#EasyAsAPB? The Chances of Survival of the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act

Francesca Freeman, University of Chicago, USA

Francesca Freeman is the Program Assistant of the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Program of the Social Science Research Council. She graduated with an Honors BA in Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies, as well as a second major in Anthropology and a minor in Human Rights, from the University of Chicago. While at the University of Chicago, she served on the STAND Managing Committee as the head of outreach in the Midwest for the 2014-2015 academic year and as the Student Director during the 2015-2016 academic year.

On April 24, 1915, the Turkish government began to expel and massacre Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. 1.5 million people were murdered. On April 6, 1994, Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and Hutu militias began moving around Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, killing moderate politicians and journalists deemed a threat to Hutu power. Within a few hours of Habyarimana’s death, the genocide against the Tutsi people in Rwanda had begun and 1 million people were killed in the following 100 days. In July 1995, Serb forces attacked the besieged town of Srebrenica and, over the next ten days, killed 8,000 Muslim Bosniak men. In light of these horrific events, as well as the other countless genocides throughout the 20th century and early 21st century, theorists and policymakers alike have acknowledged the necessity for the US government to develop a strategic and comprehensive approach to genocide and atrocities prevention. Thus, in 2016, several U.S. senators, led by Senators Ben Cardin and Thom Tillis, introduced the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act. While the bill did not ultimately pass through Congress, the policies in the bill had significant potential for implementation under John Kingdon’s criteria for survival.


The Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act was introduced in the Senate on 11 February 2016 as a bipartisan effort to ensure that the United States makes genocide and atrocity prevention a top commitment in both foreign affairs and national security. The bill addressed three key aims: (1) institutionalizing the Atrocities Prevention Board, (2) authorizing the Complex Crises Fund, and (3) mandating training in atrocities prevention and response for Foreign Service Officers.

The Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) is an inter-agency entity tasked with monitoring and preventing genocide and mass atrocities through information-sharing and coordination among U.S. government officials. Each month, high-ranking officials from the Departments of State, Defense, and Treasury, the CIA, FBI, USAID, and National Security Council convene to discuss emerging crises and threats of genocide in countries across the world, and working-level groups meet more frequently to follow specific countries (Norris and Malknecht, 2013, p. 7). The APB itself has the authority to conduct early warning analyses in potential crisis zones and to recommend coordinated, agency-specific government plans of action. In the past five years, the APB has worked extensively and successfully to prevent further atrocities in the Central African Republic (CAR) and in Burundi (Genser and Sewall, 2015). In the Central African Republic, the APB is credited with the impressive speed at which the U.S. was able to respond to and mitigate further violence, and the board ensured that prevention efforts remained a top priority on an international scale. Furthermore, based on the APB’s suggestions regarding Burundi, the U.S. deployed civilian conflict experts, supported various Burundian actors working for peace, and facilitated local and national dialogue to discourage the escalation of tensions and violence.

Despite these successes, the Atrocities Prevention Board has also faced criticism since its founding in 2012 due to issues of commitment and transparency. One prominent issue is the varying commitment of different agencies to the operations of the board. For exapmle, the State Department and USAID have dedicated increasingly large numbers of staff to conflict and mass-atrocity prevention, but the Department of Defense has made relatively little effort in supporting the board (Norris and Malknecht, 2013, p. 14). Additionally, because of the highly confidential nature of the work the board does, and the lack of transparency of the board in general, it can be difficult to understand the impact it has had. While the board may hope that silence and obscurity will allow them to do their work without interference, it increasingly seems that the opposite may be true. Due to the lack of transparency, the Board has received criticism from members of Congress, who, in 2013, had only received one short briefing from then-US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power. Others complain that the board is too focused on bureaucratic measures, with their focus on “monitoring,” “data collection,” and “analysis,” but does not take sufficient action to prevent these atrocities (Colucci, 2013).

The Board is also widely criticized for its failures concerning the Syria crisis. While many argue that the Atrocities Prevention Board has pushed the Syria crisis to the top of the foreign policy agenda and encouraged the Obama administration to have rigorous debates over potential US responses, the fact remains that thousands and thousands have died, and that the US specifically and the world in general has largely stood idly by. Another fundamental rebuttal of this failure is that the Atrocities Prevention Board is responsible for preventing crises before they happen, and the Syria crisis was well underway before the Board was created or convened. In the five-year existence of the Atrocities Prevention Board, it has seen significant successes as well as prominent challenges. Regardless, the board is one of the United States’ greatest tools in preventing genocide and mass atrocities, and should be encouraged and fostered to be a more ethical, more impactful institution.

