APB for the APB

Has Syria scuttled Samantha Power's Atrocity Prevention Board?

With the confirmation hearings of Samantha Power to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations imminent, it is a good time to take a look at one of her signature projects from her tenure at the National Security Staff: the Atrocities Prevention Board.

A little more than a year ago, President Barack Obama announced the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board during an address at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, saying that this initiative would make the deterrence of genocide and mass atrocities "a core national security interest and core moral responsibility."

Both the president and Power seemed acutely aware of the challenges and risks of trying to develop an inter-agency atrocities prevention mechanism while the humanitarian tragedy continued to unfold in Syria -- a conflict into which this administration has been reluctant to wade. Indeed, in many ways, the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board, or APB, has felt a bit like trying to build a fire department in the middle of a three-alarm fire.

The roots of the APB come from a bipartisan belief that the United States, in places like Rwanda and Bosnia, simply did not do enough to counter genocides and mass atrocities as they gathered force. The 2008 report from the Genocide Prevention Task Force, co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, recommended the creation of a new high-level interagency body -- what they called an Atrocities Prevention Committee -- to improve U.S. government crisis-response systems and better equip Washington to mount coherent preventive responses.

As Obama's special advisor for multilateral affairs, an outspoken champion for human rights and genocide prevention, and the author of a Pulitzer Prize winning book on the U.S. government and genocide, Power was a natural fit to breathe life into the Genocide Prevention Task Force's concept while at the National Security Staff (NSS).

Power secured support for the APB through the August 2011 release of the Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocity Prevention, or PSD-10, of which she was the lead author. The directive called for the establishment of an interagency atrocities prevention mechanism, the APB, which would "coordinate a whole of government approach to preventing mass atrocities and genocide."

However, when the formation of the APB was formally announced in 2012 by the president, a number of Republican critics used it as an opportunity to lacerate the president for inaction in Syria. Commentator Charles Krauthammer, at best an episodic voice on the importance of human rights, called the board an embarrassment, and bemoaned, "The liberal faith in the power of bureaucracy and flowcharts, of committees and reports, is legend. But this is parody."

So what does the APB actually do? And what does the situation in Syria say about its work? The APB consists of high-ranking representatives, all originally hand-picked by Power, from 11 agencies, including State, Defense, Treasury, Justice, the CIA and others. The board has essentially split its functions between looking at long-term structural issues -- such as sanctions regimes and how government personnel are trained -- and a geographic focus on countries at risk of mass atrocities, usually over the medium term.

On a weekly basis, a sub-APB made up of working-level staff from the participating agencies meets to discuss the structural atrocity issues, with the State Department and USAID having the largest numbers of personnel involved. Once a month, the APB meets at the assistant-secretary level, with each agency's representative reporting on important issues raised during the weekly discussions and following up regarding assigned activities. Quarterly, deputy principals gather for what has been termed a "deep-dive analysis," with the assistance of an intelligence community briefing, designed to drive a substantial policy conversation regarding a country of potential concern. To date, some of the countries featured in these discussions have included Kenya, Burma, and Bangladesh. These conversations are designed to mobilize attention and resources within the respective agencies in an effort to avert atrocities in the countries under discussion, and to pre-position resources and analysis so that each agency can be better prepared.  One imagines that most ambassadors don't particularly enjoy such a review, but such country-specific discussions certainly help sensitize diplomats to the risk factors associated with mass atrocities, and likely encourage more energetic efforts to avert such crisis.

Finally, the nine principals involved at the assistant secretary level also meet annually, and the APB presents an annual report on its activities and successes to the president in January of each year. Somewhat bafflingly, the APB has no signature public product, such as the State Department's annual human rights report, and one of the most justified knocks on the board's work to date has been the fact that it has been almost invisible from public view -- a strategic decision within the administration that has one almost has to conclude has been driven by the situation in Syria. As a result of its lack of outreach, support for the APB remains very thin, particularly in Congress. As one congressional staffer told me, its activities to date are a "complete black hole."

