Beyond Early Warning: How the U.S. Can Move From Talk to Action on Genocide Prevention

 Photo Credit: National Review

By: Shannon Mizzi, Columnist

Despite the existence of myriad prevention tools and an almost 70-year-old international legal framework for justice and accountability, genocides continue around the world. Mass atrocities occur daily in Iraq, Darfur, and Syria. Countries such as Myanmar, Nigeria, Burundi, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic are considered at high risk of mass atrocity.[i] Summoning the political will to realize the promise of “never again” remains an ongoing and seemingly intractable problem. In the United States, this is due to a large gap between early warning and response at the highest levels of government. To prevent future genocides, it is thus imperative that the United States shifts its focus from creating new prevention tools to institutionalizing and utilizing the ones it already has.

The international legal framework for prosecuting perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity has been reinforced and broadened by criminal tribunals in Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia post-WWII.[ii] The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has even expanded the definition of these crimes to include rape and other forms of sexual violence.[iii] The international community better understands the importance of evidence collection, victim identification, civil infrastructure improvement, and reconciliation in the wake of intra- and inter-state conflicts. This framework is intended to send a strong deterrent signal to potential perpetrators.

The United States has also created a solid atrocities prevention toolkit. Within the State Department, President Clinton created the Office of Global Criminal Justice and President George W. Bush created the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.[iv] In May 2011, President Obama issued an executive order creating the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), a targeted, interagency committee for strategy coordination in addressing the scourge of crimes against humanity.[v] Furthermore, the order identified prevention as both a “core national security interest” and a “core moral responsibility” of the United States. Within the last five years, the State Department has adopted an early warning index to focus diplomatic pressure against governments or powerful organized groups before atrocities are committed; USAID has created a comprehensive field guide to atrocities prevention for aid workers; and over 400 State and USAID Foreign Service officers have been trained to identify warning signs of organized slaughter.[vi]

However, because of a lack of transparency surrounding the Atrocities Prevention Board, it is unclear if the APB predicted the ongoing ISIS-perpetrated genocide in Iraq and Syria. This opacity and its unclear longevity status dramatically lessen the APB’s deterrent effect. While US officials have vigorously condemned ongoing violence against the Rohingya and Rakhine in Myanmar, the clarion call has not been sounded with the sufficient force or regularity needed to compel change. The United States has supported humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of displaced peoples living in isolated camps without access to medical care, sanitation, or employment, but continued discussion is useless without concerted action.

This disconnect is concerning given that preventative measures are generally low risk and high reward propositions, and far less expensive than other response options that are often military in nature. Unfortunately, there are many factors in the U.S. political system that conspire to make the United States a bystander to genocide.

The first factor is a failure to recognize that mass atrocities are a national security issue. Although awareness of this is increasing due to the ongoing global refugee crisis, a smaller-scale spillover occurred more than 20 years ago during the Rwandan genocide. This reignited ethnic tensions in Burundi and the Central African Republic, eventually sparking a second genocide and ensuring CAR’s status as a failed state for the foreseeable future. The lack of effective governance in CAR has made it a safe haven for groups such as Boko Haram.

A second factor is that action on security issues is equated, often falsely, with military intervention. Providing hard evidence that genocide has been averted is intrinsically difficult. There will always be those that say, “How do you know it would have happened?” Additionally, the power of the “CNN effect”—whereby images of disasters broadcast by 24-hour news coverage influences foreign policy and spurs action—has been significantly diluted by a huge increase in the velocity of the news cycle, and a general shift toward personalities and punditry on network news programming.

If these impediments can be overcome, the United States has a wide range of prevention tools at its disposal that it must begin to mobilize. For example, early warning indicators show that a common feature of states at high risk for atrocities is corruption, making continued investment in targeted anti-corruption programming essential. This strengthens good governance and sustainable economic growth, and will decrease disenfranchisement, marginalization, and opportunities for government scapegoating. When combined with broader economic sanctions, these tools can serve as a tangible reminder to potential perpetrators that the world is watching and there is a price to be paid for deviating from international human rights norms.

The United States should partner with in-country, regional, and international actors to increase prevention programming, which can encourage swift action based on recognition that a community is in danger, ranging from anti-propaganda efforts to increasing numbers of international peacekeepers stationed in the region. Improving response to atrocities has little to do with improving predictive capabilities. Instead, the United States must focus on translating advanced knowledge into preventative action. 

Recent, quiet implementation of prevention programming in Burundi may serve as a blueprint for future action. Over the last two years, prevention programming including monitoring, dialogues, and training in Burundi has been largely successful and cost a mere $7 million.[vii] Though tensions are still high, an immediate crisis was averted, and continued implementation could ensure the crisis is resolved rather than merely postponed. The toolkit the United States has developed can work. It’s time to put it to use.

[i] Holocaust Museum, “Statistical Risk Assessment,” Early Warning Project, accessed September 20, 2016,

[ii] “Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia,” accessed September 20, 2016,; United Nations, “International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia,” accessed September 20, 2016,

[iii] United Nations, “Judgment: The Prosecutor vs. Jean-Paul Akayesu,” International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, June 1, 2001,

[iv] State Department, “About Us: The Office of Global Criminal Justice,” accessed September 20, 2016,; Nina M. Serafino, In Brief: State Department Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, R42775 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2012),

[v] Barack Obama, “Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities: Creation of an Interagency Atrocities Prevention Board and Corresponding Interagency Review,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, August 4, 2011,

[vi] USAID, Field Guide: Helping Prevent Mass Atrocities, April 2015, Guide Mass Atrocities.pdf.

[vii] Cameron Hudson, “We predicted Burundi’s crisis. Is the response working?” The Washington Post, June 11, 2015,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.