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To the applause of genocide prevention organizations nationwide, President Barack Obama today issued a study directive for the establishment of an Atrocities Prevention Board, whose sole duty will be the development of policy aimed at preventing and responding to genocide and mass atrocities.

This is a milestone achievement, as until now the United States has lacked effective interagency protocols for prevention and response.

Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation executive director Tibi Galis praised the Obama administration for recognizing the need for a “whole-of-government approach to engaging ‘early, proactively, and decisively.’ ”

The directive, rather than spelling out details, offers an outline of the new body’s duties. Stressing the need for an overarching, “whole of government” approach, the president ordered the development of an interagency protocol identifying the government agencies that will contribute to the board’s work.

Many of the directive’s provisions are heavily influenced by the recommendations of the Genocide Prevention Task Force (GPTF), formed to discuss and develop policy recommendations for the U.S. government. The 2008 report issued by the GPTF argued that genocide and mass atrocities “threaten core U.S. national interests.” President Obama, in his directive today, used similar language, positing prevention as a “core national security interest.”

The GPTF report called for early warning systems, attempts to prevent escalation of violence once begun or imminent, and long-term prevention initiatives. While Obama’s directive remained mainly in the realm of broad intentions, its framework seemed to echo the suggestions of the GPTF report.

The presidential initiative received an avalanche of praise from U.S. organizations working to prevent genocide and other atrocity crimes.

“Finally, there is a concrete effort to put that rhetoric into action and create a standing prevention structure within the U.S. government,” Human Rights First president Elisa Massimino said.

Madeleine Albright and William Cohen, cochairs of the GPTF, said the project “if fully implemented should eventually save countless lives.”

The United States Institute for Peace, a co-convener of the GPTF (along with the American Academy of Diplomacy and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), said it “welcome[d] the announcement” as a “needed step forward.”

The study directive gives the National Security Advisor 120 days to “develop and recommend the membership, mandate, structure, operational protocols, authorities, and support necessary for the Atrocities Prevention Board to coordinate and develop atrocity prevention and response policy.”

Photo: Oregonlive.com

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This week’s Guest Preventer on the AIPR blog is Elizabeth Dovell:

Power Lectures on “Obama, Human Rights, and the Lessons of the New Diplomacy”

Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning study “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, lectured at Columbia University last Monday on President Obama’s human rights agenda and the establishment of a “new diplomacy.”

Power, who currently serves as Senior Director of Multilateral Affairs on the National Security Council, has become one of Obama’s key advisers on genocide and human rights issues. Along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, Power was one of three women instrumental in the United States’ decision to take part in the intervention in Libya, an act that some consider the most proactive implementation yet of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

In her Monday address, Power recalled the world of crises Obama inherited that required major international cooperation: global economic recession, instability of the Iraqi regime, and a growing threat of terrorism all stood out as issues that demanded a renewed multilateral approach of “burden-sharing.”

By “clearing the brush” around U.S. response to genocide and mass atrocity, Power said, Obama is seeking to establish a framework that will shape U.S. involvement in global human rights concerns in years to come.

Although Power didn’t say so (perhaps in deference to U.S. conservatives’ distaste for the idea?), the establishment of this new framework, rooted in diplomacy and multilateralism, clearly reflects the Obama administration’s acceptance of R2P as the guiding concept in responding to mass atrocities (see p. 48 of the May 2010 National Security Strategy).

Still, despite UN General Assembly approval in 2005, most states have been hesitant to invoke the norms laid out in the R2P framework. As Power pointed out, it is one thing to agree on a moral imperative, another to agree on swift and decisive action in the face of the four atrocities outlined in R2P: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. (Here, it is important to note that the Responsibility to Protect falls first to states, then to regions, and only then to the international community.)

Striking a note of optimism on the UN itself, Power noted that the Human Rights Council, often viewed as controversial for the disproportionate attention it pays to some human rights abuses at the expense of others, has taken several unprecedented actions recently—suspending Libya from the council, creating a Commission of Inquiry in both Libya and the overshadowed Ivory Coast, and authorizing a special rapporteur to investigate human rights abuses in Iran.

Elizabeth Dovell formerly served as Communications and Social Networks Intern at AIPR and Research Assistant at the World Policy Institute. She will graduate from SUNY New Paltz in May with a bachelor’s degree in international relations.

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