The Criteria for Survival

In Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy (1995), John W. Kingdon discusses how policies are chosen and enacted. Coined “The Criteria for Survival,” he argues that if policies fulfil the following three criteria, they will likely survive to implementation. Kingdon’s criteria for survival are:

  1. Technical Feasibility
  2. Value Acceptability to Policy Community
  3. Anticipation of Future Constraints

In the following sections, I will apply the Criteria for Survival to the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act to prove the potential for the policy to pass through Congress.

Technical Feasibility

Technical Feasibility calls into question whether or not a policy is crafted and ready for successful implementation. Kingdon states, “It is a bit difficult to specify precisely what policy makers mean by technical feasibility, but they all sense, as they react to a proposal, whether it is ‘worked out,’ ‘staffed out,’ ‘worked through,’ or ‘ready to go’” (1995, 131). While many of these technicalities are worked out before the introduction of a bill, there are always loopholes and problems that pose roadblocks for the approval of a policy. Technical feasibility calls into question the possibilities of implementation and both the anticipated and unanticipated results of the policy.

The Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act was technically feasible for several reasons. First and foremost, the institution that the bill would make permanent, the Atrocities Prevention Board, already existed under the Obama Administration. The mechanisms for its functioning were already in place and would simply be continued with the new bill, regardless of who took the Presidential Office following Obama. Funding for the Complex Crises Fund was also fairly feasible for similar reasons. The fund already existed and thus was simply seeking more money. While budget issues regularly raise tensions within Congress, the amount mandated in the bill was low enough that it would not affect the budget in any significant way. Additionally, the bill had several members of the Appropriations Committee as original cosponsors, including Senators Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Jeanne Shaheen of  New Hampshire, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Christopher Coons of Delaware, and gained several additional co-sponsors from the Appropriations Committee following the announcement of the bill, including Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. Totalled, the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act had bipartisan support from one third of the Appropriations Committee. In considering the last mandate of the bill, State Department personnel already go through intensive training before being sent to their posts, and the atrocities prevention training would simply be added to these training regimens. Thus, all elements of the legislation would have been easily feasible upon implementation and therefore fulfil this criteria for survival.

Value Acceptability to Policy Community 

The next criteria for survival put forth by Kingdon is the value acceptability to the policy community. Policies that survive must be compatible with the values of the specialists on a given topic (Kingdon, 1995, p. 132). Policies are often supported when they are part of mainstream thinking, despite party lines, and address concepts of both equity and efficiency. One major question around value acceptability in the United States is not necessarily directly related to the policy but related to questions of the size and role of the federal government, and questions of sovereignty interacting with international actors. For example, the U.S. Congress has voted to not ratify certain UN treaties, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, because enough congress people did not want to give up the U.S.’ sovereign power to the UN (The Economist Explains, 2013). In many such cases, the U.S. already has laws corroborating the policy, but because it is affiliated with the UN, it loses its ability to survive. Other proposals gain prominence and acceptability because they address some sort of inequity in the community, and fairness and redress is often a powerful argument that moves policies forward. Finally, policy makers look more and more at the efficiency of the policies, both in terms of how much a policy would cost but also how much would be realized from that expenditure, whether these benefits outweigh the cost, and what could be achieved at a lower cost.

Genocide is widely considered one of the world’s most heinous crimes. People from different demographics and across the political spectrum, both in the United States and across the world, have united to condemn past genocides and have made attempts to confront current genocides and prevent future genocides. Thus, genocide prevention efforts are often held at the highest value and have been supported by researchers, policy makers, and lobby groups, regardless of political or partisan influences. Concerning the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act specifically, many of the most prominent actors in the genocide prevention field supported the values and policies put forward in the legislation. A wide range of NGO’s with varying backgrounds took leadership on the issue, particularly the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby group, Jewish World Watch, a Jewish conflict and genocide prevention organization, and STAND: the Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities. Furthermore, the bill had significant bipartisan support from its inception, with several Republican Senators as co-sponsors.

The bill also fulfils the criteria of value acceptability because it addresses a fundamental issue of inequity in the world. Genocide is a severe form of identity based violence and the bill would allow the United States to have a strategic system for identifying where inequities have led to violence and the flexibility to respond to prevent future violence in these regions. Finally, questions of efficiency bolster and promote prevention strategies across the world. According to a report from the United States Institute of Peace, the dangers and costs of waiting to respond once conflicts begin will provide continuing support of genocide and conflict prevention (Woocher, 2009). Thus, the main actors in the policy community were all in support of the bill, and most Americans, regardless of party affiliation agree that genocide prevention should be a top priority. In this light, the policies put forth in the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention act fulfil Kingdon’s second criteria for survival – value acceptability to the policy community.

