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.