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Never Again, Really

Right there, on the third page of a new report issued by the bi-partisan Genocide Prevention Task Force and co-authored by former secretary of state Madeline Albright and former defense secretary William S. Cohen, is this stunning acknowledgement: The United States government “does not have an established, coherent policy for preventing and responding to genocide and mass atrocities.”

You might think, after 800,000 were murdered in Rwanda in 1994 and then 8,000 Bosnians were slaughtered the following year in Srebrenica; after a century punctuated by Nazi gas chambers and Cambodian killing fields; after as many as 400,000 Darfuris lost their lives and millions were displaced right under our watchful eyes; you might think after all that, the government would establish a coherent prevention strategy. Nope. All rhetoric from administrations Republican and Democratic to the contrary, responsibility for preventing atrocities, the task force reports, lies with everyone and therefore no one.

While some of the task force’s recommendations require more funds — not an easy sell these days — the most direct one does not. An interagency Atrocities Prevention Committee, co-chaired by high-ranking officials from the National Security Council and the State Department, would meet regularly and share intelligence about brewing violence. The committee would have enough juice in the White House to encourage the administration to engage foreign leaders and institutions, and help vulnerable countries steer clear of danger.

This will only be effective if President-elect Barack Obama exerts the kind of leadership he has promised, not only to make preventing genocide a priority in Washington but also to restore the moral authority of the United States so that the message is heard worldwide. Given the strong stands on this issue taken by other members of his foreign policy team, from Joe Biden to Hillary Rodham Clinton to Susan Rice, there is reason for optimism.

Genocide doesn’t just happen. As the report says, it “requires planning and is carried out systematically.” Surely governments that value freedom and tolerance should be better able to plan and respond than those who murder innocents just because of who they are.

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