The mass atrocities and genocides committed in twentieth-century Europe spurred a worldwide consensus that there is a responsibility among states to both prevent and punish such heinous acts.
The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened its first hearing of the 117th Congress on May 13, 2021 to examine the interests of the United States in taking an active role in preventing mass killings, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; review warning signs that indicate risks for atrocities; and discuss the challenges of building and sustaining alliances among states in support of atrocities prevention.
Presiding over the hearing, Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) emphasized the international consensus behind the legal obligation to prevent and punish mass atrocity crimes—large-scale and deliberate acts on civilians that constitute acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes—and the responsibility of the United States to recognize and act on early warning signs.
Witnesses included Timothy Snyder, the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, and Naomi Kikoler, the director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Snyder offered four recommendations to shape prevention-based policies against mass atrocities. First, foreign correspondents should be present abroad to provide reliable information, as widespread disinformation campaigns often take place before mass atrocities. Second, policymakers should aim to stem panic and assure that citizens can attain necessary resources—at the beginning of a mass atrocity, there is often a sense of scarcity and urgency. Third, prevention policies should focus on strengthening governments and civil society, as mass atrocities often occur in weak states. Fourth, the United States must embody human rights; in recent history, the weaponization of history has increased the risk of mass atrocities.
Once states resort to military force to stop mass atrocities, Snyder noted, it is already too late. Therefore, prevention is key.
Kikoler testified that mass atrocities are preventable, and effective action based on early warning signs can track, disrupt, and prevent such crimes. Kikoler pointed to troubling signs in the OSCE region, including hate speech targeting ethnic and religious minorities, existing armed conflict, and the rise of authoritarian governance. She also differentiated between upstream risks and imminent warning signs.
Kikoler also explained that atrocity prevention is in the best interest of the United States, as mass atrocities can have a devastating destabilizing effect on entire regions. She noted that although the U.S. leads the world in developing tools for atrocity prevention, these tools can still be improved.
Discussing the importance of holding those responsible for atrocities accountable, Snyder explained that accountability should extend beyond prosecution to include reputational and financial costs. Kikoler stressed the need to identify gaps in the atrocity prevention architecture, including those in domestic legislation criminalizing the commission of crimes against humanity.
Chairman Cardin asked the witnesses for suggestions on improving implementation of the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act and for suggestions for legislative change.
Kikoler recommended that when the next report is released, Congress should convene a hearing and ask the Department of State to review prevention strategies established to address the risks articulated for given states in the report. In addition, she proposed an annual briefing by the intelligence community to Congress on countries that may be at risk of genocide, and expanded atrocity prevention training for Foreign Service Offices in countries deemed at-risk.
With support from Kikoler, Snyder suggested an award from American journalists who report on genocide and genocide prevention, or a fellowship providing funding to young Americans interested in reporting on countries at risk. Both witnesses drew attention to the courageous examples of Gareth Jones and Jan Karski, who reported on the Soviet-made famine in Ukraine and the Holocaust, respectively.
To conclude the hearing, Chairman Cardin discussed the importance of learning from accurate history, understanding the role of non-governmental organizations in providing information on local communities, and correctly identifying the victim. He also reiterated the responsibility of policymakers to make atrocity prevention a priority in U.S. foreign policy.