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Obama Boosts U.S. Efforts to Prevent Genocide

By Stephen Kaufman | Staff Writer | 04 August 2011
Paul and Jeanette Kagame laying wreath (AP Images)

Rwandan President Paul Kagame and wife Jeanette honor the people killed in the 1994 genocide. Obama's directive aims to improve the U.S. ability to respond to mass atrocities.

Washington — President Obama has ordered the creation of an interagency U.S. government board to more effectively coordinate the U.S. response to unfolding human rights atrocities around the world, and has closed loopholes in the U.S. visa system to ban human rights violators from entering the United States.

Human rights atrocities in the past, such as the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the Holocaust in Europe, have shown that “concerted and coordinated effort” is needed to prevent states from systematically slaughtering their civilians, the president said in an August 4 memorandum to top administration officials.

“Governmental engagement on atrocities and genocide too often arrives too late, when opportunities for prevention or low-cost, low-risk action have been missed. By the time these issues have commanded the attention of senior policy makers, the menu of options has shrunk considerably and the costs of action have risen,” Obama said.

“In the face of a potential mass atrocity, our options are never limited to either sending in the military or standing by and doing nothing,” he said. But to exercise a wider range of options, such as economic and diplomatic interventions, and noncombat military actions to outright intervention, the U.S. government needs “a comprehensive policy framework and a corresponding interagency mechanism” to allow it to more quickly and effectively prevent and respond to mass atrocities and genocide.

Obama said he is establishing the interagency Atrocities Prevention Board, which will include officials from the White House, Pentagon, State Department and other agencies to respond “early, proactively, and decisively” to unfolding mass atrocities and genocide. Using a “whole-of-government approach,” the board will create an early warning system and coordinate U.S. policy and a full range of responses to developments.

He also said the United States must be ready to work with countries that are better positioned to respond to crises or atrocities, and the board will work on strategies to engage them “to ensure that the burdens of atrocity prevention and response are appropriately shared.”

The president said that the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide is a core U.S. national security interest, as well as a moral responsibility.

“Our security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods. America’s reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide,” he said.

In a separate August 4 proclamation, Obama explicitly barred individuals who have organized or participated in serious violations of human rights or humanitarian law, or have committed other atrocities, from obtaining a visa to enter the United States.

Although certain types of human rights violators have already been banned from entering the United States under the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the president’s proclamation will fill in gaps for those whose crimes did not fit into the specifically enumerated categories listed in the earlier legislation.

According to an August 4 White House fact sheet, the proclamation expands “the grounds for denial of entry into the United States to cover a broader array of recognized violations of international humanitarian law and international criminal law, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

It also covers those who participated in serious human rights violations, “such as prolonged arbitrary detention, forced disappearances, slavery, and forced labor, as well as participants in widespread or systematic violence against civilians based on ethnicity or other grounds,” the fact sheet said.

The fact sheet said the expanded visa ban will help deter would-be participants or organizers of atrocities and human rights violators and “more effectively shame those who are organizing such conduct.”

In an August 4 statement, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the measures announced by President Obama will help the United States “put our principles into practice” and protect more people around the world.

She said the new interagency Atrocities Prevention Board will “develop cross-cutting strategies to prevent atrocities and ensure that senior officials throughout our government are warned about emerging threats.”

Through the board, the expanded visa ban and a thorough review of its practices and capabilities, the United States is improving its ability to “prevent and respond to future mass atrocities and human rights violations,” Clinton said.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)