevant departments and agencies to conduct an evaluation and review of existing capacities for anticipating, preventing, and responding to genocide and other mass atrocities.

President Obama followed this up in April 2011 by declaring the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide a core national security interest and core moral responsibility (Presidential Directive 10, or PSD-10). He eventually established the Atrocities Prevention Board in April 2012.

The APB is not a permanent body within the U.S. government. Without Congressional support to make it so, it will dissipate when Obama leaves office. Recently, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed a Department of State Authorization bill that included a provision which authorizes the codification of the APB. This, however, is only the first step in ensuring APB longevity.

While not a perfect interagency collaboration and with the understanding that much of its work is classified, individuals and organizations across the movement to end genocide feel that in order to stop mass atrocities before they occur, the APB must become a permanent body. The United States would then have a lot more opportunity to take preventive action rather than spending time and money on reaction.