Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 8/26/2015

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:51 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  I appreciate you accommodating the change in the time to the briefing today.  We wanted to make sure that all of you had the opportunity to see the President welcome the WNBA champions, Phoenix Mercury, to the White House.  

But now that we are all assembled, let’s get started.  Nancy, do you want to start us off?

Q    Yeah, thanks.  What was the President’s reaction to the Roanoke shooting?

MR. EARNEST:  I did not have the opportunity to speak to the President about the tragic shooting that occurred earlier today in Virginia.  Obviously the thoughts and prayers of everybody here at the White House are with the families of those who were injured or killed in that terrible incident.  The precise details of that incident continue to be under investigation.  

But as you’ve heard me say in the past, this is another example of gun violence that is becoming all too common in communities large and small, all across the United States.  And while there is no piece of legislation that will end all violence in this country, there are some common-sense things that only Congress can do that we know would have a tangible impact in reducing gun violence in this country.  And Congress could take those steps in a way that would not infringe on the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.  And the President has long advocated Congress taking those steps, and the President continues to believe that they should do so.

Q    Can you say what role federal officials will have in the investigation?

MR. EARNEST:  I do know that officials from the FBI and the ATF were involved in responding and tracking down the individual who is believed to have been responsible for this violence.  And I would anticipate that federal officials will be working to support state officials who will conduct the investigation.

Q    Also, do you have any comment on the signing of the peace agreement in South Sudan, and what the prospects are for lasting peace there?

MR. EARNEST:  This is something that was just reported within the last few hours.  What I would say is that the administration believes that President Kiir made the right decision to sign the peace agreement today.  But we should be just as clear that the United States and the international community does not recognize any reservations or addendums to that document.  And President Kiir and the government of South Sudan should abide by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development agreement that was signed today, and they should work toward ending the conflict and rebuilding the country.

Nancy, you’ll recall that the President had the opportunity to meet with leaders of other countries in the region in discussing trying to broker some peace in South Sudan.  So this is an issue that the President has not just been following but been actively engaged in.  And you heard him note that South Sudan is a country that has been wracked by terrible violence in recent years, and the United States and other countries in the region have been trying to act in coordinated fashion to broker some peace there.  So this is something that we’re going to continue to monitor as the situation moves forward.


Q    Has the White House raised its sights on the Iran vote?  And is the White House now trying to get enough votes to — actively trying to get enough votes to block a motion of disapproval?

MR. EARNEST:  Roberta, what our strategy is focused on right now is building as much support as possible in both the House and the Senate for the agreement.  As I’ve noted before, the appropriate congressional role here, as described and codified by Congress, is not to sign off on the agreement, but Congress does have a role in evaluating the agreement.  And essentially, the role that Congress would play at this point is spoiler.  Congress does have the capacity to kill this agreement.  

This is an international agreement between the United States and several other countries and Iran.  And our legislative efforts are focused on building enough support for the agreement to prevent Congress from spoiling, and that’s what we will continue to do.  That effort has included a variety of lobbying efforts.  This has included presidential phone calls.  Other senior members of the President’s national security team have reached out to members of Congress and their staff members to advocate for the agreement.  And you’ll note that later this afternoon the President will conduct a handful of interviews with television anchors from across the country, and this will be among the issues that will be up for discussion.  And it’s the President’s view and it’s the view of his team that the more that we elevate this discussion and the more that the American people have the opportunity to hear the arguments in favor of this agreement, the more likely they are to support it.  And that’s the reason that the President will do those interviews today.  It’s part of our ongoing effort to build as much support for the agreement in Congress as possible.

Q    So does the White House feel that it’s possible — feasible at all to get 41 votes of support in the Senate?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the last I saw, I think that there are 26 or 27 senators who support the agreement.  There are only two Democrats that have come out in opposition to it.  That’s an indication that we’ve got a lot of momentum built up in terms of building support for this agreement.  But what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to get as many members of the Senate as possible — and as many members of the House as possible — to back the agreement.

I would note that there was a letter that was signed by about 150 House members prior to the completion of the comprehensive agreement back in July indicating their support for an agreement that was consistent with the aims that the President had identified for a final agreement.  And the essence of the final comprehensive agreement does fulfill that criteria, and so we are optimistic that we will be able to earn the support of those who sign that letter — we’re still hard at work in that effort.  But what’s notable is that there are several Democrats in the House of Representatives who declined to sign that letter, but yet have announced their support for the final agreement.