Anticipation of Future Constraints

Potential for constraints both influence the creation of a policy and how the policy progresses to implementation. According to Kingdon (1995, p. 138):

“Decision makers need to be convinced that the [cost] of the program is acceptable, that there is a reasonable chance that politicians will approve, and that the public in its various facts – both mass and activist – will acquiesce. Anticipation of these constraints within a policy community forms a final set of criteria by which ideas and proposals are selected. Some ideas fail to obtain a serious hearing… because their future looks bleak, while others survive because specialists calculate that they would meet these future tests.”

One test discussed by Kingdon is a budget constraint, meaning that the proposal needs to be financially acceptable to the elected officials. Another test is public acquiescence. Policymakers must at some point receive support either from a general agreement of citizens across a country or from a narrower set of activists who have a special stake in the outcome. Without this anticipated support, a policy likely will not be supported to implementation.

As discussed above, the monetary cost of the bill was minimal, and would not have been significantly higher than what the U.S. was spending on similar efforts when the bill was introduced. The bill also had explicit and extensive support from those with the largest stakes, activist communities and diaspora communities, and likely would not have faced significant pushback from the broader public. Organizations such as the Friends Committee on National Legislation, STAND: the Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities, the Peace Alliance, Darfur Women Action Group, and Jewish World Watch all actively advocated for the passing of this bill. Through lobby days, opinion piece publications, social media campaigns, a widely used hashtag (#EasyAsAPB), and call-in days, staffers heard a significant outcry in support of the legislation. The only major cost as perceived by some congressmen was the fact that the Atrocities Prevention Board does not have significant Congressional oversight, a point which will be explored later in this essay. Therefore, while there were some challenges to this criterion, the bill did not have significant concern regarding future constraints.

Successes of the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act

The Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act was introduced on 11 February 2016. Upon introduction, the bill had fourteen original co-sponsors, 1 Republican and 13 Democrats. In the following months, the bill gained an additional thirteen co-sponsors, meaning that the bill had support from over a fourth of the Senate before it was even introduced in committee or brought to the floor. In total, the bill had 23 Democratic and 4 Republican co-sponsors. While there were significantly less Republican cosponsors than Democratic, genocide prevention is a fundamentally bipartisan foreign policy priority, dating back to President Ronald Reagan’s signing of the law that ratified the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Hirschel-Burns, 2016). While the bill did not pass, the support of over a fourth of the Senate shows significant potential and momentum.

Additionally, on 18 May 2016, President Obama issued Executive Order 13729, “A Comprehensive Approach to Atrocity Prevention and Response.” This Executive Order was an important step in institutionalizing the Atrocities Prevention Board, but the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act was needed to ensure that the APB would exist regardless of who held the Presidential office. This Executive Order was, along with the Bill, essential to the continuation of the APB, and showed that the Obama Administration would sign the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act into law if it passed through the House and the Senate. While the act did not ultimately pass through the Senate, it still had undeniable successes both before and after introduction, suggesting potential for both the policies presented in the bill and potential future legislations, which will be introduced in the 115 Congress.

What went wrong? 

The Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Acts seems to fulfil all elements of Kingdon’s criteria for survival, but the bill did not pass through Congress, was not voted on in the Senate, and did not even make it out of the committee. While the reasons for this are not entirely clear, it seems that the bill got caught up in partisan politics that halted any potential momentum and progress that had already been made. One major issue was that the bill was introduced in a Presidential election year. Very few movements were made in Congress at this time, and given a shortened timeline with the end of that Congress looming, other bills seemed to take a higher priority.

The biggest obstacle the bill faced, however, was that it was held up by a single Republican Senator who refused to schedule a mark-up of the bill in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. According to activists who met with the Senator’s office, two major concerns of the Senator included (1) the creation of a permanent bureaucracy with the ‘codification’ of the Atrocities Prevention Board and (2) the lack of significant Congressional oversight as the Atrocities Prevention Board would be embedded within the National Security Council, which is part of the executive branch. These concerns were surprising for several reasons. The first is that the Senator had included a provision in the Fiscal Year 2017 State Department Authorization Act that authorized the APB through June 2017, although it would be disbanded at that time (S.1635). While this was an impermanent solution for which the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act offered a permanent one, it seems that the Senator fundamentally supported the Atrocities Prevention Board, and thus should have supported the bill. Addressing the second issue, one goal of the bill was to increase transparency and congressional oversight of the APB. The bill articulated general parameters for the work of the Atrocities Prevention Board and required regular reports to Congress, meaning that the opposite of the Senator’s presumption was, in fact, true. At the most fundamentally partisan level, the Senator may also have been concerned that there were so many Democrats and so few Republicans, and thus wanted to separate himself from efforts made by those across the aisle.

