The Potential of U.S. Policy on Mass Atrocity Prevention

By Maggie Byrne

How does the United States make its policy on human rights? A group of eight Berkeley Law students traveled to Washington, DC over spring break last week to investigate. We conducted interviews with government officials whose work involves the creation, influence, or implementation of U.S. human rights policy. We met with officials from several agencies, particularly the Departments of State and Defense, as well as practitioners who work in Congress and non-governmental organizations. The trip was organized as a field research expedition, part of a semester-long seminar in the U.S. policymaking process on human rights and democratization with Professor Jamie O’Connell.

Three key factors emerged in our interviews that revealed the complexity of U.S. human rights policy making. First, human rights concerns can be viewed as irrelevant, if not opposed, to the priority of national security in foreign policy. Second, human rights issues involve competing interests across many government branches, particularly various agencies within the Executive Branch. Third, Americans are ambivalent about the extent to which the United States should be the leader of human rights and democracy around the world, as opposed to focusing on domestic issues, such as the American economy.

There is potential for the Atrocities Prevention Board (“APB”), created by President Obama in 2012, to mitigate issues stemming from all three key factors as they pertain to mass atrocities prevention. The APB was established in Presidential Study Directive 10 (“PSD-10”), which opens with the declaration, “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States,” directly addressing the first and third factors. PSD-10 proposed the creation of the APB in recognition of the fact that today, over sixty years since the Holocaust and twenty years since the Rwandan genocide, the U.S. had still not developed a comprehensive, interagency approach to prevent and respond to mass atrocities. The APB also addresses the second factor because it includes representatives from across the interagency and requires that the representatives at various levels meet regularly to discuss brewing threats. This level of regular information sharing is unusual, and preparation for the meetings sparks dialogue and research at the various agencies.

Although such conversation does work to improve interagency collaboration, the APB’s influence is inherently limited. Most significantly, the APB’s asserted role in national security is discrete. In part, this is because national security efforts tend to be reactive to threat reporting, and the APB is an attempt to stem threats before they form. Prevention efforts rarely make headlines because success is a non-event rather than a newsworthy disaster. Moreover, the dominant view in national security is formed predominantly by military, intelligence, and economic issues. In this framework, it is difficult to make the argument that mass atrocities in the Central African Republic, for example, threaten U.S. national security in terms of counterterrorism or global political pressure.

At another level, the APB’s influence may not spread beyond the small, human rights-focused offices within massive government agencies that send representatives to lower level APB meetings. This could change if senior principals at the agencies buy into the central importance of mass atrocity prevention and demand their normalization and incorporation. However, the mandate of departments like State and Defense is so broad, it is unlikely they will ever share a high priority in a sub-issue like mass atrocity prevention.

Finally, the APB is largely invisible to the American public. This is in part by design; the APB is “cost neutral,” and so draws no attention as a new or great expense. Moreover, the APB is an opaque bureaucratic tool, within which members rely on confidential briefings to make confidential reports. While the APB might be executing an American moral principal against mass atrocities, its model of operations avoids public attention. In doing so, however, the APB does bypass the opportunity to establish a strong reputation and develop domestic support for its work beyond Washington.

The APB is one of many ways the U.S. government designs human rights policy. Its efforts to bring together the interagency through a coherent, less reactive method will be interesting to watch as the ABP matures.