So there are several indications that we are succeeding in our efforts to build sufficient support for the agreement in the Congress, but we certainly want to collect as many votes as possible.  

Q &

Read More

Remarks by the President at the Young African Leaders Initiative Presidential Summit Town Hall

Omni Shoreham Hotel
Washington, D.C. 

11:15 A.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, hello, everybody!  (Applause.)

AUDIENCE:  Happy birthday to you!  Happy birthday to you!  Happy birthday, Mr. President, happy birthday to you!  (Applause.)  

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Everybody sit down.  Thank you so much.  (Applause.)  Well, this is a good crowd here!  (Applause.)  First of all, can everybody please give Grace another big round of applause.  (Applause.)  Not only does she do incredibly inspiring work in Nigeria, but I have to say, following Grace is a little bit like following Michelle.  (Laughter.)  She’s so good that you kind of feel bad when you’re walking out, because you’re thinking, I’m not going to be that good.  (Laughter.)  But she’s just one example of the incredible talent that’s in this room.  

And to all of you, I know that you’ve been here in the United States for just a few weeks, but let me say on behalf of the American people, welcome to the United States.  We are thrilled to have you here.  (Applause.)   

And your visit comes at a perfect time, because, yes, it’s soon my birthday and that’s a very important thing.  (Laughter.) But that’s not the main reason it’s a perfect time.  The main reason is because, as many of you know, I just returned from Africa.  And it was my fourth trip to sub-Saharan Africa, more than any other U.S. President.  And I was proud to be the first U.S. President to visit Kenya, — (applause) — the first to visit Ethiopia, — (applause) — the first to address the African Union, which was a great honor.  (Applause.)

And the reason I’ve devoted so much energy to our work with the continent is, as I said last week, even as Africa continues to confront many challenges, Africa is on the move.  It’s one of the fastest-growing regions in the world.  Africa’s middle class is projected to grow to more than one billion consumers.  With hundreds of millions of mobile phones and surging access to the Internet, Africans are beginning to leapfrog old technologies into new prosperity.  The continent has achieved historic gains in health, from fighting HIV/AIDS to making childbirth safer for women and babies.  Millions have been lifted from extreme poverty.  So this is extraordinary progress.    

And young people like you are driving so much of this progress — because Africa is the youngest continent.  I saw the power of youth on my trip.  In Kenya, Richard Ruto Todosia helped build Yes Youth Can, one of the county’s most prominent civil society groups, with over one million members.  At the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, Shadi Sabeh spoke about how he started Brilliant Footsteps Academy in Nigeria, which uses education to fight religious extremism and provide more opportunities for Muslim youth.  I met Judith Owigar, an entrepreneur who co-founded a nonprofit that trains young women living in the slums of Nairobi in computer programming and graphic design — and then helps place them in tech jobs. 

So I saw the talent of young people all across the continent.  And as President, I want to make sure that even as we’re working with governments, we’re also helping to empower young Africans like all of you.  And that’s why I launched YALI  — Young African Leaders Initiative — (applause) — to help you access the resources and the training and the networks that you need to become the next generation of leaders in all areas — in civil society, in business, in government.  

And the response has been overwhelming.  So far, more than 140,000 young people across Africa have joined our YALI network  — so young Africans with new ideas can connect with each other, and collaborate and work together to put their plans into action. And I want to welcome all of the YALI network members across Africa who are watching this town hall today.  I’m proud of all of you.  I’m proud that we’ve made so much progress together, after just a few years.  (Applause.)  

And last year, I said we’d launch a new set of tools for our YALI network.  So today, we’ve got more than 30 online lessons available on everything from public speaking to how to write a business plan, mentoring, new ways to network across Africa, around the world, new training sessions, meetings with experts on how to launch a startup.  And we’re launching three new online Mandela Washington Fellowship Institute courses so that all members of the YALI network can access some of the great ideas that you’ve been sharing. 

Last year, I said that we would create YALI Regional Leadership Centers across Africa to provide skills, networks, and opportunities to even more young African leaders.  And in Kenya, I had a chance to visit the Regional Leadership Center in Nairobi.  Just this morning, we opened a new center in Accra.  And two more will be opened by the end of the year — in Pretoria and in Dakar.  (Applause.)    

