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In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
Preventing Atrocity in the Age of Trump
Preventing Atrocity in the Age of Trump
The local vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup
Commentary / Africa

In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon

Two years ago, the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram. Despite some progress, the group’s violent impact is still seen and felt deeply in the remote north of the country. 

In March 2016, Crisis Group Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup travelled for four weeks into an insecure area only few researchers are given access to: Cameroon’s Far North Region. He was escorted three days by the military between the front-line towns of Ldamang, Mabass, Kolofata, Amchidé and Gansé, before he went on to travel alone across the region: to Maroua, the Minawao refugee camp, Mokolo, Mora, Kousseri and Goulfey. During the four weeks he spoke to a wide range of people, including traditional chiefs, local inhabitants and administration staff, refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), vigilante groups, local NGOs, humanitarian actors, academics, the military, former Boko Haram members, former traffickers, and others, some in presence of the military but the vast majority on his own. He completed his research in April and May 2016 with additional interviews in Kerawa, Bargaram, Fotokol, Makary, Hile Alifa and Blangoua. An in-depth Crisis Group report on the crisis in the area will be published soon.

This is the story of his journey.

Cameroon's Far North district. CRISIS GROUP

At 8 o’clock in the morning, I hear seven vehicles stopping in front of my hotel: two armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and five four-wheel-drive vehicles. Sitting inside are over forty Cameroonian soldiers, who are here to take seven journalists and me into Cameroon’s Far North district – a region that has severely suffered under Boko Haram, and still does.

I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram.

I am joining this convoy because I want to find out how Boko Haram operates in this area, and how strong it is, two years after the government started to clamp down on the insurgency. I want to see how the people living here are affected, understand if Boko Haram still recruits fighters in the Far North, and hear how large its network of sympathisers remains. And I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram. I am especially curious to learn about the so-called “vigilantes”, local self-defence groups that have gained a certain fame in this Cameroonian war on terror. What can these groups really achieve?

The starting point of our trip is Maroua, a buzzing city of 400,000 inhabitants and capital of the Far North region. The region has never gained the sad notoriety of Nigeria’s Borno state, but it gradually became an important refuge for Boko Haram fighters in the 2000s. And it has suffered immensely under the insurgency over the past years, particularly since 2014 when Boko Haram entered into open confrontation with the Cameroonian government.

The Alpha escort of the BIR in Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The group’s tactics then changed quickly: smaller incursions and occasional kidnappings soon grew into larger raids on towns and villages as well as strategic attacks against the Cameroonian army. In just two years, the insurgency staged more than 500 attacks and incursions, and around fifty suicide bomb attacks in Cameroon, making it the second most targeted country after Nigeria. According to Cameroonian soldiers, they fought fourteen fierce battles in Kolofata, Amchidé, Fotokol and Bargaram in 2014 and 2015 against sometimes hundreds and even up to a thousand heavily equipped Boko Haram fighters from mainly Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad.

In total, in two and a half years the insurgents have killed at least 1,300 civilians, 120 soldiers and abducted an estimated thousand people in Cameroon. They have burned down hundreds of schools and businesses and forced thousands to flee. Today, there are over 190,000 internally displaced Cameroonians in the Far North and around 65,000 refugees from neighbouring Nigeria, according to OCHA figures.

Before we leave Maroua, one of the soldiers gives me a helmet and a bullet-proof vest. This will be my outfit for the entire journey, the standard equipment for everyone travelling in this once peaceful area whose broken tracks are now sown with mines and improvised explosive devices (IED). These were laid by Boko Haram to block the government’s way into the territory. More than 50 incidents have been recorded since October 2014, with 22 of the mines killing at least 30 soldiers and wounding many more.

SABC News: "Boko Haram Has Leveled a Threat at Cameroon and its President Paul Biya"

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau threatens to step up violence in Cameroon. In a video posted online, Shekau threatens the people of Cameroon and its president, Paul Biya. SABC News

I climb into a mine-resistant armoured personnel carrier (APC). But our safety has a price: despite air conditioning it’s over 45 degrees Celsius inside. With sweaty faces, the journalists and I look at each other, suddenly understanding, at least slightly, the physical challenge that the soldiers patrolling the region experience each day.   

