From Ukraine to Ethiopia to Burma and beyond, people around the world suffer mass atrocities and the immense harm these crimes inflict on victims and survivors. Yet, the United States had no articulated strategy to prevent these atrocities — until now. In July, the Biden administration announced the “U.S. Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities,” marking a hopeful moment. However, hard work remains to operationalize the strategy, including in maintaining the political will to realize an effective prevention agenda.
This new strategy reaffirms that preventing mass atrocities is a “core” national security interest, recognizes the necessity of early warning and early action to saving lives, underscores the importance of partnerships with international and domestic actors to strengthen and coordinate atrocity prevention efforts, and commits relevant agencies within the U.S. government to improved coordination to anticipate, prevent and respond to atrocities.
The strategy was the focus of a recent event hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the U.S. Department of State. Senior U.S. government officials discussed ongoing U.S. efforts to prevent and respond to atrocities, how these efforts could be improved and how the strategy provides a roadmap for improving U.S. atrocity prevention practice.
Following the event, the organizers held a private discussion to enable civil society experts representing vulnerable communities to share their perspectives on the strategy with policymakers from various U.S. government agencies. This conversation generated several recommendations for the U.S. government in implementing the strategy.
1. Embrace a culture of prevention throughout the diplomatic corps.
The United States has struggled to fully embrace a culture of prevention, particularly in instances where difficult conversations around threats of mass atrocities would jeopardize bilateral relationships. Diplomats in high-risk countries frequently prioritize building relationships with host governments, often at the expense of pressing for policies that would protect communities at risk of mass atrocities. This was particularly true in Burma in 2017, where vulnerable communities, international experts and journalists repeatedly called attention to the rising risk of mass atrocities against the Rohingya prior to the genocide that displaced more than 700,000 people and resulted in the deaths of more than 9,000.
As the strategy is implemented, more must be done to encourage policymakers to fully embrace the atrocity prevention agenda. Critical efforts are ongoing to train U.S. diplomats on atrocity prevention, but its reach has often been limited to human rights officers or to particular missions. Expanding the reach and depth of training on atrocity prevention — including making it central to the training of deploying foreign service officers and ambassadors — would support a stronger culture of prevention.
2. Center vulnerable communities in risk assessments and response strategies.
Consultation with vulnerable communities is central to the new strategy. To be effective, however, coordination should be deeply valued. As noted by a speaker at the roundtable, vulnerable communities often feel “left behind” in prevention efforts. Mass atrocities are not spontaneous occurrences — they are the culmination of processes of marginalization and discrimination against vulnerable communities that create an enabling environment for mass violence. Vulnerable communities typically exist in environments of increasing marginalization for years, if not decades, before large-scale violence is committed against them. Their perspectives are absolutely essential to assessments of risk and consideration of protective measures. Further, the same conditions that result in their vulnerability make effective external observation and reporting challenging, resulting in reporting — including among U.N. agencies — that may not match the situation on the ground. Engaging vulnerable communities is therefore essential to improved understanding of risk as well as to designing effective interventions. Civil society actors, especially women, LBGTQI leaders, people with disabilities and members of other groups who may face discrimination and marginalization within their own communities, should be viewed as close partners who have first-hand knowledge that is essential for successful U.S. prevention efforts.
3. Pursue justice and accountability while mass atrocities are ongoing.
Historically, justice and accountability have been pursued during the post-violence period, but affected communities’ demands for justice do not wait for atrocities to end. Justice and accountability processes recognize the suffering of victims and the commitment of international and domestic actors to providing them with a remedy. These processes help victims to “feel justice,” which may improve the stability of the society in the wake of mass atrocities. The prospect of justice also provides critical resilience to communities affected by mass atrocities, even during lengthy judicial proceedings. Further, these processes may have a deterrent effect on would-be perpetrators. For instance, in April of 2022, the International Criminal Court trial of Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman began for atrocity crimes alleged in the Darfur region of Sudan. Civil society leaders have shared their impression that the number of crimes against civilians in the region where Abd-Al-Rahman was most active have decreased since the start of the trial. Pursuing justice and accountability earlier — as is happening currently in Ukraine — will therefore strengthen the response to mass atrocities and the likelihood of a more stable state in their aftermath.
4. Ensure that international responses are calibrated to need.
With so many barriers to effectively preventing or responding to atrocities, the response to crimes against civilians in Ukraine stands out. The United States and European partners have implemented robust sanctions, authorized significant levels of military and other assistance to Ukraine, and have dedicated resources to supporting prosecutions of those alleged to have committed war crimes and other attacks on civilians. Other situations where civilians are suffering mass atrocities should warrant similar levels of concern and coordinated international response. The identities of perpetrators from case to case may explain the patchwork of responses to atrocity risks, but policymakers should affirmatively examine whether the identity of the groups at risk may be driving the intensity of the response.
5. Encourage like-minded actors to strengthen atrocity prevention efforts.
The United States has undertaken many efforts to institutionalize atrocity prevention efforts. In addition to being the first government with a published strategy for atrocity prevention, the United States is also the first government with an established interagency body charged with atrocity prevention, the first country with a law requiring regular reporting on government-led atrocity prevention efforts, and a regular leader in issuing atrocities determinations. U.S. leadership brought international attention to the genocide committed against the Yezidis and the ongoing atrocity crimes committed against the Uyghurs. This leadership should be used to strengthen atrocity prevention and response efforts among like-minded actors, and in particular members of the International Atrocity Prevention Working Group. Sharing best practices among a community of like-minded actors — including encouraging them to adopt similar strategies — may promote more coordinated, effective atrocity prevention.
Each civil society speaker expressed a sense of hope that the strategy would produce better coordinated and more effective U.S. atrocity prevention efforts that would in turn result in better protection for their communities. To deliver on this sense of hope, the government must now sustain the momentum created by the release of the strategy to fully operationalize it and to promote a culture of prevention.
Andrea Gittleman is a senior program manager for the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where she focuses on policy outreach, justice and accountability efforts for mass atrocities, and leads the Center’s work on Burma/Myanmar. You can also find this article on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's website.
The authors would like to thank the civil society representatives for their important contributions to this event and to this article, and in particular to recognize Pari Ibrahim, executive director of the Free Yezidi Foundation, and Wai Wai Nu, founder and executive director of the Women Peace Network.