Last year, I said we would do even more to support young entrepreneurs with grants to help you start a business or nonprofit, and with new training for thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs in small towns and rural areas.  So at the recent Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, I announced that we secured more than $1 billion in new commitments from banks and philanthropists to support emerging entrepreneurs around the world, including in Africa — with half the money going to support women and young people.  (Applause.)  

And last year, I welcomed our first class of Mandela Fellows.  This year, the response was overwhelming again — nearly 30,000 applied.  And today I’m honored to welcome you, the second Mandela Washington Fellows class.  We’re on track to double the Mandela Washington Fellowship program to 1,000 fellows by next year.  (Applause.)    

And I know you’ve been busy.  Over the past few weeks, at schools and businesses all across America, you’ve been taking courses, developing the skills you’ll need to make your ideas a reality, so that you’re able to continue the great work that you’re already doing, but take it to the next level. 

That’s what Brian Bwembya of Zambia plans to do.  Where’s Brian?  Where is he?  (Applause.)  There he is right there.  So Brian uses music to advocate against things like gender-based violence and to educate youth on HIV/AIDS.  (Applause.)  So while in the U.S., he’s learned about our health care system, met the founder of an American HIV/AIDS organization, and now he plans to start a record label for music about social change.  So, Brian, we’re proud to be your partner.  (Applause.)  

Or we’ve got Kadijah Diallo of Guinea.  Where is Kadijah?  (Applause.)  There she is.  So Kadijah helped lead UNICEF’s media campaign to stop the spread of Ebola.  And with the management skills that she gained at Wagner College, she wants to work on improving the lives of women and girls back home in Guinea.  So we are proud to be your partner.  (Applause.) 

Or we’ve got Jamila Mayanja of Uganda.  Are you posing?  (Laughter.)  She’s posing.  Jamila is not a fashion model — that’s not — (laughter) — she started a door-to-door laundry company to employ more youth and teach them entrepreneurial skills.  And she hopes to take what she learned during her time at Dartmouth University to meet her goal of getting 1,000 youth to work in or run their own business.  So we’re proud to be your partner, Jamila.  (Applause.)  
So that’s just a sampling of the incredible projects that are being done by fellows all across Africa.  So this program is going to help all of you make a real difference back home.  

But Fatou Ba Ndiour from Senegal — (applause) — where’s Fatou?  So Fatou wrote me a letter and she said, if the real value of YALI is for young people to learn from others, then maybe we should start sending some young Americans to Africa also.  (Applause.)  And she made the point, not just to help poor communities as they usually do, “but to learn from other societies, with humility” — which I thought is absolutely true.  
So I have good news, Fatou.  From now on, YALI will give Americans an opportunity.  (Applause.)  Next summer, up to 80 young American leaders will join YALI and go to Africa to learn from you and your countries.  (Applause.)  And you guys are going to have to look after them when they’re there.  (Laughter.)  Show them good places — but not to have too much fun.  (Laughter.)  They need to be doing some work while they’re there.

So these connections and partnerships and friendships, they forge an understanding that brings our peoples closer together.  After six weeks here, some of you are now officially Texas Longhorns or Notre Dame Fighting Irish.  (Applause.)  You’ve shared African cooking with your American friends, but you’ve also had a burger and a hotdog at Fourth of July celebrations.  (Laughter.)  I’m told many of you went bowling for the first time.


THE PRESIDENT:  I hear it didn’t go that well.  (Laughter.) There were a few strikes.  By the way, there was at least one marriage that came out of last year’s class.  (Applause.)   So who knows what might happen here.  (Laughter.)  

So as your time in America comes to a close, I want you to remember this is really just the beginning.  We just started this.  And the truth is that our greatest challenges — whether it’s inclusive development, or confronting terrorism, dealing with conflict, climate change, increasing women’s rights, children’s rights — these are bigger than any one nation or even one continent.  

Our hope is, is that 10, 15, 20 years from now, when you’ve all gone on to be ministers in government, or leaders in business, or pioneers of social change, that you’ll still be connecting with each other, that you’ll still be learning from each other, and that together, you’ll be reaching back and helping the next generation — that you’ll not only be making a difference in your own countries, but you’ll be the foundation of a new generation of global leadership, a generation that’s going to be working together across borders to make the world safer and more prosperous and more peaceful and more just.  That’s my hope for you.

We’ve brought you here because we benefit from your leadership, but we’re counting on you to work together to make sure that you’re also reaching back to those who are going to be coming behind you.  Couldn’t be prouder of you.

