For all the terrible tragedies befalling the millions who have been murdered in mass atrocities, the human mind is best able to comprehend these crimes by remembering individuals we have seen with our own eyes, whether in person or in pictures.
So it was that, in his magnificent speech on Monday, April 23, about preventing as well as punishing genocide, U.S. President Barack Obama recalled two vivid images of inhumanity. The first was "an old photo" he himself had seen while visiting Buchenwald of "men and boys lying in their wooden bunks, barely more than skeletons," including a 16-year-old Elie Wiesel. The second was the suffering that Obama's great uncle had witnessed when, as a soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II, he "was stunned and shaken by what he saw when he helped to liberate Ohrdruf, part of Buchenwald."
Of course, as Obama said, the Nazi Holocaust remains "a crime unique in human history." And I applaud him for declaring that "Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America."
Still, when I think about mass atrocities, the most vivid images that come to mind are those of my own countrymen and women, the Kosovar refugees from the conflicts of the late 1990s, who were shot at and shelled and streamed across the border to safety in Albania. And when I think about how to prevent such tragedies, it seems clear that America cannot do it alone and that the "core moral responsibility" belongs to us all.
Obama has committed the United States to doing the right things for this great cause. He announced the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board, with the aim of focusing the attention and resources of every U.S. government agency on anticipating and preventing atrocities before they occur. He is initiating new sanctions against those who use information technology to abuse human rights. He has asked for a national intelligence estimate of the risk of mass atrocities, instructed the Treasury Department to deploy financial tools against atrocities, and ordered the military to incorporate the prevention of atrocities into its doctrine.
While laudable, the actions of one nation alone will never be enough to prevent future atrocities. This must be, as Obama said, "the work … of all nations." It must involve every country, on every continent, from small nations such as Kosovo to the major economic, political, and military powers.