Is the Atrocity Prevention Board Dead Under Trump?
With Donald Trump now in office, the United States has entered a new era. The President’s “America First” motto—beyond it’s tainted history—promises a more isolationist, more protectionist America, with policies based on American interests—economic interests in particular. While he has expressed his point of view on China, Russia, Iran, and Syria, it is still uncertain how “America First” will impact conflict and mass atrocity prevention. What about South Sudan, Nigeria, Myanmar, Mali or Somalia?
Under President Obama, the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities became “a core national security interest and core moral responsibility.” In 2012, the 44th President initiated the institutionalization of mass atrocity prevention by creating the Atrocity Prevention Board (APB), which followed the Presidential Directive on Mass Atrocities issued a year earlier. The board has basically functioned as a mass atrocity watchdog responsible for identifying atrocity risks and responding to early warnings by developing concrete policy measures.
In principle, the APB was not created so the U.S. could intervene more easily, as some have argued, but to put the focus on prevention in order to avoid military intervention. Chaired by the National Security Staff’s Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, the APB is made up of representatives from a number of agencies, including the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Office of the Vice President.
The APB is an ambitious initiative with an ambitious new mindset. But how has it fared? Looking at Syria, we could easily say that the APB has had little impact on America’s decision to act before human rights crimes evolve into full-blown conflict. Assessing the successes of the APB, however, is arduous. Not only is the board still at its genesis, but proving that certain programs or policies were directly responsible for preventing atrocities is next to impossible.
We should welcome at the main ideas behind the APB: access to accurate intelligence production for early warning, communication and coordination. As an inter-agency, cross-departmental body, the APB’s has brought together a group of people with the expertise, intelligence and planning capacities needed for atrocity prevention. The existing experts among the partners can improve the analytical and early warning skills that others lacks, which would improve capabilities to react quickly, focus resources on certain region and prioritize effectively.
The U.S. Holocaust Museum's James Finkel assesses that the board has been successful in bringing the atrocity agenda to the highest political levels thanks to its placement in the White House. Similarly, Sarah Sewall, Obama’s Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at the State department, highlighted Burundi, the Central African Republic and Nigeria, as situations the APB managed to bring to the attention of different departments. The crisis in CAR, for example, galvanized enough attention for the US to provide peacekeeping and conflict mediation assistance. Similarly, the US has been involved in Nigeria in providing support to the regional force fighting Boko Haram and “developing programs to strengthen the region’s and local communities’ capacity to respond.”
One of the main limitations of the APB is its lack of dedicated resources, which means that commitment to prevent atrocities still relies on the interest of states. Effective prevention tools require funding. Having to deal with the competing interests of Realpolitik is the Achilles heel of the APB. Decisions about which crises to prioritize are still hampered by competing political and socio-economic interests. South Sudan, for example, is on the brink of a full-blown civil war but no one seems willing to put in the necessary effort to end the violence because policymakers don’t see it as a threat to America’s national interest. As Finkel says “The greatest challenge lies in getting the Government to heed the warning, find the resources, and orchestrate a robust intra-governmental prevention effort early on.” The preventive mindset to foreign-policy making remains to be nurtured.
Trump on Atrocity Prevention
Trump’s “America first” foreign policy approach is expected to be hostile towards multilateralism, the United Nations, NATO, and other traditional alliances—all of which are important for mass atrocity prevention. If the Trump Administration doesn’t see a brewing conflict as a threat to basic U.S. interests, it is unlikely to act.
We are already seeing signs of this thanks to a list of Africa-related questions Trump’s transition team sent to the State Department and the Pentagon before the inauguration. The list reveals a narrow definition of U.S. interest, the focus being on business and national security first. In Africa for example, Mr. Trump seems mainly worried about China’s economic involvement and indeed J. Peter Pham, Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, confirmed that the administration would seek to look out for American business interests on the continent. Business trumps humanitarian crises.
Although President Trump seems determined to fight terrorism, a look at some of the questions on the aforementioned list raises some doubts. For example, Trump’s transitional team seemed to question U.S. involvement in Nigeria and Somalia, where Boko Haram and Al Shabaab have killed scores of civilians. Similarly, on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, the document states: “the LRA has never attacked U.S. interests, why do we care?” Because these groups appear confined to the continent, the new administration doesn’t see the direct risk to American interests.
Yet the Trump administration should look at it in a different way. In the book, Mobilizing the Will to Intervene, the authors—including Lt-Gen. Romeo Dallaire who led the UN Mission in Rwanda—argue that the prevention of mass atrocities can be seen as national interest. In the era of globalization, atrocities “produce shock waves” that can destabilize “social, economic, health, and political infrastructure.” Although policymakers don’t focus on moral imperatives, by expanding the notion of national interest, they may be convinced that responding to atrocities in a timely manner should be a priority to their citizens’ well-being too. The world’s failure to prevent the civil war in Syria has led to massive refugee flows that are causing social, political, and economic tensions in Europe, especially in southern European states such as Greece that don’t necessarily have the capacity to deal with the issue.
Let’s also not forget that one of the UK’s reasons for the Brexit was the lack of control over immigration. Now, throughout the campaign, Trump expressed fear about refugee flows, particularly from Arab countries and signed an Executive Order which temporarily suspending U.S. visas from seven Muslim-majority countries, many of which are affected by war. While this Executive Order has been blocked by the courts, it is clear another version will soon appear in its place. One wonders if Mr. Trump could connect the dots between mass atrocity and increase in the number of refugees, he may give mass atrocity prevention a second thought.
So what does Trump’s election mean for the APB? Because the board was created through an Executive order, it doesn’t have the power of law, which means Trump could reverse it or simply ignore it. After one month in government, we can safely say that the APB, whether it is ignored or abolished, seems pretty much dead.