An International Response to Prevent Future Genocides

26/01/2012 23:12 GMT | Updated 27/03/2012 10:12 BST

On 4 August last year, President Obama announced a bold step to allow the United States government to respond quickly to instances of potential mass atrocities and genocide. As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day, I wanted to take a closer look at how the US approach could be replicated here.

The Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities established a standing interagency Atrocities Prevention Board to coordinate the US government's response to situations where mass atrocities and genocide threaten. It has the potential to save countless lives. Obama has also appointed Stephen Pomper, an attorney from the State Department, as Director for War Crimes and Atrocities at the White House to focus resources on this enduring problem.

The British government should investigate how such mechanisms could be implemented here. Fortunately, a blueprint already exists.

The Directive is one of the recommendations made in 2008 by the Genocide Prevention Task Force (GPTF), co-sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the United States Institute of Peace and the American Academy of Diplomacy.

The GPTF was co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen. It developed numerous policy recommendations to enhance the capacity of the U.S. government to respond to emerging threats of genocide and mass atrocities. The basic message of the GPTF report is that preventing mass atrocities is achievable but requires the same focus and oversight from governments who wish to prevent killings, to match the systematic organization which usually precedes mass murder.

By coincidence, I was visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum when President Obama's announcement was made. I could not help but wonder how the events so skillfully and movingly documented in that Museum might have been different if a similar international commitment to preventing genocide had existed when Hitler rose to power. Indeed, rather than cooperating to prevent genocide, the international community almost uniformly bound together to prevent Jews from entering their countries, stranding them inside Germany and other European countries that would soon be under Germany's control. We all know what happened next.

The post-war years saw efforts to collectively prevent and respond to instances of genocide, the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide being the most far-reaching. Nevertheless, the genocide and mass atrocities continued in Cambodia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sudan and elsewhere.

While the moral case for stopping these crimes was clear, governments have lacked the political will and internal mechanisms to respond effectively to escalating violence. The Albright-Cohen GPTF report makes clear that prevention is both a moral and strategic imperative. The effects of massive crimes against humanity are rarely contained within national borders. Refugees flow into neighbouring countries and armed violence spills across regions. We see this today in the Democratic Republic of Congo where part of the ongoing violence is fuelled by the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

But even where the moral and strategic implications are clear, governments require an infrastructure that provides a systematic way for government ministers to coordinate an effective response to threats of potential mass atrocities. And they need to dedicate resources and staff to give this infrastructure real meaning. Without such a system, our response to genocide and other mass atrocity crimes will continue to be ad hoc and ineffective.

The Obama Directive provides a mechanism to achieve these goals in the United States. Now the challenge for other governments, including here in the UK, is whether to follow suit and establish their own genocide prevention plans. A first step might be to create our own task force on atrocity prevention. We need to consider such reforms to give true meaning to the promise of "Never Again."

Mary Creagh is Shadow Environment Secretary and the Labour MP for Wakefield. She was All Party Parliamentary Group on the Prevention of Genocide in the last Parliament.