In the United States Congress, only four percent of bills actually become law (Sunlight Foundation, 2009). It’s thus not surprising that any particular bill gets stuck somewhere along the process to becoming a law. Many of the bills that die in committee do not fulfil the criteria for survival put forward by Kingdon, many get stuck in partisan politics that disallow any forward movement, and even more simply are not considered because there are more important things to discuss at any given time. The failure of the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act may have been caused by any one of these reasons. Regardless, it is clear that the policy is sound and that any future legislation has potential for implementation.


Genocide prevention is a fundamental value held by people across the world. In the 115th US Congress, there is significant support for response to genocide and mass atrocities on both sides of the aisle and while strategies for genocide prevention are not always agreed on, there is general consensus that the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities must be a foreign policy priority. Sadly, the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act followed in the footsteps of so many other bills –never even making it out of committee and to a vote. Fortunately, the dream of “Never Again” is not yet lost. The Atrocities Prevention Board continues to operate in the State Department, at least through June 2017, and a new bill, entitled the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act is likely to be introduced in the Senate in mid-2017. As the policies supported in the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act theoretically should survive to become policy, under Kingdon’s criteria for survival, the bill should see success moving forward. Additionally, the new bill already has significant bipartisan support through original co-sponsorships, including several Republicans from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Looking forward, the activist community must strategically refocus its efforts to ensure the new bill is passed. To do so, the new bill must address the concerns held by Republican Senators, and the activist community should continue to appeal to Republican Senators particularly. Additionally, it would be beneficial to work with Senators who have expressed concern about conflicts such as those happening in Syria and Yemen to understand the value of genocide prevention as a means of avoiding similar conflicts in other countries in the future.

When President Obama announced the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board in 2012 at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he said:

“Never Again is a challenge to nations. It’s a bitter truth– too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale. And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save… Now we’re doing something more. We’re making sure that the United States government has the structures, the mechanisms to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities” (Obama, 2012).

The promise of “Never Again” has not yet been realized, but the policy is one that politicians have committed to time and time again, leaving glimmers of hope for a world without genocide.


Colucci, L. 2013. The Obama Doctine: Inaction. U.S. News and World Report. [Online]. 2 May. Available from: https://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/world-report/2013/05/02/syria-reveals-the-uselessness-of-obamas-atrocities-prevention-board

US House. Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs. 2016. Department of State Authorities Act, Fiscal Year 2017. S.1635. Available from: https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/1635

The Economist Explains. 2013. Why Won’t America Ratify the UN Convention on Children’s Rights.  The Economist. [Online]. 7 October. Available from: http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/10/economist-explains-2

Genser, J. and Sewall, S. 2015. Chartering the U.S. Atrocities Prevention Board’s Progress: A Conversation with Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewall. Council on Foreign Relations. [Online]. 30 March. Available from: http://www.cfr.org/human-rights/charting-us-atrocities-prevention-boards-progress/p36332

Hirschel-Burns, T. 2016. The Five Things You Need to Know About Obama’s Executive Order on Atrocity Prevention. STAND. [Online]. 31 May. Available from: http://standnow.org/2016/05/31/the-five-things-you-need-to-know-about-obamas-executive-order-on-atrocity-prevention/

Kingdon, J. 1995. Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy. London: Longman.

Norris, J. and Malknecht, A. 2013.  Atrocities Prevention Board: Background, Performance, and Options. American Progress. [Online]. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress. Available from: https://www.scribd.com/document/147666062/Atrocities-Prevention-Board

Obama, B. 2012. Remarks by the President at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 23 April. The White House: President Barack Obama Archives. Available from: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2012/04/23/remarks-president-united-states-holocaust-memorial-museum

Sunlight Foundation. 2009. Only Four Percent of Bills Become Laws. Huffington Post. [Online]. 25 August. Available from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wires/2009/08/25/the-vast-majority-of-bill_ws_268630.html

Woocher, L. 2009. Preventing Violent Conflict.  Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace. [Online]. Available from: https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/preventing_violent_conflict.pdf

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