Twenty kilometres outside of Maroua the roads become bumpy. And then there are no roads at all. But the driver finds his way toward the north east and after four hours we arrive at Mabass, a village right at the Nigerian frontier. Mabass and the neighbouring towns of Tourou and Ldamang were repeatedly attacked by Boko Haram in 2014 but the insurgents never managed to fully occupy them.

We stop at a rocky plateau overlooking the vast sandy frontier area with Nigeria where the local commander, Captain Ticko Kingue, points at a lake in the distance. “You see the lake over there?” he asks. “That’s the Nigerian town of Madagali. This entire frontier area is plagued by the insurgency. Even last night there were attacks. We cannot go into Nigeria, not here, we’re not allowed to. So what we do is we prevent the insurgents from coming in”.

A soldier belonging to the Emergence 4 Unit deployed at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

It is crucial that the Nigerian and Cameroonian armies cooperate in the fight against Boko Haram. But for a long time, the two country’s historically difficult relations painfully slowed down their military coordination. Today, two years since the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram, there’s still a great need for better exchange of intelligence. But at least cooperation between the two armies has improved significantly within the context of the region’s Multinational Joint Task Force – partly operational since November 2015 with the aim of crushing Boko Haram.

Here in Mabass, we are very close to the Nigerian army base near Madagali. “Sometimes they come to us, especially if we can help them with equipment”, says Captain Ticko Kingue. “And they inform us how things are going on their side”.

On the other side of the frontier, most border towns are still held by Boko Haram. “It’s been a long time since they managed to occupy new territory”, Captain Kingue says. “But they keep trying. They usually come in large groups of 200 fighters or more. We call this a ‘combat de masse’. Usually they come at night in a surprise attack. Sometimes they pretend to attack a larger village or town to divert the army’s attention while they try to seize smaller villages”. Although Boko Haram use indiscriminate violence, they also sometimes target these smaller villages to seize supplies or preach to the population, as happened on 15 December 2015 in Kerawa, where Boko Haram members rounded up the population to preach to them for hours in Kanuri, Haoussa and Arabic.

At Poste de Mabass.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with local army commander Kingue at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Boko Haram’s firepower reached its peak between summer 2014 and spring 2015. In the face of Cameroonian, Chadian and Nigerian military pressure since then, Boko Haram had to change its tactics and appears to be in decline. The jihadist group lost much of the territory it occupied and has much less military equipment than it used to. The army claims it has dismantled most Boko Haram cells in Cameroon, killed about 2,000 members in fighting and arrested more than 1,000 suspects since 2014. Today, Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated. It still goes after smaller targets, and increasingly relies on suicide bombers.

Contrasting with the army’s success stories, a recent Amnesty International report documents severe failings and human rights violations in the Far North counterinsurgency campaign. According to Amnesty International, many of the army’s arrests were arbitrary, the rights of detained suspects were “routinely denied” and they did not receive fair judicial treatment. The Amnesty report has been widely criticised and rejected by the government, the military, civil society and the majority of local media. Crisis Group research raised similar concerns as Amnesty’s, but when speaking to a wide range of people it also found a high degree of local support for army actions in the face of Boko Haram’s bewildering violence.

Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated.

We continue our journey into the Mayo Tsanaga district toward the only refugee camp in the Far North. The camp near the village of Minawao is run by the UNHCR and hosts almost 57,000 people. Most of them are Nigerians from the border areas. More than 190,000 Cameroonians were also displaced, mostly fleeing to other villages and towns of the Far North.

When the camp was built in 2011, living conditions were extremely poor, but that changed, thanks to combined efforts by the UNHCR, other humanitarian agencies and the Cameroonian government. Housing is simple but resembles how people live elsewhere in the Far North. Refugees receive three meals per day, which is more than many ordinary Cameroonians get to eat. Children of all ages can go to school. Nonetheless there is still much room for improvement. The UNHCR claims that not even 10 per cent of the funds needed to care for all refugees have been provided. Because of that, sanitary conditions in the camp are still not up to adequate standards.

A child going to school at Minawao refugee camp. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Another problem is that refugees have nearly no opportunity to work. For security reasons – especially the fear of suicide bombers – refugees are not allowed to leave the camp. The UNHCR is currently trying to come up with social activities to help the fact that many refugees feel condemned to doing nothing.

