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Obama’s Attempt to Prevent Mass Atrocities is Positive First Step

on August 16, 2011

Recently the Obama Administration unveiled landmark legislation which has the potential to strengthen how the US deals with the prevention of mass atrocities and serious human rights violations. The interagency Atrocities Prevention Board (PSD-10) aims to close existing gaps in US law and provide new economic, diplomatic, and political deterrents to ensure that the US responds swiftly and unequivocally to all manner of human rights violators. 

I personally have investigated mass atrocities and human rights violations in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Liberia, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Algeria, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan. For the last two years, much of my work with PHR has been helping to develop local forensic capabilities so the people of Afghanistan can address past abuses and begin the process of transitional justice, turning from violence to peace. PHR has also been investigating human rights violations for 25 years and has been in Afghanistan since 1998, when we first focused on the abuses of women under the rule of the Taliban.

There are countless mass graves bearing testimony to Afghanistan’s history of abuses, yet meaningful attempts to deal with the injustices of the past have been virtually non-existent. This is not only due to the ongoing hostilities, the precarious security situation and the weakened status of many governmental institutions, but also because many of the perpetrators of past and present atrocities remain in positions of power within the government. Fault does not lie solely with Afghanistan, but also with the international community, which after the country’s invasion failed to install a process based on the concept of “No peace without justice.”

With PSD-10 and the establishment of the Atrocities Prevention Board, President Obama issued a proclamation that “explicitly bars entry into the United States of persons who organize or participate in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and serious violations of human rights.” While the United States already prevents some human rights violators from entering the country, will put greater pressure on those that have committed such crimes. PSD-1o could also impact some of the alleged Afghan war criminals and human rights abusers.

Fortunately, President Obama’s new directive also could empower groups in Afghanistan to be proactive in measures that will help prevent mass atrocities, such as engaging in transitional justice and truth seeking. PSD-10 addresses the need to adequately train and prepare those spearheading the fight against mass atrocities and human rights violations. PHR has been doing just that in Afghanistan.  Recently, a PHR trained team of police officers, medical doctors, archaeologists, human rights officers and civil society representatives founded the Afghanistan Forensic Science Organization (FSO). The members of this team are trained on how to scientifically document mass graves and evidence of past atrocities as a first step towards addressing the violence of the past.

Truth based on fact is a cornerstone of justice. Afghanistan is but one example of a country where there can be no peace without justice.