Can the Atrocities Prevention Board Define 'Atrocity'?

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By James Gibney

On the way to work this morning, I asked my daughter if she knew what an atrocity was. "Something atrocious?" she replied. So I did what she -- and doubtless many Americans -- might do and looked it up on Wikipedia, which described it as a German metal band, "Atrocities" as the fourth album by Christian Death, and "Atrocious" as a 2010 Spanish film.

I don't think any of these were what President Barack Obama had in mind when he announced the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board yesterday at the Holocaust Museum. But how to define an atrocity is just one of the many problems with this new initiative, which seeks to "bring together senior officials from across the government" to "better prevent and respond to mass atrocities."

We know what genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity are. They're spelled out in international conventions. Not atrocity, which presumably would be defined the same way that Potter Stewart defined hard-core pornography -- as in, we know it when we see it. If responding to "atrocities" is going to be a "core national security interest and a core moral responsibility" of the U.S., that word carries a heavy burden.

Is an atrocity the fact that more than 90 percent of Egyptian married women have undergone female genital mutilation? Is it an Israeli missile that goes astray and kills a Palestinian family? Is it an abject Japanese government failure to regulate its nuclear plants, resulting in the deaths of thousands? Just where does one draw the line?

Moreover, the assumption behind this initiative is that our insufficient attention to "atrocities" is the result of bureaucratic failure. But the U.S. hasn't been more aggressively engaged in Myanmar, Syria, China, Sudan, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe -- to use some of the countries judged most at risk of genocide and politicide in 2011 -- because of a lack of interagency focus. (In fact, that list was compiled by a researcher involved in a State Department effort a decade ago to establish an early warning center on genocide.) Instead, they reflect conscious (and sometimes craven) policy choices, the weighing of competing risks and rewards.

True, "atrocities" has a lot more oomph than the old-fashioned "human-rights abuses." But the timing's a bit odd. By many measures, the world has become less violent in the last few decades -- wars that kill at least 1,000 people a year have declined by 78 percent since 1988. And many abuses are catalogued by manifold NGOs and broadcast on social media. All that leads me to a simpler, less high-minded hypothesis: Could the creation of this new entity partly be an old-fashioned bureaucratic power play? Call it not the banality of evil, but the banality of good.

(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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-0- Apr/24/2012 22:48 GMT