Iraq Crisis Focuses Attention on White House Genocide Prevention Board

Image: Iraq Crisis Focuses Attention on White House Genocide Prevention Board Displaced people, who fled from the violence in the province of Nineveh, arrive at Sulaimaniya province August 8, 2014. (Stringer/Iraq/Reuters/Landov)

Friday, 08 Aug 2014 01:39 PM

By Jennifer G. Hickey

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Speaking from the White House Thursday evening, President Barack Obama said his decision to authorize military air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, better known as ISIS, was justifiable as a means to prevent a potential act of genocide.

"When we face a situation like we do on that mountain, with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help, in this case, a request from the Iraqi government, and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain," he said.

The decision raised many questions among critics of the administration, such as why the administration had taken so long to act and whether the president's own Atrocities Prevention Board had been convened to address the worsening situation in Iraq.

Earlier that day, Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf sent a sharply-critical letter demanding action from the White House and specifically requesting a response to questions about the APB's activities.

"Your administration is aware of what is going on, yet you are doing nothing. Just what is the point of having an 'Atrocities Prevention Board' if it takes no action to prevent or stop atrocities? When was the last time this board has met? Has the board even been convened to address the genocide taking place in Iraq?" wrote Wolf.

The congressman serves as co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan organization which works to raise awareness about international human rights issues.

“It is now clear to the nation and the world that your words were hollow; your ‘presidential directive’ apparently was nothing more than a token gesture,” Wolf wrote. “You will come to sincerely regret your failure to take action to stop the genocide in Iraq. Your conscience will haunt you long after you leave office. Mr. President, say something; do something.”

Obama announced the creation of the Board during a 2011 speech before an audience at the Holocaust Museum.

After being introduced by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, Obama said the world would be "haunted by the atrocities we did not stop" and asserted his administration would "focus" on responding to abuses because "preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America."

The creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board actually is a result of recommendations made by the Genocide Prevention Task Force, which was chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen. The Task Force report published in December 2008 called for the creation of an “Atrocities Prevention Committee.”

Some foreign policy analysts argue the APB was not designed as a rapid-response force capable of actually acting to prevent genocide.

“[The members of the Atrocities Prevention Board] have a lot of uptempo, interagency meetings, but their value is probably more in areas that get less attention than these ones right on the front pages,” John Norris, a former State Department official now with the Center for American Progress, told Politico.

“Part of the problem is with that ‘atrocity prevention’ in their name, people expect them to do something about the biggest things on the front pages,” he added.

Others, however, argue that doing something on the "biggest things" is a core responsibility of the Board.

"But on Syria, perhaps the most important human rights catastrophe of the day, the board has been conspicuously silent. Aside from imposing sanctions on dozens of human rights abusers in Syria, little appears to have been done," said an April 5 Boston Globe editorial.

The editors argued that it was difficult to assess the work of the APB because much of its work is done in secret.

"Indeed, secrecy has been its Achilles' heel. Members of Congress and human rights activists, who should be its natural allies, are rarely given insight into its activities," asserted the editors.

Part of Wolf's anger stems from his repeated attempts to inspire action from the Obama administration.

Wolf sternly rebuked the Obama administration's failure to stem the increasing violence against Christians in Iraq and the Middle East in a speech from the House floor on July 22.

“I believe what is happening to the Christian community in Iraq is genocide. I also believe it is a crime against humanity," said Wolf.

"Where is the Obama administration?" asked Wolf, noting that a 55-member bipartisan congressional coalition had expressed their concerns in a June letter urging the administration to "actively engage with the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government to prioritize additional security support for especially vulnerable populations, notably Iraq’s ancient Christian community, and provide emergency humanitarian assistance to those affected communities."

While not specifically a response to the situation in Iraq, in 2012 Obama did direct his administration to take a range of steps to strengthen the government’s capacity to foresee and respond to genocide and mass atrocities.

The directive instructed the Department of Defense to develop operational principles and planning techniques specifically tailored around atrocity prevention and response, including ordering geographic combatant commands to incorporate mass atrocity prevention and response as a priority in their planning, and to "routinely organize exercises incorporating mass atrocity prevention and response scenarios to test operational concepts supporting mass atrocity prevention and response."


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