The U.S. Government, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, has recognized a strong interest in the prevention of mass atrocities. This is driven in part by long-standing U.S. principles and values, including a deep-seated consensus formed following the Holocaust that genocide and the deliberate targeting of civilians cannot be tolerated. In addition to these moral considerations, there is also widespread recognition that mass atrocities can threaten international peace and security in a number of ways, including by destabilizing entire regions through conflict diffusion; generating uncontrolled migration, internal displacement, and refugee flows; emboldening perpetrators and creating openings for violent extremism to flourish; creating grievances that extremists can exploit; disrupting economic relations and undermining progress on economic development; contributing to state fragility; necessitating costly ex post interventions; and undermining the credibility of international norms, especially when the international community is perceived to be standing idly by while violence unfolds. In creating an interagency Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), President Obama was the first U.S. President to link the moral obligation to prevent harm with the national interests inherent to doing so when he announced: “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” All told, it is axiomatic that it is “morally, politically, financially, and prudentially better to prevent atrocity crimes than to react to stop them once under way.”
The interest in atrocity prevention has also been strongly tied to an emphasis on the importance of accountability for perpetrators. For example, President Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy stated:
“The mass killing of civilians is an affront to our common humanity and a threat to our common security. It destabilizes countries and regions, pushes refugees across borders, and creates grievances that extremists exploit. We have a strong interest in leading an international response to genocide and mass atrocities when they arise…We will work with the international community to prevent and call to account those responsible for the worst human rights abuses, including through support to the International Criminal Court, consistent with U.S. law and our commitment to protecting our personnel.”
Though lacking the specific reference to the ICC, the Bush and Trump Administrations also underscored their commitment to the underlying principle. In President Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy, for example, one of the “Priority Actions” under “Champion American Values” was the commitment that “[w]e will hold perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities accountable” (See Text box for extracts from other National Security Strategies). Such statements about accountability have been backed with resources. In 2020, the Executive branch reported to Congress that in “Fiscal Year 2019, State and [the US Agency for International Development (USAID)] allocated approximately $10.5 million towards atrocity prevention programming globally…”
READ how the United States National Security Strategies have addressed atrocity prevention and accountability across different administrations
President George W. Bush’s second National Security Strategy, Mar. 2006, at 17
It is a moral imperative that states take action to prevent and punish genocide. History teaches that sometimes other states will not act unless America does its part. We must refine United States Government efforts—economic, diplomatic, and law-enforcement—so that they target those individuals responsible for genocide and not the innocent citizens they rule. Where perpetrators of mass killing defy all attempts at peaceful intervention, armed intervention may be required, preferably by the forces of several nations working together under appropriate regional or international auspices.
We must not allow the legal debate over the technical definition of “genocide” to excuse inaction. The world must act in cases of mass atrocities and mass killing that will eventually lead to genocide even if the local parties are not prepared for peace.”
President Obama’s first National Security Strategy, May 2010, at 48
The United States is committed to working with our allies, and to strengthening our own internal capabilities, in order to ensure that the United States and the international community are proactively engaged in a strategic effort to prevent mass atrocities and genocide…
From Nuremberg to Yugoslavia to Liberia, the United States has seen that the end of impunity and the promotion of justice are not just moral imperatives; they are stabilizing forces in international affairs. The United States is thus working to strengthen national justice systems and is maintaining our support for ad hoc international tribunals and hybrid courts. Those who intentionally target innocent civilians must be held accountable, and we will continue to support institutions and prosecutions that advance this important interest. Although the United States is not at present a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and will always protect U.S. personnel, we are engaging with State Parties to the Rome Statute on issues of concern and are supporting the ICC’s prosecution of those cases that advance U.S. interests and values, consistent with the requirements of U.S. law.
President Obama’s second National Security Strategy, Feb. 2015, at 22
The mass killing of civilians is an affront to our common humanity and a threat to our common security. It destabilizes countries and regions, pushes refugees across borders, and creates grievances that extremists exploit. We have a strong interest in leading an international response to genocide and mass atrocities when they arise, recognizing options are more extensive and less costly when we act preventively before situations reach crisis proportions. We know the risk of mass atrocities escalates when citizens are denied basic rights and freedoms, are unable to hold accountable the institutions of government, or face unrelenting poverty and conflict. We affirm our support for the international consensus that governments have the responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities and that this responsibility passes to the broader international community when those governments manifestly fail to protect their populations. We will work with the international community to prevent and call to account those responsible for the worst human rights abuses, including through support to the International Criminal Court, consistent with U.S. law and our commitment to protecting our personnel. Moreover, we will continue to mobilize allies and partners to strengthen our collective efforts to prevent and respond to mass atrocities using all our instruments of national power.
President Trump’s National Security Strategy, Dec. 2017, p. 42
We will not remain silent in the face of evil. We will hold perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities accountable.
Nonetheless, when faced with unfolding violence, the international community often mobilizes too late, when opportunities for lower cost actions have been missed and more robust interventions are required. Indeed, the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia drew the United States into extended military and peacekeeping commitments. And the prolonged conflicts and associated atrocities in Syria and Northern Iraq prompted similar deployments of U.S. forces to counter, and reduce the space for, terrorist groups that emerged out of the instability and governance vacuum.
Congress too has underscored the importance of atrocity prevention and response. For example, the 2018 Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocity Prevention Act institutionalized the process of interagency coordination first instantiated within the APB and continued by President Trump’s Atrocity Early Warning Task Force, and specifically highlighted criminal accountability for past atrocities as a necessary component of a government-wide strategy to identify, prevent, and respond to the risk of atrocities. Enacted in December 2019, the Global Fragility Act mandates a similar coordinated approach across government to address the wider problems of instability and state fragility that frequently establish the preconditions for mass violence and atrocity. And the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act includes language that requires the State Department, in coordination with DOD and USAID, to incorporate the prevention of atrocities and the mitigation of fragility into security assistance and cooperation planning and implementation and to ensure that the Department of State’s Atrocity Assessment Framework is factored into the Integrated Country Strategy and the Country Development Cooperation Strategy for countries at risk of mass atrocities.
Whatever one may think of the effectiveness of the ICC in practice when it comes to promoting deterrence and reconciliation—and the literature is mixed —the Rome Statute embodies these same ideals. Its preamble poignantly invokes the memory of past atrocities, the threat that such atrocities pose to security and stability, and a determination that ending impunity for atrocities will “contribute to the prevention of such crimes.” The ICC’s concerns about the importance of preventing atrocities, but prosecuting those responsible when this proves impossible, are shared by the United States and are among long-standing U.S. foreign policy priorities.
Key passages from the preamble include express the international community’s views in this regard:
Mindful that during this century millions of children, women and men have been victims of unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity,
Recognizing that such grave crimes threaten the peace, security and well-being of the world,
Determined to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes and thus to contribute to the prevention of such crimes…
Rome Statute, supra note 69, pmbl.