Perhaps the board's most notable successes have come in getting agencies that have traditionally paid little attention to atrocity prevention, such as the departments of Treasury and Justice, to develop new tools to pursue major human rights abusers. Directly as a result of the APB's work, the Department of Treasury has managed to place sanctions on suspected human rights abusers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Iran, and Myanmar, and notably on 41 entities or individuals in Syria or with ties to the embattled Assad regime. The Department of Justice now has prosecutors working on human-rights abuse cases; a fraud team is assisting in seizing assets of human-rights abusers; and U.S. officials are helping train counterparts in other countries on how best to prosecute human rights cases. These are useful wins, as has been the improved coordination between agencies and improved training on these issues at State and USAID. Making the U.S. government better at atrocity prevention, by its very nature, includes some stuff that is not very sexy.

This brings us back to the elephant in the room: Syria. Since the uprising began in February 2011, the United Nations estimates that at least 80,000 Syrians have been killed, roughly 4 million are internally displaced, and at least 1.5 million have fled the country entirely. It is exactly the kind of carnage for which the APB was created to help prevent or diffuse.

Lanny Breuer, who represented the Justice Department on the APB until recently, argued that it was "unrealistic for a new entity that has no real authority to galvanize the government on Syria," and added, "But what it can do is to raise awareness." Breuer's comments may be accurate, but if so, the administration surely oversold the APB's potential when it was rolled out.

On background, those affiliated with the APB argue that it has functioned largely as it should during the crisis. They point out that the APB was created to push decisionmaking and policymaking on mass atrocities to the highest levels in government, and that the decisions on how to respond to the situation in Syria have been rigorously debated by the president and his core national security team. No board can force a president's hand, and most agree that the policy choices in Syria run the gamut from bad to awful. Perhaps the APB is better positioned to deal with crises that are over the horizon or for which there are warning signs rather than ones that are directly unfolding. But, all that said, the APB was created with the express intent to prevent the next Rwanda or Bosnia, and Syria is looking an awful lot like one of those tragedies for which the phrase "never again" keeps getting repeated.

Much of Power's career as an author and an activist was absolutely illuminated by her incandescent willingness to speak truth to power -- which helps explain why the APB's sotto voce approach has felt so dissatisfying with regard to Syria. The APB is doing good, important, and long-overdue work, but that legacy will surely be obscured if Syria continues to burn.

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Democracy Lab

Living Together Doesn't Mean You're in Love

Why Georgia offers an important argument for the virtues of divided government.

Doom and gloom have dominated the narrative during the nine months since Georgia's October 2012 parliamentary elections. Since the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition won a surprise victory at the polls over the incumbent United National Movement (UNM), chaos and polarization have characterized the political landscape. Cohabitation, in which GD's Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili must share power with UNM rival President Mikheil Saakashvili, is frequently blamed. But what if cohabitation has actually been a net positive? 

Progress remains uneven, but Georgia has managed to create the rudiments of a democracy. The new government was elected with a strong public mandate; the political opposition is vibrant, strong, and credible; the judiciary is less pliant; and the media environment is lively. At the same time, the country still suffers from many of the same structural deficiencies as its neighbors, including a chronic lack of checks and balances and underdeveloped institutions, making any change of government fraught with risks. Even necessary reforms, if implemented without care, can inadvertently impede democratic progress and undermine political competition. 

Georgia needs stability and continuity in government in order to carry forward its ambitious reform program and its agenda of forming closer ties to the European Union and NATO. If the country's leaders can tone down the political infighting, Georgia will be in a strong position to solidify its path towards democracy. 

One particular challenge has been precisely the awkward cohabitation between Ivanishvili and Saakashvili, where both command significant executive powers but lead rival political parties. Predictably, this has led to dysfunction, public spats, and policies that sometimes appear to have more to do with settling political scores than addressing the country's substantial internal and external challenges. 

And yet, while Western media have produced a steady diet of bad news from Georgia since the October elections, the reality hasn't been all bad. Despite the May 17 anti-gay riots and the arrest of ex-Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, Georgia today is neither a minority-hunting theocracy in embryo nor in the throes of an anti-democratic crackdown. Similarly, cohabitation has become a byword among Georgia-watchers for the seemingly endless faceoff between the energetic-but-diminished Saakashvili and his enigmatic rival Ivanishvili. But beneath the hood, Georgia's cohabitation has been quietly effective. 

