Why Is Obama Suppressing the Atrocities Prevention Board?

Since its creation in 2012, the board has been ineffective and useless.

President Obama’s airstrikes in Iraq may have prevented an impending genocide of the Yazidi minority by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), at least for the time being. However, it is unclear whether the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB)—a government entity created for the sole purpose of flagging risks of mass atrocities for U.S. policy makers—was even involved in identifying the warning signs in Iraq. The APB’s lack of transparency since its creation in 2012 has diminished its standing among U.S. policy makers. This also threatens the board’s continued existence into the next administration, subsequently risking the ability of the United States to act preventively.

U.S. policy makers were concerned about ISIS in Iraq long before airstrikes began in August. In fact, the first in the recent wave of U.S. troop deployments was announced more than two months ago, signifying heightened concern. However, whether or not the APB rang the warning bell in the months before that announcement and the subsequent weeks leading up to airstrikes, remains unclear.

Though it was reported that the APB had explored the topic of the risk of ethnic violence in Iraq, media could not confirm whether the APB had focused specifically on the plight of the Yazidi population prior to Obama’s use of the word “genocide” on August 7. All that is known is that the APB convened on Thursday, August 7 to discuss Iraq, just days before U.S. airstrikes were authorized “in the spirit of the APB,” as an anonymous administration official put it. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who has repeatedly probed President Obama on the functions of the APB, addressed a letter to Obama on August 7, 2014 questioning the board’s role: “It is now clear to the nation and the world that your words were hollow; your ‘presidential directive’ [establishing the APB] apparently was nothing more than a token gesture.” In the two years since its creation, the APB’s role in other situations of mass atrocity—such as Syria and the Central African Republic—has been just as enigmatic, as its actions have been shrouded in secrecy.

When the APB was created in 2012, the White House stated its intent to issue an executive order to govern the operation and scope of the board. Two years later, the White House has not followed through. During this time, there has also been significant backlash from the media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) against the APB for keeping its work concealed and focusing on low-profile cases, rather than those most central to U.S. foreign policy, such as Syria.

The APB’s lack of transparency and covert nature give the public and policy makers the perception that the APB is not effective or may even be inattentive to situations most central to U.S. interests. Unfortunately, failures of the APB will always be more evident than its successes, as the prevention of mass atrocities is hard to prove.

If the Obama administration, and the APB and its proponents, wishes to ensure that the board continues under the next administration, the White House should issue its promised executive order to govern the operation and purview of the board. Most importantly, this should include added provisions to increase transparency and awareness of activities, such as requirements for congressional briefings, NGO working groups and briefings to the media, even if limited in content.

The APB has been marginally successful with regards to lower-scale situations. It has garnered attention among various government departments. Most notably, at the urging of the APB, the Treasury Department, which has generally seen itself as quite removed from conflict-prevention priorities, increased sanctions on human-rights abusers—an instrumental preventive tool. Additionally, the Department of Justice has instructed prosecutors to work on human-rights cases and a fraud team to seize assets of abusers. However, its communication with Congress, whose support is necessary to its continuation, NGOs and media has been limited. This has resulted in these successful accounts being underreported, subsequently diminishing public support for and awareness of U.S. mass-atrocity-prevention priorities.