The psychological burden is hardest on those who came to the camp traumatised by the atrocities they saw or experienced during the insurgency, particularly women and girls who suffered abuses. There are only a couple of psychologists in the camp providing care for the newcomers – not enough to give permanent psychological assistance to the thousands who need it.

Most refugees tell me that they want to return to their homes as soon as the security situation allows it. But nobody can estimate when that will be. Many find it hard to believe that they will be safe again in the near future. One refugee from the Nigerian town of Pulka in Borno state says, “I may have many complaints, but nonetheless we are fine here in Minawao. I won’t go back”.

Our convoy returns to Maroua before night falls. Situated 100 kilometres away from the border, Maroua is out of Boko Haram’s reach and therefore one of the safest places in the Far North. But it too has suffered violent attacks. In July 2015, Boko Haram sent four young girls as suicide bombers to four public places in Maroua. When they blew themselves up, they killed over 37 people with them and wounded 114 others.

Youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes.

My tour with the military over, I meet with one of the survivors, 13 year old Kevin, who tells me what happened on the night of 25 July: “It was night and I was with my friends. We wanted to buy candy from a shop close to the Boucan bar. There was a queue with six or seven people ahead of us. And then suddenly, a girl who was sitting right next to the vendor blew herself up. I remember hearing the detonation of the bomb before I passed out. I only woke up later at Maroua hospital. It was there that I realised that one of my legs was completely burnt. There were lots of small splinters in my belly, chest and neck from the explosion. The government paid for the surgery and I could leave the hospital about a week later, but I wasn’t the same. They had amputated the lower part of my burnt leg and I learnt that one of my friends had died during the attack. My other friend is alive, but they amputated both his legs and his face is burnt. I had never seen the girl who had blown herself up in the neighbourhood before. After we left the hospital, neither the government nor any of the humanitarian NGOs followed up with us on what had happened. A Catholic priest passes by from time to time at our house to speak with my mother and help my parents buy medicine”.

Luckily, the horrors of the attack have not taken away Kevin’s hope for the future. When I ask him if he still goes to school he says: “Yes, I have passed the first trimester. My teachers are very happy with me. When I finish school I want to become an engineer”.

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a victim of a suicide bomb explosion. Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans de Marie Heungoup

65 per cent of Cameroon’s population of 23 million is under 30 years old. Children and youths are the most vulnerable in this war. Many are traumatised by the violence they see or experience at a young age.

At the same time, youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes, like the four girls in Maroua.

Recruitment is helped by the fact that many young people are unemployed, poorly educated, belong to a part of the society that is not well integrated or don’t see a future for themselves for other reasons. Local authorities and traditional chiefs in Maroua as well as in Mokolo and Mora told me that Boko Haram has lost its appeal and capacity to recruit almost entirely. Very few youths are still joining the movement voluntarily. Nonetheless, forced recruitments still continue in the border areas. As Boko Haram indiscriminately killed Muslims and Christians, fundamentalist Muslims distanced themselves from the movement, stating that Boko Haram represents neither Wahhabi nor Salafi Islam. Many Imams and Muslim clerics told me that the war against Boko Haram has actually limited the spread of fundamentalist trends of Islam as hard-line preachers are now afraid to speak up in public. 

The Far North is the poorest of Cameroon’s regions, with 70 per cent of its people living on less than one dollar per day. During the past three decades, the influence of conservative Salafi Islam has increased in the region and many children grow up exposed to radical religious viewpoints. There is an urgent need for the state and public institutions to care for these youths and make sure they do not radicalise in the first place – and if they do radicalise, offer them help to leave the group and be fully re-integrated into society.

Maroua has a big prison, and the vast majority of suspected Boko Haram members arrested in Cameroon, almost 900 of them, are detained here. What is sorely missing is a de-radicalisation program, one that teaches a more tolerant Islam and re-integrates into society those who were recruited by force and are willing to abandon the movement. 

When speaking to the regional administration, I learn that there are also no public counter-radicalisation programs outside of the prison aimed at keeping young people and others away from extremist groups. The only efforts made in this direction come from civil society groups and the churches. Cameroon’s Association for Inter-Faith Dialogue (ACADIR) has set a positive example by organising conferences and meetings that have brought together religious leaders of different strands of Christianity and Islam. But these initiatives only scratch the surface of the problem. They don’t reach those who are the biggest threat to religious dialogue in the Far North: radical Islamist leaders.

