Arresting Atrocity

Obama's Agenda to Prevent Genocide

A protester sets up a barricade during a protest against Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term in Bujumbura, Burundi, May 22, 2015. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

In 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama released a statement underscoring a commitment to prevent crimes against humanity. He declared that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” Soon after, he established the ambitiously named Atrocity Prevention Board, a group of U.S. officials convened by the National Security Council that includes representatives from the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Treasury, as well as from the U.S. Agency for International Aid (USAID), the intelligence community, and other groups. The board meets monthly to assess the risks of atrocities and to strategize on how to mitigate them.

Since then, Obama’s commitment to atrocity prevention has come into question, especially because of U.S. inaction in Syria—even though the purpose of the Atrocity Prevention Board was never to deal with major unfolding crises such as the one in Syria but, rather, to assess longer-term risks and devise “upstream” preventive measures.

Even here, however, the sincerity of the administration’s commitment has been challenged—especially in the case of Burundi, where intermittent violence threatens to boil over into a civil war with a potentially deadly ethnic component. “The atrocity prevention panel seems to me to be the type of thing done for appearances,” Nicholas Hanlon, an Africa expert at the Center for Security Policy, told The New York Times in July. Hanlon claims that the Obama administration has not yet taken seriously the potential for mass atrocities in Burundi. 

The small nation of 10 million, situated in Africa’s Great Lakes region, is one of the world’s poorest countries. Its ethnic composition, 85 percent Hutu and 14 percent Tutsi, is similar to that of its northern neighbor, Rwanda, the scene of a genocide that claimed the lives of 800,000 Tutsi. Rwanda itself has come a long way from those months of horror in 1994, but Burundi remains tense. The growing risk of atrocities in Burundi is an outgrowth of President Pierre Nkurunziza’

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