The Failure of American Atrocity Prevention

War and Peace


In 1992, the United States became involved in UNOSOM, a Chapter VII humanitarian mission in Somalia. The original goal of our participation in this mission was to ensure the safe delivery of humanitarian aid to a suffering Somali population. As a part of Operation Restore Hope, we began to focus in on the capture of General Mohamed Farrah Hassan Aidid, a wanted Somali warlord. In early October of 1993, in pursuit of General Aidid, two U.S. military helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu and 18 U.S. soldiers were killed. It was a devastating blow not only to the U.S. military, but to the American public at home. We had overlooked the reality that humanitarian intervention might come at the cost of American lives. The shock was overwhelming for citizens and lawmakers alike. It forever changed how we as a nation dealt with humanitarian crises.


The consequences of this event still influence our decision making on atrocity prevention and humanitarian intervention. Now infamously known as the Mogadishu line,” we as a country have been unwilling to cross back over into forceful intervention in the name of civilian protection. It is what kept us from intervening in the genocide in Rwanda, and has held us back in our dealings with the genocide in Darfur. Further, it is why we no longer contribute a meaningful troop presence to UN Peacekeeping missions. We do offer assistance and training to UN missions, but not the 28,000 troops we sent into Somalia. What evolved, whether intentionally or unintentionally, was essentially a mandate of non-intervention in the name of civilian protection.


The Obama Administration, in particular, has disappointed human rights advocates. As a senator, Obama spoke out about the importance of acting to stop the violence in Sudan. As president, he has failed to bring any meaningful change to the region. Further, this past week he angered Sudan activists and genocide prevention groups over the White House invitation offered to Nafie Ali Nafie and a Sudanese delegation. Nafie is well known as advisor to President Omar al Bashir, as well as former head of the National Internal Security Services (NISS) in Sudan. That he is not yet under investigation by the International Criminal Court is surprising. Some have even likened this to inviting Heinrich Himmler to talks at the White House during World War II. 


On Wednesday, the Obama Administration released a fact sheet outlining their efforts in the realm of atrocity prevention over the last year. It is a bittersweet document, as it does actually show a real commitment to atrocity prevention. From extensive training, to the Rewards for Justice program, to specific preventative steps taken in states such as Syria. This fact sheet highlights the Administration’s whole-government approach. This is progress that should be acknowledged and praised. It is clear that many within the government and among non-governmental organizations have dedicated themselves to working toward better prevention strategies. In creating the Responsibility to Protect, the ICISS highlighted that prevention stands as the most important aspect of civilian protection.


Sadly, when it comes to responding to ongoing atrocities, we continue to fall short. Most glaringly, we are currently failing to protect the civilians in Syria. The fact sheet explains:


Tragically, there are also situations where in the past year civilians have suffered a marked increase in violence—such as in Syria, where the regime’s brutality has led to more than 70,000 deaths and displaced upwards of five and a half million people.


President Obama has been taking heat over his chemical weapons “red line.” Originally defining the use of chemical weapons as a game changer, he has hesitated to acknowledge the evidence that these weapons are in fact being used in Syria. If we as a country are going to be honest with ourselves about our moral responsibilities, we have to acknowledge that the weapon of choice is irrelevant when the death toll has already reached 70,000. Whether or not the weapon was chemical cannot serve as an excuse to delay protecting civilians in harms way. Further, when casualites reach these levels, it is time to admit that we have moved past our responsibility to prevent and must live up to our responsibility to respond. The fact sheet gives further detail about our efforts in Syria:


On Syria, the State Department and USAID have deployed experts to support targeted projects that lay the foundation for accountability and a democratic transition that protects the rights of all Syrian people, such as building a cross-sectarian network of civilian activists by training local leaders and activists, including women and minorities.


These are honorable preventative steps, but democratic transition is irrelevant if there are no more citizens. Not acting when prevention fails and atrocities blaze not only delegitimizes the hard work of those dedicated to preventing atrocities, but highlights the hypocrisy of a nation that claims to value human rights but is willing to stand by as thousands of innocent civilians are killed, blaming the complicated nature of intervention. 


The most disheartening aspect in all of this is that the U.S. is uniquely equipped to assist in atrocity prevention. We have the skills, resources, and the manpower. This is not to say that the U.S. should independently invade regions such as Syria where atrocities are unfolding. In fact, we most definitely should not lead an independent intervention. What it does mean is that the U.S. needs to be willing to recommit itself to the United Nations as a fully participating member state. We need to use our power as a member of the Permanent 5 to push the international community to act on Syria. Our inaction is simply shameful. It is time for the U.S. to live up to its moral responsibility and stand as a leader in civilian protection.



Follow Corrie on Twitter @corrie_hulse



Humanitarian Intervention, Barack Obama, R2P, Sudan, Syria