How Genocide Became a National Security Threat

And what Barack Obama should do about it.

Deep into his Feb. 2 congressional testimony on the U.S. government's annual threat assessment, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair raised the specter of an unfamiliar threat -- far from the terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and cyberattacks that the rest of his discussion focused on. "Looking ahead over the next five years, a number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing," Blair told Congress. "Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan."

Blair's testimony was an underappreciated breakthrough. Genocides and mass atrocities have traditionally been seen by the U.S. government as tragedies, but little more. President Bill Clinton never seriously contemplated intervening in Rwanda. George W. Bush's administration insisted that the violence in Darfur was genocide, but made little mention of any threat to U.S. interests arising there. Now, Blair has tacitly acknowledged what human rights groups and humanitarians have long insisted -- that mass killings are not only moral issues, but are threats to the national security of the United States. And in the world of politics, that subtle shift could make a big difference.

Genocide's negative consequences for the United States are increasingly plain. Mass violence destabilizes countries and entire regions, threatening to spread trafficking in drugs, arms, and persons, as well as infectious disease pandemics and youth radicalization. When prevention fails, the United States invariably foots much of the bill for post-atrocity relief and peacekeeping operations -- to the tune of billions of dollars. And even as Washington is paying, America's soft power is depleted when the world's only superpower stands idle while innocents are systematically slaughtered.

This reality has become increasingly stark in recent years, and it is finally catching Washington's attention. In fact, Blair's statement was just one of several signs that Barack Obama's administration is rethinking Washington's response to genocide. This month's Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), a touchstone planning document for the military, states that the Defense Department should be prepared to offer the president with options for "preventing human suffering due to mass atrocities or large-scale natural disasters abroad." Although the previous QDR in 2006 also referred to humanitarian missions, it did not contemplate responses to mass atrocities. So now for the first time, the military should begin a much-needed process of strategic thinking about preventing genocide.

Even more promising, the White House has moved quietly in the last several weeks to create a high-level interagency committee at the National Security Council aimed at anticipating and preventing mass atrocities. This committee should force policymakers to grapple with the risk of mass atrocities early on, before crises get out of control. It should take control of a process now fragmented between agencies, helping combat the bureaucratic lethargy and ad hoc decision-making that has characterized past U.S. responses to genocide.

Of course, it is reasonable to ask whether these modest steps are truly meaningful when contrasted with the complex roots and incalculable impacts of genocidal violence. Although it's true that attention and organization do not guarantee foreign-policy success, their absence makes it nearly impossible. A year ago, the Genocide Prevention Task Force, chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, produced a blueprint of practical steps that the U.S. government could take to prevent genocide and mass atrocities. And it urged just the kinds of actions the administration has taken in recent weeks.

More is needed, of course, after the administrative structures are in place. As the Albright-Cohen task force found, leadership is the "indispensable ingredient" in preventing mass atrocities. Following Blair's statements this month, Obama and his most senior advisors should send even clearer signals to their subordinates and to the international community that preventing mass atrocities advances U.S. national security interests. One immediate move in this direction would be for the National Security Strategy now being prepared by the White House to declare the prevention of genocide an important U.S. objective. The president should then give a major public speech to explain to the American people why such a new approach is necessary.

The test case for all of this could come sooner than we think, as the Obama administration navigates the grave risks posed to civilians in Sudan. With violence down in Darfur and a peace treaty in the works between the main rebel group there and the government in Khartoum, Sudan no longer makes front-page headlines. But the situation for civilians across Africa's largest country is no less dangerous in the coming years, not least because 2.7 million Darfuris continue to live in displaced-persons camps. Moreover, north-south tensions, still boiling after decades of civil war, will come to a head over the next year. National elections in April and a referendum next January on southern independence could rekindle the mass, often ethnic violence that has plagued the country since independence in 1956.

Obama spoke of his commitment to do "everything we can to prevent and end atrocities like those that took place in Rwanda, those taking place in Darfur" at the Holocaust Days of Remembrance ceremony last April. Fulfilling his commitment will mean, among other things, personally engaging his special envoy for Sudan, the State Department, and the Pentagon to forge a strategy to prevent a foreseeable catastrophe.

The top intelligence officer of the United States is now on record warning of possible genocide. Is the rest of the administration up to the task?



