U.S. President Barack Obama walks to the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on August 2, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

(Washington, DC) – US President Barack Obama has issued two directives that will, if vigorously implemented, strengthen the US government’s commitment and capacity to prevent mass atrocities and other grave human rights violations around the world, Human Rights Watch said today.

The presidential directives, issued on August 4, 2011, create a high-level Atrocities Prevention Board within the US government to provide early warning of impending atrocities and human rights crises abroad and to recommend early action to prevent such crimes. They also call for a “dissent mechanism” so that officials who believe needed action is being blocked can take their concerns directly to the president.

“Streamlining the system won’t resolve the difficult question of whether and how the US should respond when a Rwanda-type genocide happens,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “But these directives should help to overcome the bureaucratic resistance and indifference that often delays steps that might prevent such catastrophes in the first place.”

Obama also directed the US State Department to deny US visas to those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of human rights. This order broadens the category of human rights violators barred from entry to the United States, since current US law specifically excludes from the country only those responsible for torture and extrajudicial executions. Significantly, the order would deny visas to government officials who exercised “command responsibility” over subordinates who committed serious human rights abuses – in other words, to senior political or military leaders who knew or should have known that such abuses were occurring and did not stop them or punish those responsible.

These measures are a helpful example of the concrete steps governments can take to carry out the “responsibility to protect,” Human Rights Watch said. As the United Nations General Assembly recognized in 2005, each country has a responsibility to prevent war crimes, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and genocide within its borders. When it fails in that duty, other countries, through the UN, have the responsibility to use necessary and appropriate measures to protect civilian populations from such crimes. Such steps include targeted sanctions, diplomatic intervention, dispatch of human rights monitors and war crimes investigators, timely release of intelligence information, and intervention when other approaches fail.

Over the next 100 days, the US National Security Council will lead a review to determine how the US government can better organize itself and deploy its resources to prevent mass atrocities. Human Rights Watch expressed hope that this effort will elevate the prevention of serious international crimes to a higher plane among the United States’ many competing international priorities, and create permanent structures that will speed needed action in this and future US administrations.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Obama administration to carry out the new policy for denying visas consistently, including with respect to political officials responsible for serious human rights abuses in countries with which the United States maintains close relationships.