In his first week in office, President Biden affirmed the U.S. commitment to the simple truth that preventing future atrocities remains our moral duty and is not only a matter of U.S. national security, but also one of global importance. “When hatred goes unchecked, and when the checks and balances in government and society that protect fundamental freedoms are lost, violence and mass atrocities can result,” he warned.
Anticipating, preventing, and responding to atrocities are among our highest priorities as representatives of the American people. For decades, the U.S. government has worked at home and abroad to strengthen capacity to advance respect for human rights, support justice and accountability, promote peace, and thereby help prevent atrocities. Unfortunately, atrocities, including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, still take place despite this commitment. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum last year reported 21 ongoing mass killings perpetrated by nine governments and nine non-state groups across 15 different countries, per its reporting criteria.
In that vein, we remain concerned about the plight of women, girls, and members of ethnic and religious minority communities in Afghanistan; attacks against pro-democracy activists and repression of Rohingya and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Burma; and ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in the Xinjiang region of the People’s Republic of China. This year, Secretary Blinken determined that members of the Burmese military had committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya. This marks the eighth such determination of genocide since the Holocaust. We have expressed our grave concern over reports of violence committed against civilians prior to the November 2 cessation of hostilities agreement in northern Ethiopia – where the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia documented human rights abuses, including unlawful killings, physical abuses, and gender-based violence, and found reasonable grounds that starvation of civilians has been used as a method of warfare. And we are witnessing the horrific brutality of President Putin’s unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine.
The United States must remain steadfast and vigilant in our commitment to prevent and respond to mankind’s most heinous acts. We must not abandon our efforts in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Instead, we must redouble U.S. efforts through new tools and collaborative approaches to the task.
One of these efforts is our support for the Conflict Observatory program, through which independent experts gather evidence to hold the Kremlin to account for the atrocities its forces have unleashed across Ukraine. The program has identified 21 filtration operations sites in eastern Ukraine, damage to or seizure of about one-sixth of Ukraine’s crop storage facilities, and the widespread bombardment of healthcare facilities.. This documentation work may be used to support future prosecutions and deter future perpetrators. The engagement of the Department of State’s Office of Global Criminal Justice with European partners through the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group and the Department of Justice’s newly launched War Crimes Accountability Team also demonstrate the United States’ commitment to holding states to account for violations of international law and human rights abuses. Accountability is a theme that resonates throughout the latest U.S. National Security Strategy. Yet while we strengthen our response to war crimes and other atrocities, we cannot overlook an earlier link in the chain of violent escalation: prevention.
In this context, we released the first-ever U.S. Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities this past summer. The Strategy rejuvenates the structure and operations of the White House-led Atrocity Prevention Task Force (formerly known as the Atrocity Prevention Board and the Atrocity Early Warning Task Force). The Task Force coordinates a whole-of-government approach to bring our historic and ongoing efforts into alignment to anticipate, prevent, and respond to genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes.
We are taking steps at an earlier stage. Rather than just responding to atrocities once they have occurred, the Strategy’s central premise is that we need to coordinate and direct resources and activities from across the U.S. government to a common, whole-of-government approach to prevention. The Strategy guides us to more effectively collaborate and leverage tools across departments and agencies through a Task Force-based approach. We know by experience the importance of addressing the early warning signs that may lead to atrocities. The Strategy allows us to better assess the work we are doing, identify gaps, and suggest what else could possibly be done. A USAID colleague recently highlighted that it is no small feat that our new Strategy bears the seals of seven U.S. departments and agencies.
On the issue of leadership, the United States is the first country to enact a law like the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018, from which the Strategy is derived. The Act is recognized by our partners around the world as both a model and a call to action. No other country has a global Strategy like the United States to anticipate, prevent, and respond to atrocities. Our partners are looking to follow the United States’ example by pursuing strategies of their own to collectively try to stop these heinous events from occurring.
We will assist local efforts to protect civilians from the threat of atrocities. Our work will pursue resilience, peace, and the improvement of government services. We will identify countries at risk for atrocities, and from there we will work where we think we can have the greatest impact. Besides engaging through our diplomatic missions overseas, we are also training our diplomats who specifically cover countries at risk of or experiencing atrocities. Since the Elie Wiesel Act was signed, more than 1,800 Foreign Service officers have taken this training.
In terms of international cooperation, we are working with other countries by sharing data and best practices and making sure we are all working for the same policy outcome, not just program outcome, in those locations of gravest concern. This is not something the United States can do alone. This is something that must be done together.
Predicting and preventing future atrocities requires collective action. It requires national and international leadership, which our new Strategy provides. As the White House reiterated in July, we call upon our partners to prioritize atrocity prevention, dedicate resources, and train personnel for these efforts, while pursuing with us the tragically still elusive – but ever more compelling – goal of “Never Again.”
About the Author: Robert J. Faucher is Senior Advisor in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.