President Obama gave a speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum today announcing the creation of a new Atrocities Prevention Board, a standing inter-agency group tasked with formulating a response to mass atrocities or to prevent potential mass atrocities from being carried out.

This is a big step forward for the US government. It is being lead by Samantha Power, which should be of no surprise to those of us who follow this issue. Her Pulitzer Prize winning book offers the authoritative account of how US government bureaucracy was historically incapable of dealing effectively with genocide and mass atrocity. As Power demonstrated if fine detail, the bureaucracy incentivizes inaction or ignorance over robust action to prevent a genocide or mass atrocity.  This was not a Democratic or Republican issue–it was a problem endemic to how the government operatres; the bureaucracy was simply not set up to effectively respond to mass atrocities.

Enter the new Atrocities Prevention Board. This is a standing, interagency body that draws senior officials from several different corners of the US government (from the intelligence community, to diplomats, to treasury department officials). It is chaired by Samantha Power, and created to push back against the very bureaucratic forces that Power so ably described in her book.  It is an ongoing forum in which top government officials from disparate parts of the foreign policy bureaucracy regular develop policies and guidance for the express purpose of preventing mass atrocities.

This is a big deal. If it works, it will be a powerful force to push back against the default setting of doing nothing and avoid the false choice between doing nothing and intervening militarily to stop genocide.

Finally, it’s also worth noting that there was no Atrocities Prevention Board in the Spring and Summer of 2009 when the worst mass atrocity of the Obama era was carried out. As many as 40,000 ethnic Tamils were slaughtered at the tail end of the Sri Lanka civil war.  Watching a series of events at the White House today and listening to President Obama’s speech it’s depressing that the worst mass atrocity event of the past 3.5 years seems to escape any mention whatsoever.

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