Can the U.S. Prevent Mass Atrocities? Obama Apparently Thinks So

According to today’s New York Times (link), President Obama is set to issue a presidential directive establishing a new inter-agency panel to help the U.S. government try to prevent mass atrocities. Drawing “officials from the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and other agencies,” this Atrocities Prevention Board is expected to develop “an early-warning system of potential genocide and other politically driven humanitarian catastrophes” and to come up with “a range of American responses” to those events.

It’s easy to be cynical about the endless proliferation of committees in government, but I think this board’s creation is a significant step. If it spurs improvements in early warning and streamlines the link between warning and preventive action, the board’s existence really could make the U.S. government’s efforts to prevent atrocities more effective. By signaling that the president considers atrocities prevention to be a high priority, the board’s creation could also motivate managers in relevant agencies to devote more resources to the problem.

I don’t know anything about the internal machinations behind it, but I presume the decision to create this new board was influenced by the work of the Genocide Prevention Task Force, a high-level panel convened in 2007 by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the American Academy of Diplomacy, and the U.S. Institute of Peace with funding from private foundations. The Genocide Prevention Task Force issued a final report in late 2008 that was chock full of smart recommendations for American policy-makers, and at the top of the task force’s list was the creation of “a new standing interagency mechanism for analysis of threats and coordination of appropriate preventive action.” The Atrocities Prevention Board that President Obama is set to establish would seem to be exactly that.

I wonder if the president’s decision was also catalyzed by current events in Syria, where the Assad regime in the past week has accelerated its killings of unarmed protesters in Hama (link), the focal point of mass atrocities in 1982 in which more than 10,000 Syrians were killed. At this stage, there seems to be little the U.S. government can do short of direct military intervention, for which there is (appropriately) no appetite. When the U.S. government is reduced to verbal jousting in the U.N. Security Council and threats to withhold visas from accused human-rights violators, you know there aren’t a lot of great options on the table. I can imagine that the resulting sense of powerlessness in an administration which has strongly endorsed the international community’s responsibility to prevent mass atrocities might motivate officials to look for ways to strengthen their hand against similar crises in the future.

One big idea embodied in this panel is the hope that early warning of impending atrocities will give the U.S. government more time to formulate and implement preventive measures, and that more lead time will make those efforts more effective. I don’t know a lot about the prevention part of that equation, but I do have experience working on the warning side. As research director for the Political Instability Task Force, I was involved in two projects that used statistical analysis to develop tools for early warning on mass killings: one led by genocide scholar Barbara Harff (link), and another in which I collaborated with Dartmouth professor Ben Valentino and SAIC statisticians Mike Lustik and Hongxia Zhu (link). Based on my experience from those projects, I expect the warning piece of this task will be difficult to do as well as policy-makers would like, but I’m also confident it can be done reasonably well. For reasons I’ve elaborated in an earlier post (here), I doubt we’ll ever be able to develop a warning method that accurately and uniquely identifies all countries at great risk of mass atrocities weeks or months in advance. With events this rare, even the most accurate forecasting methods will produce a fair amount of noise with their signals.

Even in the already-difficult world of forecasting political crises, warning on mass atrocities has proved unusually difficult because these killings usually only happen on a large scale in situations where other forms of instability, such as civil wars or recent regime change, are already occurring. Consequently, when you try to develop a model to forecast the onset of mass killings, you mostly get results that look a lot like your models for forecasting those other events. It might be useful to tell interested audiences that general risks of political instability are their best leads on the specific risk of mass atrocities, but that’s probably not the kind of specificity they’re looking for. The two atrocities warning projects on which I’ve worked (see above) dealt with that problem by estimating statistical models from samples that only included countries which had recently experienced an onset of political instability. That strategy gives you a sharper cut on the risks of mass killing than you’d get by looking at all countries all the time, but it doesn’t give you much traction on cases like Syria today, where there was no civil war or adverse regime change before government forces began killing large numbers of unarmed protesters.

To make atrocities warnings more useful to policy-makers who are serious about taking preventive action, we need to improve on these approaches. I know of one work in progress by MIT political science Ph.D. student Chad Hazlett that tries to jettison the conditional design and shows promising results. Better data on the occurrence of atrocities could also help by opening the door to a wider array of analytical methods. On that front, I remain hopeful that PITF’s Worldwide Atrocities Event Data Set (link) will finally get discovered and used by scholars interested in this topic. And, of course, it’s always helpful to bear in mind that a warning tool doesn’t need to be perfect to be good; it just needs to work better than the ad hoc, mostly subjective approaches that are typically used now.

UPDATE: You can find the White House’s fact sheet on the president’s directive here. In that directive, President Obama finds that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.” To my knowledge, this statement is unprecedented in the strength of its commitment to atrocities prevention.

UPDATE 2: For a dissenting view on this initiative and my response to it, see this later blog post.

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