Skip to main content

Stop atrocities before they start

By Michael Shank and Madeline Rose, Special to CNN
April 26, 2013 -- Updated 1515 GMT (2315 HKT)
Malnourished Sudanese childre are fed at a camp for people displaced by the war in Darfur in June, 2004.
Malnourished Sudanese childre are fed at a camp for people displaced by the war in Darfur in June, 2004.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President set up Atrocities Prevention Board to get ahead of potential genocides
  • The board's aim is to shift U.S. policy away from responding to atrocities to preventing them
  • Writers: Congress needs to put long-term efforts in place in potential hot spots
  • Writers: Sanctions, visa bans or military operations don't work in modern-day conflicts

Editor's note: Michael Shank is director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Madeline Rose is a new leaders fellow with the Center for Progressive Leadership.

(CNN) -- One year ago this week, President Barack Obama launched the Atrocities Prevention Board to find ways to get ahead of the kind of crisis we're seeing in Syria, and the kind we witnessed in Darfur and Rwanda.

The board's aim is to shift U.S. foreign policy away from responding to atrocities to preventing them; to oversee the development of prevention and response policy, and to deal with urgent situations as they arise. The board is under the chairmanship of the National Security Council and is a result of a decades-long effort by the global anti-genocide community. It marks its one-year anniversary 10 years after the genocide began in Darfur, and nearly 20 years after Rwanda.

Given the changing nature of warfare, the board -- and the 12 agencies that compose it, including State, Defense, Homeland Security, CIA, and the Agency for International Development -- also was charged with suggesting ways in which conflict prevention could be more nimble and effective.

Madeline Rose
Madeline Rose
Michael Shank
Michael Shank

The problem, however, is that we're still using hardware to fix a software problem. And we're not particularly nimble. In a fast-moving, interconnected, and open-information world, anticipating and preventing armed conflict or mass atrocities requires tools that are equally as fast, flexible and high-impact as the modern perpetrators of violence.

We don't need new targeted sanctions programs, visa bans, or expanded military authorizations. These are old tools, more reflective of an outdated, hard-powered and overly militarized approach to engagement than those needed to counter 21st-century security threats.

The tools we need are people who are well-trained, technologically connected, fully empowered and well-resourced in hot spots throughout the world. These people, American and local, collect our intelligence, design and inform our early warning systems, quell political unrest through diplomacy and development, and train the next generation of leaders in conflict regions to read and write, legislate and litigate, reignite broken economies and repair eroded social fabric.

What work did we do in the last 10 years in Syria or Libya to empower civil society in conflict prevention, invest robustly in strengthening governance, access to justice and the rule of law, and expand information networks and open communication? We did very little.

This work -- building human capacity in countries in turmoil and expanding systems for information sharing -- is the single most cost-effective approach to atrocity prevention when the true objective is sustainable peace. And yet we have left meager footprints on these fronts in Afghanistan or Iraq.

As the Atrocity Prevention Board begins its second year, the road ahead must be redesigned to better reflect these recommendations. If we want to prevent more situations like Syria, we must work closely with Congress to protect or increase funding for the State Department's Conflict Stabilization Operations and the Complex Crises Fund, international organizations, transition initiatives, and programs focused on access to justice, governance and security reform, human rights and social inclusion.

How do we get Congress to fund this critical atrocities prevention work in the age of sequesters and cost-cutting measures? Engage the American public.

The public will be essential for atrocities prevention efforts to succeed. The American public is behind us on this. According to a poll by the U.S. Holocaust Museum, seven in 10 Americans think the United States should prevent or stop genocide or mass atrocities from happening in another part of the world. Engagement with the American public is an untapped resource of support. Yet, a year after the board was established, a clear mechanism for civil society to engage in its work does not exist.

We commend the Obama administration -- along with civil society, international institutions, think tanks and academics and activists in anti-genocide and prevention -- for their efforts to advance our national understanding of modern day conflict, and our ability to respond in a truly paradigm-shifting way. The Atrocities Prevention Board filled a major hole in U.S. foreign policy and sets a promising trajectory for increasing the U.S. and international community's ability to prevent mass atrocities.

But more work is needed. Now it is time to take that commitment to the next level by issuing an executive order spelling out the U.S. government's strategy for preventing mass atrocities and the key tasks of those charged with making it happen.

We can stop the next genocide. We can prevent the next violent conflict. But to do so, we have to commit the resources early, not after atrocities have already started.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT