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Taking on the Enablers of Mass Atrocities

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By Julia Fromholz & Ann-Louise Colgan*

This week's arrival of a new National Security Council Director for War Crimes, Atrocities and Genocide Prevention marks an important step in enhancing the administration's capacity to address these terrible crimes. However, a single new position can achieve limited effect without a new policy approach--one that includes a focus on those who enable, and not only those who perpetrate, mass atrocities.

Atrocities always take place amidst complex tensions, whether political, environmental, or historical. But they also tend to share some basic dynamics. These horrors visited upon civilians are organized crimes. And while U.S. and international policymakers rightly focus attention on the perpetrators of these crimes, inadequate efforts are aimed at the enablers who make these violent acts possible--those countries and commercial actors who provide the goods, services, and resources critical to the commission of crimes against humanity.

In Darfur, for example, transfers of arms and ammunition by China, Russia, Chad, and other states to the Sudanese government or rebel forces have helped sustain violence for the past six years. Yet the United Nations (U.N.) has made no serious effort to enforce its arms embargo on the region or to use other means to halt the supply of weapons.

A less known example of enabling appeared in last November's report by the U.N. expert panel charged with monitoring the embargo, which noted the dependence of the belligerents in Darfur on "technicals." These trucks mounted with weapons allow armed groups to commit attacks across vast desert regions in western Sudan. The panel presented evidence that more trucks came from the official Toyota dealership and second-hand dealers in the United Arab Emirates than from any other source. Yet despite the international community's rhetorical commitment to stopping the violence in Darfur, no attempt has been made to interrupt that supply.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the illicit mineral trade generates revenues for rebel groups, materially sustaining their capacity to commit atrocities against civilians. The commercial actors--some licit and some not--involved in the extraction, transportation, and trade of these natural resources form a broad and loose network. Attempts to halt the atrocities in eastern Congo would benefit from more concerted efforts to disrupt the enabling network and stanch the flow of money and arms to the perpetrators.

To overcome the challenges that have vexed past administrations, the Obama administration would do well to take on the enablers as an integral part of its approach in all atrocity cases. Identifying enablers and curbing their activities can choke off the perpetrators' access to the necessary means. This can change their crude cost-benefit analysis and alter the dynamics in these situations where many civilian lives are at stake.

The first step of taking on enablers is finding more information on them. In order to effectively prevent or halt atrocities, the U.S. needs a clear picture of all the players who sustain the crimes. If enablers are included in intelligence gathering and analysis on the identity of key actors and the levers that can be employed to influence them, policymakers will have both a more complete view of how the atrocities are happening and a wider range of options for response.

In some cases, those options might start with simply shining a light on the role of enablers, as that alone may be sufficient to change the behavior of some. If countries or companies are involved unwittingly or are particularly susceptible to concerns about negative publicity, being associated with an atrocity situation may prompt them to adopt new due diligence commitments to avoid complicity.

In other cases, providing assistance to build the law enforcement capacity of weak states can strengthen their efforts to address illicit trafficking practices that enable the commission of atrocities.

For more resistant enablers, a further range of options could slow or interdict their activities. Diplomatic pressures can start with expressions of concern but progress to reductions of diplomatic ties or of various forms of assistance. Economic sanctions can be broad or targeted; enforcing embargoes focused on specific commodities, such as arms, may be especially effective in tackling commercial enablers. Travel bans and asset freezes focused on key individuals can quickly gain their attention and cause them to rethink their actions.

Establishing a focus on enablers as a core element of U.S. efforts to prevent and halt atrocities can help end these complex crimes. It can shift the calculus of perpetrators and change the circumstances that permit their crimes. It can provide policymakers with a broader set of levers to influence urgent situations. And by targeting those same actors and networks that are often also engaged in other forms of illicit activities and transnational crimes, it can also address a broader set of national security concerns.

As this administration takes new steps to get ahead of future atrocities, it should widen its view: those who enable the world's worst crimes should be put on notice that they, too, are on the hook.

* Julia Fromholz is Director of the Crimes Against Humanity Program at Human Rights First, and Ann-Louise Colgan is Senior Associate in that program.