A Light at the End of the Tunnel in Congo

Yes, it may look like the worst hell on Earth. But there are signs that the decades-long resource war in Central Africa could be shifting for the better -- if only the West stops bankrolling it.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is not an obvious candidate to be Africa's turnaround story of the coming decade. This is a country that has been pillaged by outsiders for more than a century, cursed by its extraordinary natural resource base to unparalleled levels of death and destruction. With a seemingly intractable war in the east, one of the worst corruption-fighting records in the world, and some of the highest rates of sexual violence ever recorded, Congo does not, understandably, lend itself well to optimistic prognoses. But sometimes a situation deteriorates so badly that it catalyzes transformative responses. And things can actually change, no matter how entrenched the troubles. That opportunity for real progress is exactly what I found on my recent visit to Congo.

Congo's conflict, the world's deadliest since World War II, is not really a war -- it's a business based on violent extortion. There are numerous armed groups and commercial actors -- Congolese, Rwandan, and Ugandan -- that have positioned themselves for the spoils of a deliberately lawless, accountability-free, unstable, highly profitable mafia-style economy. Millions of dollars are made monthly in illegal taxation of mining operations, smuggling of minerals, and extortion rackets run by mafia bosses based primarily in Kinshasa, Kigali, and Kampala. The spoils are tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold, minerals that go into laptops, cell phones, MP3 players, and jewelry stores in the West. Armed groups use terrifying tactics such as mass rape and village burning to intimidate civilians into providing cheap labor for this elaborate extortion racket.

For decades, this illegal economy has thrived in the shadows. Atrocities committed against Congo's civilian populations are both a means of social control and retribution for the perceived support of military (and hence commercial) opponents. It's all about controlling the minerals and gaining a handsome profit. And until this logic of unaccountable, violent, illegal mineral extraction changes, all the peacekeepers and peacemakers in the world will have very little impact on the levels of violence there.

Here's where the good news begins. A light is increasingly being shone in, illuminating this ugly reality. And it might just be enough to start altering the deadly supply chain in a way that will be the key to transforming eastern Congo's torturous history.

The first sign of hope comes from consumers of these electronic and luxury goods. Shoppers are beginning to put pressure on the companies selling cell phones, laptops, MP3 players, and other electronic devices, along with gold-jewelry retailers, to stop using the conflict minerals mined in eastern Congo. If consumers demand conflict-free electronics products and jewelry strongly enough, just as they do green technologies and fair trade products, big companies can place downstream pressure to clean up the supply chain for these minerals. In fact, this has already begun. Where companies six months ago shrugged off the issue as niche, they are today thinking seriously about how to tackle the problem.

Another opportunity comes from the U.S. Congress, which can make a difference by passing legislation to require conflict-free components in all electronics products. Two pieces of draft legislation, the Conflict Minerals Trade Act in the House and the Congo Conflict Minerals Act in the Senate, do exactly that. President Barack Obama's administration could go even further, improving on the Kimberley Process (a certification agreement meant to stop the export of blood diamonds) by kick-starting negotiations for a global arrangement to certify conflict-free minerals. The Congolese, Rwandan, and Ugandan governments also have a role to play: They can commit to independent monitoring and auditing of the mineral supply chain, finally allowing transparency to replace secrecy in the regional mineral sector. In recent months, these governments have looked more and more interested in doing so.

If these stars align, it may well be the opportunity that Congo needs to finally bring transparency, legality, and security to its minerals trade. Together, all this would fundamentally alter the incentives that are today fueling conflict. Commercial actors might change their behavior, worried that a potential boycott would cut profits and make things more difficult for everyone who is currently benefiting. Central African governments could clean up their act or face International Criminal Court indictments, United Nations sanctions, and other scarlet letters. Electronics and jewelry companies would demand best practices or face increasing negative publicity about their "hear no evil, see no evil" mentality when it comes to the cries of Congo's women and girls.

The certification scheme that arose in response to West Africa's diamond-driven conflict is not perfect, as woes regarding Zimbabwe's diamond exports currently attest. But it did help end bloody wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Angola less than a decade ago. Creating a "conflict-free minerals" certification scheme for Congo would be no silver bullet, but combined with increased efforts at criminal accountability and military reform, it would be the catalyst for a solution to more than a century of resource-driven death and destruction in the heart of Africa.

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