From Bosnia to Rwanda to Darfur, mass atrocities and genocide remain a modern reality. Although the United States has recognized the significance of the problem in both the 2010 National Security Strategy and the Quadrennial Defense Review Report, the U.S. government’s efforts at stopping mass atrocities and genocide have been largely rhetorical.
Not only has the United States had difficulty deciding whether or not to intervene in ongoing genocides, but there has been scant government thinking about how to do so. Sarah Sewall, a Harvard Kennedy School lecturer, founded the Mass Atrocity Response Operation (MARO) Project in 2007 to help answer that question, focusing on military responses. This past May, the project, which is a collaborative effort between the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI), released Mass Atrocity Response Operations (MARO): A Military Planning Handbook. The handbook aims to help American and other military planners think through how military force, combined with diplomatic and other non-military means, can be used to stop mass atrocities and genocide.
“Right now, if you say to the military, ‘How would you plan to stop a genocide?’ they have no specific reference to help them do this,” says Sewall, a primary author of the handbook together with Dwight Raymond, of PKSOI, and project director Sally Chin, of the Carr Center. Sewall served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Assistance in the Clinton administration and led the Obama transition’s National Security Agency review process in 2008.
She explains that if military planners were told to plan an operation to stop a genocide or mass atrocity, they would base their thinking on operations they already know, such as counter-insurgency or humanitarian assistance. But while a military operation to stop a genocide or mass atrocity — a MARO — might have some things in common with these other military operations, mass atrocities and genocide have distinct characteristics that the military must take into account when planning a mission.
“For example, intervening to stop a mass atrocity or genocide is not an impartial act — and there will be consequences that the military must anticipate,” Sewall says.
Such circumstances involve a multiplicity of actors — perpetrators, victims, bystanders, interveners, media — that may interact in unexpected and evolving ways. Perpetrators and victims may switch roles, and the military must think through that possibility. Finally, the mass killing of civilians can occur extremely rapidly once it has begun, which is particularly problematic given the slowness with which the international community typically responds.
“The goal behind the handbook is first to help people understand how stopping genocide is different from conducting other kinds of military operations,” Sewall explains, “and then to assist them in incorporating those differences into their existing planning processes to create an effective Mass Atrocity Response Operation plan.”
With the handbook completed, the MARO Project continues its outreach and education work with the U.S. military and government, international and regional institutions, non-governmental organizations, and others to help inform international responses to mass atrocity and genocide. This work sometimes requires over- coming resistance by those who may feel that stopping mass atrocity or genocide will never be within the U.S. national security interest. To this objection the authors write: “nations may not choose a MARO, but a MARO may choose them.” — by Robert O’Neill