If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

If the government is to turn a security-focused approach into a long-term political strategy against radicalisation, there is still much to do. If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

Last year, when the government launched an emergency development plan with a budget of roughly $10 million per year, hardly anyone believed that this could make a big difference. Most experts estimate that the current plan covers only about one per cent of what is needed to significantly improve the situation in the country’s least developed region. With $10 million, you cannot construct a road network in the Far North, develop public services in all areas, like health and education, help business owners get back on their feet, create employment opportunities and pay for preventive programs to keep especially the youth away from radical groups.

It might be possible for Cameroon to find other funding to do the job, but a correct assessment of the needs is necessary. Only then can the government show that it has understood the scope of the problem and can hope for help from its international partners.

Members of the BIR in the Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. PHOTO/Erwan Decherysel

I leave Maroua a second time to go up to the Mayo Sava district. This time, I am picked up by soldiers of the BIR, “Bataillon d’intervention rapide” (rapid intervention force). Of the approximately 8,000 soldiers deployed in the Far North, 2,400 belong to this well-trained and equipped elite unit. They take me to a place that has become a symbol of the war: Amchidé.

We are confronted with the sight of a ghost town. Formerly inhabited by 30,000 people, Amchidé is among the hardest hit places in Cameroon and the stage of three long battles between the army and the insurgents in late 2014 and early 2015.

Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The BIR camp of Amchidé has been baptised “Le Palais” (the Palace), not just because of its palace-like shape but also because it was one of the insurgent’s key strategic targets in Cameroon. Despite a dozen of conventional attacks, including three where Boko Haram mustered 800 insurgents, the city only fell for one day, on 15 October 2014. But the military base never succumbed. 

In Amchide.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with Captain Kiki, commander of the BIR military base of Amchide, Cameroon, in March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The entire population of Amchidé fled during the fighting and only 10 per cent have come back – to an almost dead city. There are no businesses in Amchidé anymore, since the fighting has cut all Amchidé’s supply lines.

Most of those who came back are men, and about 40 of them joined forces to form a vigilante group. These vigilante or community defence groups are nothing new. In many Cameroonian towns and villages, unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency. They are groups of normal citizens – always men – patrolling their villages to make sure everyone is safe, especially at night. 

Members of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

As the Boko Haram threat increased, the government realised how these vigilantes can help in the fight on terror. It provided equipment, such as rifles, torches and night vision gear, and worked with traditional village chiefs who handpicked the most “suitable” men of their village to be part of the vigilante group. Vigilante groups have since played an important role against Boko Haram. They identify strangers they believe could be potential suicide attackers. And sometimes they even fend off smaller Boko Haram attacks. In the past year as well as this year, the Amchidé vigilante group and similar ones in Limani, Kerawa and Tolkomari have been involved in low intensity fights with small groups of about half a dozen Boko Haram fighters. In some cases they were able to surround smaller Boko Haram cells or win a fight against attackers. In other cases, they were not successful – and suffered casualties.

A member of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Although they are praised by the government and local authorities, the vigilante groups are not exempt from criticism. Sometimes, vigilantes have denounced local inhabitants as members of Boko Haram just to settle private accounts. In other cases, vigilantes have been suspected of providing information to Boko Haram and were therefore arrested by the army. 

In the case of Amchidé, the first vigilante group formed by the BIR had only Christian members, who harassed and extorted money from the local Muslim majority. Following complaints, the BIR dissolved Amchidé’s first vigilante group and formed a new one with Christian and Muslim members. 

Unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency.

The last stop of my four weeks’ research trip is Kousseri, an old market town in between the Chari and the Logone rivers. You only have to cross a bridge to reach the metropolis of N’Djamena, capital of neighbouring Chad.

In economic terms, Kousseri is the most important city in the Far North. It has strong links with Chad to the east and Nigeria to the west, especially the Nigerian town of Maiduguri. In the past two years, it has been flooded with Cameroonian IDPs and Chadian refugees. Its population has grown from 200,000 to 280,000. Many of them come from the city of Fotokol, 100 kilometre to the west on the Nigerian border, where Boko Haram caused most casualties suffered in the country during the main phase of the war between May 2014 and March 2015.