Before last October, Georgian politics was characterized by periodic cycles of winner-take-all politics. While the changes from the nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia era (1990-1992) to Eduard Shevardnadze's kleptocracy (1995-2003) to reformist Saakashvili's rise to power in 2004 showed progress, each power change -- invariably extra-constitutional -- was accompanied by a purge of the old guard. Gamsakhurdia, a Soviet dissident turned nationalist agitator, presided over a comprehensive sacking of the Soviet bureaucracy. Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, at least partially restored the pre-independence elite -- only to take a pro-West turn later in his rule that paved the way for Saakashvili's rise in 2003's Rose Revolution. Saakashvili, seeking to take a cudgel to pervasive corruption and the kanonieri kurdebi ("thieves in law"), whose writ rivaled that of the state's, unleashed Vano Merabishvili's interior ministry in the (sometimes legally dubious) mother of all house-cleanings

Because of the democratic nature of the most recent transfer of power, the new government is necessarily more restrained. Still, its motives regarding its predecessors remain unclear -- as illustrated by the arrest of a number of former high-ranking officials within weeks of the new government coming into power. Some observers have seen this as evidence that the new prime minister is pursuing his own version of the familiar winner-take-all pattern, while others have defended his actions as an effort to observe the rule of law in a judiciary system that has been historically weak and politicized. It is, of course, important to hold individuals accountable for crimes and abuses committed in the past, but it is equally vital that justice is seen to be fair and apolitical. The presence of a vibrant multi-party democracy is essential to Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. 

The October 2012 elections were not only noteworthy for their overall peacefulness, but also because they marked the first constitutional transfer of power in modern Georgian history. This has likely helped to moderate the usual winner-take-all pattern. But another reason is almost certainly that Georgian Dream's accession to power was accompanied by a strong, well-organized, and experienced opposition (including the country's president). Although the two parties seem more often at each others' throats than not, the practical effects of cohabitation have put the new government under a political microscope to a degree unprecedented in modern Georgian history. Sometimes the opposition will overreach, sacrificing national interests for the transient tactical edge, but this is hardly an uncommon feature among even more consolidated, Western democracies. 

The ruling coalition, falling short by fourteen of the 100 seats it needs for a constitutional supermajority, has to work within the boundaries of an inherited system rather than crafting one to specification, as was pro forma in past years. Even during normal legislative procedures in which GD's simple majority is enough to push through bills, the opposition has highlighted shortcomings or provoked useful discussions resulting in stronger outcomes. For example, a GD bill to partially decriminalize entry into the two separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- though strongly opposed to by the UNM -- has been modified constructively in response to some of the operational critiques raised by the parliamentary opposition. And earlier this year, the warring sides were able to lay down their arms long enough to produce a pro-western, bipartisan resolution on foreign policy. 

Cohabitation and governmental gridlock teach an incredibly important lesson about the vagaries of democracy. It's not always an efficient, straightforward process. But this can be a good thing. Although ineffective government is never a cause for celebration, untrammeled do-somethingism can be worse. Centralized, unchecked power may make big projects easier to start and finish. But an unchallenged executive also tends to overlook due diligence, often running roughshod over anyone unlucky enough to be in the way. This was exactly the type of perceived state impunity that helped push GD into power last October. 

For those seeking the glamour of dramatic policy reforms or grandiose projects to celebrate national greatness, the day-to-day realities of governing in a modern democracy can seem a little boring. Georgia's popular government, with a president and a large and active parliamentary minority in the opposition, is possibly more accountable than any other in recent memory. This may mean an end to overly ambitious projects, like the construction of new cities from scratch, but it could result in more democratic participation and pragmatism, such as restarting trade with Russia. 

As Georgians prepare to head back to the polls for the October 2013 presidential election, the West should, above all, respect the democratic will of the Georgian people. But an election that results in continued divided government would not necessarily be a bad outcome. Cohabitation or not, Georgia's long-term democratic and Euro-Atlantic prospects will be helped by an active and constructive opposition, no matter who is in power. At the same time, the often legitimate political differences between political factions should be kept within the family rather than being needlessly elevated into issues of international concern. 

The idea that democratic government isn't just about swapping one king for another needs to take firm root within Georgian political consciousness. Cohabitation has played a part in that process. An organized and relevant opposition, speaking for a significant portion of the population, can also fill this role. If Georgia is to shed its longtime inclination towards "pluralistic feudalism" -- in which personalities, rather than policies or ideas, drive the political agenda -- the maintenance of a viable opposition will be key. Few would argue that cohabitation has resulted in an ideal arrangement, but it may have helped drag Georgian politics into a new era.