Remarks: USAID Deputy Administrator Isobel Coleman at the U.S. Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities (SAPRA) Rollout and Launch of the 2022 Elie Wiesel Act Report

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Friday, July 15, 2022

U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC

DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Good morning. Thank you so much to Assistant Secretary Witkowsky for your introductory remarks, and to Deputy Secretary Sherman for your really inspirational remarks, too. And thanks to the entire interagency team for working and developing this very ambitious strategy and for producing the fourth annual report to Congress.  So, thank you. 

As we look at the world, from Burma to Ukraine, it’s easy to feel like “never again” is an aspiration out of reach. But we know, both from empirical data and from our partners’ passion and commitment, when they put themselves on the line to fight for peace and human rights that prevention is possible. We have seen time and again, how U.S. Government efforts have helped address risk factors. 

The comprehensive strategy we’re delivering today reflects the U.S. Government’s recognition that we not only need to address the crises in front of us, but we also need to invest in and work closely with local partners in places that are not making daily headlines. This strategy gives us a framework to ensure the U.S. Government can effectively and proactively engage in atrocity prevention with our local and international partners, and when necessary, mitigate effects.

Atrocities are preventable. They are not inevitable. They are not random acts. There are always risk factors and warning signs before an atrocity takes place. The question is not if we can prevent atrocities; the question is whether we act early enough when prevention is still possible. Through decades of reflection and analysis, we’ve learned that atrocities do not happen in a vacuum. Rather, they are symptoms of larger challenges. They manifest in the worst forms of violence and human rights violations, resulting from pernicious long-term development challenges like authoritarianism and democratic backsliding, lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law, conflict and political instability, gender inequality, and corruption. These trends are all too familiar, but our strategy for atrocity prevention and response accounts for some of the most glaring risk factors, including eroding trust and intercommunal conflict, the proliferation of disinformation, poor governance, and efforts to undermine the rule of law and to walk back fundamental rights.

Development assistance is uniquely positioned to help prevent atrocities. At USAID, even assistance aimed at other long-term goals in affected regions can support atrocity prevention.  Health programs can support those directly affected through psychosocial and medical care.  Economic growth programs can be structured to foster social inclusion. Inclusive service delivery can improve governance. At the same time, while development work may help strengthen the overall enabling environment for atrocity prevention, targeted interventions based on risk analysis and deep local knowledge and partnerships are essential.

In areas of greatest risk, good development simply isn’t enough. We need dedicated atrocity prevention efforts and, when necessary, atrocity response. USAID’s work to prevent, respond to, and support recovery from atrocities builds on many years of experience in the Balkans, Colombia, Burma, Ethiopia, Sudan, and elsewhere. This work ranges from small rapid-response efforts to tackle specific risks to large multiyear comprehensive programs. It covers countries that are currently low or medium risk, as well as high-risk countries and those currently experiencing mass atrocities. Our work seeks to reduce the risks of violence and human right violations writ large while targeting specific groups facing heightened risks, such as religious and ethnic groups, groups targeted for who they are or what they believe; women, who are too often the victims of conflict-related sexual violence; and pro-democracy activists targeted by authoritarian leaders. 

In Burma, for example, USAID is working to support the safety and security of hundreds of journalists, high-profile activists, and other civil society actors, and to improve civil society’s abilities to use information technology and cyber hygiene to counter disinformation and maintain a peaceful opposition.

In Ukraine, USAID is continuing its long-term support for government and civil society efforts to document human rights abuse, including atrocities; support truth-telling efforts; strengthen the legal enabling environment; build capacity of legal practitioners to investigate and prosecute these crimes; and provide legal assistance to conflict-affected civilians to ensure justice and accountability and put an end to impunity.

And in Bosnia and Herzegovina, USAID is helping to build partnerships among religious leaders of multiple faiths, diverse groups of youth, and community leaders to promote mutual respect and foster connections across different communities, strengthening their ability to maintain non-adversarial relations amid efforts to sow division.

Development assistance like USAID’s is necessary, but clearly not sufficient. We know we must work in close coordination across the U.S. Government as outlined in the strategy. We must avoid siloing this work and instead link it to related efforts, such as the Global Fragility Act; Women, Peace, and Security Act; and others. We recognize the unique approach that each challenge requires, but we also increasingly see that all of these related interventions reinforce each other.

We must also work with other governments through multilateral fora and international working groups, and above all, we must support the leadership and engagement of local actors. Our USAID missions have longstanding, deep relationships with local institutions, organizations, and actors who have the greatest understanding of complex local dynamics, whether in capital cities or remote areas. These relationships are built on trust and allow us to support those who are most affected to determine their own futures. Recognizing that states are duty-bearers for protecting human rights, we must use all diplomatic levers to engage government actors in countries at risk, which is why I’m so proud to stand today with my State Department colleagues here.

The challenges are immense, but our commitment is unwavering. The U.S. Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities is an important step towards atrocity prevention, and now all of us – all of our agencies – must work together diligently to make it a reality.  Thank you. 

Last updated: September 23, 2022

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