For a period of several months in 2014 and 2015, Boko Haram staged almost daily attacks on Fotokol. One especially heavy battle took place in Fotokol in early February 2015. For two days, about 1,000 Boko Haram insurgents were fighting against Cameroonian BIR forces and Chadian soldiers, killing 81 to 400 civilians, seventeen Chadian soldiers, seven Cameroonian soldiers and 300 attackers, according to various reports. 

One woman from Fotokol tells me that Boko Haram killed her husband. Another woman describes how Boko Haram raided the village asking: “Where are the Christians?”. Some IDPs in Kousseri tell me that they feel relatively safe now, but the violence they have seen is hard to forget, and life remains hard for them. They receive only limited support from aid organisations like the World Food Program and no support from the state. They have to find their own housing or stay with friends and relatives. Opportunities for work are scarce and the local economy has suffered from the fighting. Tens of thousands of merchants relied on cross-border trade. When the Nigerian border was closed due to insecurity, many of them were left without work. Aya, who used to own a large shop in Fotokol, lost everything. She tells me: “There is no possible turning back for me and my children. We have been chased from our village, our house was burnt; we have to make our life here in Kousseri”. 

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a displaced family from Fotokol in Kousseri, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

After four weeks in the Far North, when I return to the capital Yaoundé, the main concern resonating in my head is that people cannot imagine that security will be restored soon. The military battle against Boko Haram is ongoing and despite some successes it is far from won. At the same time, the military’s performance is tainted by accusations of human rights violations against the population, including arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial killings, and forced disappearances - allegations which the military mostly denies. During our discussion, the spokesman of the Defence Ministry replied to similar claims: “Cameroon’s army is republican and professional. We systematically investigate all human rights abuses cases and sanction. As you should know four soldiers in the Far North have been discharged a few months ago for committing grave acts against the honor of the army”.  

While his claim that all abuses are investigated is clearly an exaggeration, and it is not clear that all sanctions concern Human rights abuses, there has been some progress. Disciplinary measures have been taken against some officers and soldiers  in the Far North, who have been removed from operational assignments to administrative posts or dismissed. Some judicial investigations into rights abuses are underway. 

Still, efforts made are far from sufficient and the defence ministry’s focus on sanctions is too narrow. There are no financial or material compensations for victims of the families of victims that suffered human rights violations. Neither has the military officially apologised. The government should pursue a stricter and proactive sanctions policy against soldiers who committed abuses, publicise its sanctions and put in place measures that can rebuild communities’ confidence. If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency, as parts of the population may radicalise and take the side of the insurgents. At the same time, Western countries might withdraw their support for the army, as happened in Nigeria when there was a rash of human rights abuses by Nigerian army.

If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency. Parts of the population may take the side of the insurgents.

As much as security efforts are crucial to curb the insurgency, Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad also need to shape new policies that can prevent the emergence of new jihadist groups. More and more, the central authorities seem to understand that. At the ministry of defence and at the ministry of external relations, I meet several senior officials who recognise that a sustainable victory is impossible without development in the Far North. But then, they all add “the priority is to defeat Boko Haram militarily first”. Otherwise, the sad example of Chinese development workers who were kidnapped in 2014 by Boko Haram while building roads in the Far North could be repeated, they say. 

Boko Haram is much weaker today than in 2014. Nonetheless, the government must not delay proving to its population that it cares for its needs, and that it is trying to give those who feel neglected by the state new hope for their future. 

Op-Ed / United States

Preventing Atrocity in the Age of Trump

Originally published in The Atlantic

The Obama administration set out to create a future free of genocide. Does that future still have a chance?

There is no phrase in foreign policy as simultaneously compelling and suggestive of a goal beyond reach as never again. These words, which allude to the Holocaust, urge action in the face of atrocities. But they are most often honored in the breach.

Consider the recent record. At the end of February, the UN Security Council dithered for days over an ineffective ceasefire resolution while troops under the command of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, murdered hundreds of civilians in Eastern Ghouta. Indeed, for seven years, the Assad regime and others have slaughtered civilians with impunity in a civil war that has claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen has created a humanitarian crisis. Burma’s ethnic cleansing campaign has turned over 650,000 Rohingya into refugees. Brutal ethnic and political violence has claimed tens of thousands of innocent lives in South Sudan. This is not a record that inspires confidence in never again.

