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’s decision to take a third term in office, which he won through a rigged election in June, rather than stepping down in accordance with a term-limit provision that was part of the agreement ending Burundi’s 1993–2005 civil war. As a result, the possibility of another civil war is very real.

A protester gestures with a stone during a protest against Nkurunziza, May 29, 2015.
Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

It is true that the activities of the Atrocity Prevention Board have been largely invisible outside of the U.S. government. Since its inception, the board has maintained a very low profile—not just on Burundi but on all of the countries it reviews. Its meetings are naturally closed because of the classified intelligence material involved and the diplomatic sensitivity of assessing risks in any given country. Only recently have administration officials begun to speak about the board publicly in an effort to make a case for its value. Under Secretary of State Sarah Sewall gave a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations (which publishes Foreign Affairs) in Washington in March of this year, explaining the board’s operations and contribution to policy deliberations. She noted, “Most of the [Atrocity Prevention Board’s] attention is devoted to potential or ongoing violence that might escape focused attention in existing policy fora.”

To get a sense of the board’s real successes and failures, in conjunction with a report we are preparing for the Holocaust Museum on improving transatlantic cooperation on atrocity prevention, we have met with dozens of current and former board members and staffers who have participated in its meetings. What we have found is that the board has done a significant amount of atrocity prevention work. This is particularly true in the case of Burundi. The charge that the board operates largely for appearance’s sake is without foundation.

According to U.S. officials, the board first looked at atrocity risks in Burundi at the end of 2012. At that time, the principal focus of interagency deliberations on conflict in Africa centered on the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since the mid-1990s, its eastern region has been devastated by war and violence that have claimed as many as five million lives.

Soldiers, who are escorting Nkurunziza, hold their weapons, May 17, 2015.
Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

But in spite of the focus on the DRC, the 2012 meeting of the board succeeded in generating government-wide attention to Burundi’s potential to deteriorate into a mass-atrocity situation. The board’s work is intended to support and complement existing regional bureaus and regional interagency policy processes. As a result of its preliminary investigation, a seven-person assessment team traveled to Burundi in July 2013. Representatives from the Departments of State, Defense, and Justice, as well as from USAID, spent three weeks in the country, not only in Bujumbura, the capital, but also in several at-risk provinces. The group included some officials with expertise in Burundi and others with experience in atrocity prevention. The U.S. ambassador to Burundi, Dawn M. Liberi, was a strong supporter of the assessment team’s efforts and those of the board more broadly.

Although the board does not have direct access to government funds for in-country prevention programs (a deficiency that the U.S. Congress should address), USAID has resources that it could direct toward atrocity- or conflict-prevention initiatives—its Complex Crisis Fund and the Human Rights Grants Program and Transition Initiative Funds. In fact, USAID officials have been key participants in the Atrocity Prevention Board’s work, including developing a new field guide on preventing genocide and related crimes, called “Helping Prevent Mass Atrocities.” For Burundi, USAID developed a number of specific interventions, such as youth outreach, peace building between ethnic groups, and teaching local advocacy organizations how to document human rights abuses and mitigate violence.

In June 2013, the U.S. Embassy, in conjunction with Burundi’s National Independent Electoral Commission, launched an election assistance program funded by USAID and administered by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. The program included training on dispute resolution, civic education, voter registration, and monitoring. When it became apparent that the Burundi government was intending to cheat in the June 2015 elections, these programs were suspended.

The U.S.-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Counterpart International also received USAID funding for a program promoting nonviolence among youth, a matter of particular concern because of potential clashes between youth groups supporting Nkurunziza and those that oppose him. As of the end of July this year, more than 7,000 youths had participated. In addition to its work in the capital, which has intensified since the outbreak of violence, Counterpart International hosted a series of youth cultural exchange days in June in three rural communes and attracted more than 2,000 participants.

Another NGO, Search for Common Ground, received USAID funding for radio programs designed to defuse tensions and humanize members of the rivaling parties, in addition to other outreach efforts. Prior to a government crackdown this summer on independent radio, its programming was reaching more than 80 percent of Burundians in the 15-plus age group.

A protester holds his hands up in front of soldiers during a protest against Nkurunziza, May 19, 2015.
Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

In August of last year, a four-member board consisting of U.S. State Department officials returned to Burundi to conduct a second assessment. This group provided expert assistance on tracking atrocity risks and continued the process of evaluating the programs that had been put in place to mitigate them.

As a result of the second assessment, the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict Stabilization Operations, which serves as the State Department secretariat for the Atrocity Prevention Board, provided funding to Action on Armed Violence, a British NGO that has been working to facilitate dialogue between youth from opposing political parties. The group’s efforts have led to the establishment of a joint commission of youth opposition members and youth ruling party members to address incidents of violence, with the intention of disrupting cycles of reprisal, and prevent at-risk neighborhoods from spinning out of control. The bureau has also provided additional resources to the U.S. Embassy in Bujumbura by assigning three officials to work there for periods ranging from five weeks to three months.

Although Burundi is anything but free of violent politics and has a very difficult road ahead, incidences of violence per se are not enough to dismiss the efficacy of the Atrocity Prevention Board. Its efforts, in conjunction with a capable ambassador, succeeded in elevating awareness of the risks of atrocities in Burundi when little attention was focused there. The board’s assessment teams developed frameworks for analyzing risks and proposed strategies on how to reduce threats. Other government agencies, notably USAID and the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict Stabilization Operations, found resources to fund programs. The board has undertaken similar initiatives in other countries at risk of mass atrocities, including Guinea, Burma, Nigeria, and the Central African Republic.

The board works with little fanfare behind the scenes on serious efforts to diminish atrocity risks. The claim that it is somehow a fig leaf designed to mask a lack of interest and engagement on the part of the U.S. government is at best ill informed.

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  • LEE FEINSTEIN is Founding Dean of Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Poland.
  • TOD LINDBERG is a Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He served on the senior staff of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Genocide Prevention Task Force. He is the author of The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern.
  • Together, they co-authored Means to an End: U.S. Interest in the International Criminal Court.
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  • More By Tod Lindberg