The atrocities prevention and response policy agenda emerged in late-1990s in what now appears as a fleeting moment of liberal peace: a rising international agenda of mediation, peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and a leading role for multilateral and international organizations. These approaches are now clamoring for space as other agendas have crowded out these responses to the world’s most pressing crises.
Born in that moment, was a belief that civilian protection is a legitimate strategic concern for states and international organizations. In the U.S., multiple endeavors were undertaken to strengthen the government’s normative and practical capacity to prevent and respond to exceptionally acute threats of widespread killing of civilians. Notable among these efforts was the 2008 Report of the Genocide Prevention Task Force, the establishment of the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), an interagency policy committee, the inauguration of a National Intelligence Estimate on the global risk of mass atrocities and genocide, new training for both diplomats and military personnel, and so forth. On May 18, 2016, President Obama took a step to further institutionalize anti-atrocity policies by issuing an executive order, “A Comprehensive Approach to Atrocity Prevention and Response,” which notes that: “…engagement on mass atrocities and genocide too often arrives too late, when opportunities for prevention or low-cost, low-risk action have been missed,” and describes the APB as the interagency vehicle for “coordinating a whole-of-government approach to prevent mass atrocities and genocide.”
This order, like most of the anti-atrocities agenda, was premised on the U.S. doing more, invariably in terms of adopting a more confrontational posture when civilians’ lives are at risk.
But the anti-atrocities agenda has matured in a different context from that which sparked its creation; one where use of force has been re-legitimized, unraveling the consensus against aggression, with disastrous results for entire civilian populations. And so, despite anti-atrocities policies, violence against civilians is rising. The continuing ‘global war on terror,’ (albeit under another name) intersects with realpolitik uses of state power and popular challenges to state power (such as the ‘Arab Spring’) to spark intractable deadly conflicts.
The war in Iraq, for instance, cost between 166,627 and 185,831 civilian lives since 2003. The decision to ‘protect’ civilians in Libya after 1,000 deaths were recorded in February 2011, resulted in a conflict that killed 30,000 people. War in Yemen, in which the US supports a Saudi offensive has resulted in an estimated 6,500 civilian deaths since March 2015, and destroyed civilian infrastructure. And in Syria, where the government is undeniably the greatest perpetrator of violence, the conflict is fueled by many third-party agendas playing out on Syrian soil and at the expense of Syrian lives. Among these actors is the U.S.–joined by Russia, regional powerhouses and non-state armed groups.
The liberal peacemaking consensus, which opened the door to the protection of civilians agenda, is retreating as military ‘solutions’ come back into favor–a shift led by the U.S. and seized upon by others. Atrocities prevention and response fail as civilian protection becomes subservient to hard security interests. Civilian protection does not primarily result from doing more, but rather from doing foreign policy differently. So rather than a whole-of-government approach to atrocities prevention and response, what is needed is a foreign policy that priorities civilian protection as a strategic goal, understanding that the long-term interest of the U.S. resides in a community of nations that enjoy the stability that emerges from concern with and accountability to their populations.
We need a foreign policy debate that builds on principled concern for civilian protection as articulated in the anti-atrocities policy agenda, which is married to a strategy for protection that expands across and shapes U.S. foreign policy, per se. The question that I would like to see debated, and which has implications for U.S. domestic policy as well is: What would a U.S. policy defined by the goal of de-legitimizing use of force against civilians and prioritizing peace-building look like?
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