Yet one does not have to reach too far back to find a moment when prospects for stopping atrocities looked brighter. In late 2008, as Barack Obama prepared to assume the presidency, a bipartisan task force led by Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, and William Cohen, the former secretary of defense, published a self-styled “blueprint” for prevention. Ending genocide and other mass atrocities, they postulated, was an “achievable goal.”

Or at least it could be. The report didn’t pretend to have all the answers. Messy hypotheticals, like whether the United States would proceed with military intervention on humanitarian grounds without UN Security Council authorization, as it did in Kosovo in 1999, went unaddressed. The report also didn’t answer whether America should take sides in civil wars where atrocities were being committed. The point of the blueprint, though, wasn’t to provide every answer. It was a call to action premised on the notion that with sufficient confidence, commitment, and help from like-minded friends, the United States could create a genocide-free world.

That vision found a receptive audience in Obama’s foreign-policy team, which included Samantha Power, who had written a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on U.S. inaction in the face of genocide. Her ideas heavily influenced the Albright-Cohen report, and she had high-level ties across the young administration.

Obama used part of his 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech to argue for the use of force, in exceptional circumstances, to stop mass atrocities.

As I recounted in a recent report for the Holocaust Museum, these ideas were soon put into action, and in a big way. Obama used part of his 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech to argue for the use of force, in exceptional circumstances, to stop mass atrocities. The National Security Council created a new position focused on preventing atrocities (a job I held before taking over for Power when she became ambassador to the UN). Most prominently, Obama issued a presidential directive in August 2011 that declared the prevention of genocide and other mass atrocities to be a “core national security interest” and a “core moral responsibility” of the United States. It also ordered the creation of an “Atrocities Prevention Board” of officials from across the government to oversee prevention policy.

Why did the Obama administration go so far out on a limb for a policy that was so ambitious and untested? In part, it was because these moves were designed to generate pressure on the administration: the more it publicized its commitments, the more difficult it would be to back away from them. But it was also the case that, back in August 2011, one could almost believe that the blueprint was working.

In 2010 and 2011, the United States helped lead successful multilateral initiatives to stave off mass violence during South Sudan’s independence referendum and Ivory Coast’s succession crisis. Invoking the “responsibility to protect,” a concept that the entire UN membership endorsed in 2005, the Obama administration gained authorization to mount a military intervention in Libya to defend civilians threatened by Muammar Qaddafi. The United States was leading, and the Council was following; the international order was working to prevent mass atrocities.

But at that very moment, the international movement to end mass atrocities was running into big trouble. Libya was at the center of the story. While western governments had initially suggested that the military coalition was not pursuing regime change, they pivoted mid-course to arguing that it was “impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power.” As Russian officials made clear, this was not a precedent that Moscow was prepared to accept.

They made this clear just as Syria started to burn, and before the U.S. fully appreciated the significance of the change. As the Assad regime cracked down on peaceful anti-government protests, Obama declared that the time had come “for President Assad to step aside.” But backed by Iran and Hezbollah, Assad had far more staying power than the United States assumed. And while U.S. policymakers might have hoped that vivid images of Assad’s brutality would pressure Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, into supporting a meaningful response from the Security Council, Moscow would not be shamed.

Thus, by the time Obama introduced his Atrocities Prevention Board in April 2012, his administration’s biggest successes in atrocity prevention had already been achieved, and the seeds of its most prominent failures had been planted. The U.S. government had helped break the Libyan state without knowing how to rebuild it (Obama has called this his “worst mistake”), and it was watching the Syrian state break the Syrian people without knowing how to make it stop.  

These intractable challenges were not for the new Board to resolve, however: For the most part, it did not deal with crises like Syria, Afghanistan, and Sudan that were already receiving senior-level attention. Instead, the Board’s job would be to scan the horizon for places where the risk of mass violence was on the rise—Burundi, Burma’s Rakhine State, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for instance—and to jump-start policy discussions among the administration’s senior staff for situations where the United States had little or no policy.

Shaped by the Board, Obama’s second-term atrocity-prevention efforts yielded some benefits. Working together with partners, U.S. diplomacy, assistance, and economic statecraft helped keep Burundi and the DRC from exploding into violence over election disputes. Similar efforts supported French and UN peacekeepers who surged into the Central African Republic as it threatened to fracture. Pressure on Burmese central authorities probably helped contain violence for several years. But none of those efforts should prompt a victory lap. To varying degrees, all of the countries concerned remain wracked by violence and instability. Some are now worse off.

