Faces of Atrocity Prevention
An Interview with Lawrence Woocher Senior Atrocity Prevention Fellow at USAID
For more than a decade, FCNL has worked to strengthen our government’s capacity to prevent genocide and mass atrocities. One sign that our government is responding: this year, for the first time, multiple staff in USAID’s Bureau for Conflict, Democracy and Humanitarian Assistance are also working full-time for this very goal.
FCNL’s Kathy Zager recently had a chance to talk with one of them. Lawrence Woocher is a senior atrocity prevention fellow who works at USAID to support the interagency Atrocities Prevention Board (APB). President Obama created this board just over a year ago at the urging of FCNL and many of our colleagues. Lawrence also works to strengthen USAID’s own activities to prevent and respond to large-scale and systematic attacks on civilians.
Kathy Zager: Why was the Atrocities Prevention Board needed?
Lawrence Woocher: In establishing the APB, President Obama gave it two principal responsibilities: to help the U.S. government identify and address atrocity threats and to oversee institutional changes that will make us more nimble and effective. Above all, the APB forces high-level attention on the prevention of mass atrocities across all relevant U.S. government agencies. Having a dedicated, White House-led process like the APB sends a signal of priority and helps address past institutional failures, such as a tendency to neglect worst case scenarios, and improve coordination.
KZ: How did the idea for the APB originate? What role did you play?
LW: In 2007 and 2008, I was one of the lead experts for the Genocide Prevention Task Force, which was co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen. We crafted a set of recommendations that we believed would improve the U.S. government’s performance at preventing mass atrocities and genocide. I am heartened that many of these proposals, including the APB, have now been adopted. As tough as it was to achieve these structural reforms, using them to create more effective action in real world situations may be an even greater challenge.
I also previously consulted to the United Nations on genocide early warning and helped train government officials from other countries in genocide prevention. Those experiences help me remember that the U.S. government has an important role to play, but it must work with others to prevent genocide.
KZ: How would you describe your vision for perfect U.S. policy on genocide prevention?
LW: I think the top-line policy is very strong now. The president has stated very clearly, in policy documents and with his own voice, that preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and core moral responsibility of our country. In practice, effective genocide prevention will often escape notice and may not necessarily be undertaken expressly to prevent genocide or atrocities. Supporting legitimate and effective governing institutions, promoting human rights and helping prevent violent conflict will all have the effect of reducing the risk of genocide. The more effective we are at this deeper kind of prevention, the less often we will be forced to choose among costly, risky options when atrocities appear imminent.
KZ: What factors do you think have prevented that vision from being fully realized?
LW: First, it is important to recognize that large-scale killing of civilians has been less common over the last 15 to 20 years than it was during the Cold War. We can’t be confident about the causes of this decline, but it is cause for optimism. Second, we should be humble. Simply put, preventing mass atrocities is difficult. Even with a deep commitment to the goal, we won’t always see risks of atrocities before violence begins, we won’t always know which actions by outsiders will help, and we can’t be sure that outsiders will always be able to make things better. The problem doesn’t lend itself to simple solutions.
KZ: What would you say to people who don’t work in the U.S. government but who care about this issue?
LW: Citizen engagement can have a big impact, even on issues that seem highly complex and bureaucratic. I think simply communicating to elected representatives that these issues are important to you can make a difference. Staying connected to organizations like FCNL, which follow the specific legislative issues that relate to their priority subjects, is also valuable.
KZ: What do you think the U.S. government should do about Syria or other violent conflicts already underway?
LW: The difficulty of dealing with situations like Syria today should push us to invest more robustly in prevention. In general, I think responses to ongoing violent conflicts should support a negotiated resolution of the conflict; protect civilians, which includes providing life-saving humanitarian assistance; and help lay the foundation for post-conflict peacebuilding, accountability and transitional justice. Most instances of mass atrocities occur in the context of armed conflict, so special attention needs to be paid to vulnerable civilian populations and any indications that certain civilian groups might be targeted for attack.