With all this in mind: Is it time to give up on never again?

I would say no. Beyond the moral imperative for trying to end the world’s worst crimes, it is hard to imagine a time when it will stop being true that, as Obama noted in 2011, America’s “security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods.” The misery and dislocation created by the crisis in Syria, and the impact it has had on the political foundations of the West, could hardly illustrate this point better. Yet we have also seen that a hard focus on early warning and preventive statecraft, while worth maintaining—to its credit, the National Security Council under President Donald Trump has tried to sustain the Board for this purpose—will not always be enough. So what should the next phase of U.S. atrocity prevention policy look like—whether under Trump or a future administration?

It’s important to accept that, sometimes, there’s a tension between the objectives of peace, justice, and democratic transition ...

First, if the U.S. government is going to be in the business of atrocity prevention, then both Washington and its critics will need to value the sorts of outcomes that the United States helped produce in places like Burundi: frozen crises where the best that can be said is that catastrophic violence has, for now, been averted. Such outcomes are not the stuff of inspiration. But they can be first steps.

Pragmatism is also required. It’s important to accept that, sometimes, there’s a tension between the objectives of peace, justice, and democratic transition—especially in the early stages of conflict prevention and resolution. And sometimes, it really is important to start with peace. Insisting that Assad must gomade de-escalation in Syria harder. Placing Qaddafi under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court complicated efforts to create a smooth exit for him.

Most importantly, the U.S. government has to confront the current reality at the UN Security Council. Gone are the days of what commentator Richard Gowan has called the “CNN effect,” when on-the-ground evidence of mass atrocities might have prodded the Council to take meaningful action. Russia’s dismissive reaction to the images flooding in from Eastern Ghouta is just the latest example.

Certainly, there is room for strengthening measures that can clearly be taken without the Council’s approval, things like targeted sanctions. Because of America’s economic power, its sanctions can bite, even when imposed unilaterally. Of course, they’re yet more effective when the European Union acts in parallel. Travel bans against abusive leaders with ties to the United States and Europe can also provide leverage.

But the tougher questions concern the use of force. Since 1945, most international lawyers have argued that Security Council approval is a necessary prerequisite for using force to stop governments from committing mass atrocities against their own people. There are, however, important exceptions. The governments of Britain and Denmark hold that international law permits humanitarian intervention under extraordinary circumstances, while the United States has straddled the issue. While the United States has used or threatened force for purposes of humanitarian intervention in northern Iraq, Kosovo, and Syria (on two occasions) since 1990, it has not justified its actions under international law. It has long feared that it might establish a new norm that could be abused, or foster expectations that its military would act as the world’s anti-atrocity policeman. Moreover, Libya demonstrated that even when the UN authorizes a military intervention, it can go badly. Bombs and guns are blunt instruments that can always make things worse.

[T]here is room for strengthening measures that can clearly be taken without the [Security] Council’s approval, things like targeted sanctions.

But while these concerns are legitimate, there remain circumstances when the threat or use of military force can be both necessary and effective. Obama’s credible threat of force against Syria in 2013 led Russia to make a deal for the removal of chemical weapons from the country and the only legally-binding Security Council resolution of the conflict. And even international lawyers opposed to humanitarian intervention tend not to argue that the world was right to be passive in the face of the Rwandan genocide. Sometimes you just break the rules, is how some have explained their approach to me.

But that approach—which is, effectively, America’s—shows little respect for international law and manages to inhibit effective planning (nobody knows what is permitted) while suggesting limitless freedom of action (nobody knows what isn’t). Recognizing these problems, former State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh has proposed enlisting eminent international lawyers to help the United States catch up with Britain and Denmark by articulating a rule allowing for humanitarian intervention that would be consistent with international law. Because this rule would apply universally, it would need to be tight enough to inhibit abuse by all nations.

Will these steps bring us within immediate reach of never again? Of course not, but they will help regain lost ground. If the 10 years elapsed since the Albright-Cohen blueprint have revealed anything, it is that the United States ignores the risks of atrocities at its peril, and that its tools for meeting that challenge are both insufficient and diminishing. It’s time to get back on track.

This article was written by U.S. Program Director Stephen Pomper under separate auspices and does not represent International Crisis Group's views in every respect, but it is relevant to the work we do and we are posting it in order to stimulate discussion.