So with that, let me take some questions, all right?  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)  

All right.  So here are the — I think you’ve been told how this works, but I’m going to just repeat it.  I’m just going to call on as many people as possible.  When I call on you, introduce yourself, tell me what country you’re from.  Make your question relatively short — (laughter) — so that we can get as many questions in as possible.  And I’m going to go boy, girl, boy, girl — to make sure that it’s fair.  All right?  Okay.  So let me see who I’m going to start off with.  This is all such a good-looking group.  I’m going to start with this young lady right here.  Right here.  Right in the middle.  Yes, there you go — with the African earrings.  Very appropriate.

Q    I’m from Kenya.


Q    Mzuri sana.  Yes.  And my question is, I’m curious how you keep the balance in terms of your background as an African American and the kind of struggles you’ve had to get over to get here — and being to married Michelle Obama — she’s powerful and amazing — and as a father, as a husband.  But you seem to not let that interfere with your work, and you’ve been effective.  So how do you keep the balance?  

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, first of all, I wouldn’t be who I was without Michelle.  So she’s my partner.  (Applause.)  That’s true professionally, but that’s true in terms of my character and who I am.  One of the things I’m very proud of is the fact that I married someone who is strong, and talented, and opinionated, and my equal.  And part of the reason why that’s so important to me is because she’s the role model now for my daughters.  And so Malia and Sasha, they have expectations of being strong and talented, and being treated as an equal by their partners as they get older — much older.  (Laughter.)  

The balance — I’ve written about this.  The balance isn’t always perfect.  I think one of the things that my generation, but now even more your generation, has to manage is, if you have two people working in the house, outside the home, how do you manage that in a way that we’re both good parents, we’re both able to succeed in our work.  And what Michelle and I found was that we had to recognize that at any given point in our careers, one person might sacrifice a little bit — maybe this was a time that she really had to focus on something, and so I had to cover for her more.  There were times where I was able to do something and she had to handle things more.

Now, I’m not suggesting that it’s been completely equal, because I’m the first one to acknowledge that she’s probably made more sacrifices, given the nature of a political career, than I have.  But what I’ve learned from her is that if she doesn’t feel respected and fulfilled, then I’m going to end up being less successful, ultimately.  And that’s something that I think that men in Africa, in particular — men everywhere — (laughter) — but men in Africa — I’ve spoken about this a lot.  The best measure of how a country does economically in terms of development is how does it treat its women.  (Applause.)  

And as I said in a speech — a couple of the speeches that I gave while I was in Kenya and Ethiopia — if you’re mistreating your women, then you’re just holding yourself back, you’re holding yourself down.  You may have some false sense of importance, but ultimately you don’t benefit if women are being discriminated against, because that means when they’re working, your family is going to have less income.  If they’re not educated, that means your children are less likely to be well educated, because, typically, the mother is the first educator of a child.  So if they see you disrespecting your wife, then what lesson is your — not just your girls, but what lessons are your sons learning from you?  

And so this is something that I really think everybody, especially the young generation of African men, have to learn and internalize.  And I want to see more men creating peer pressure among themselves.  If you see a friend of yours, a classmate, one of your buddies abusing a woman, you have to say something.  You have to ostracize them and say that’s not acceptable.  Because, ultimately, this is not just an issue of laws — although here in the United States we’re still fighting for equal pay for equal work; we’re still fighting to make sure that women have the same opportunities as men — but it’s also a matter of culture and what our expectations are.  And your generation is going to have to change expectations.  

You do not lift yourself up by holding somebody else down.  And that’s especially true within your own family and the people that you’re closest to.  (Applause.) 

All right.  That young men right there, in the striped shirt.  Yes, you.  

Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  I am from Rwanda.  (Applause.)    

THE PRESIDENT:  You have a little cheering section here.  (Laughter.)  Got the flags.

Q    Mr. President, there is a big problem of climate change, and research has showed that Africa will be the most vulnerable continent to climate change in the next decades.  Africa is the continent which is responsible to climate change mitigation, and it is reducing the greenhouse gases and the global warming.  And I saw that Africa was the last continent to get the funding for climate change mitigation and adaptation.  So my question is to ask you what is the plan of the United States of America to empower Africa so that our community can adapt themselves to the climate change in the next future?  Thank you. (Applause.) 

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, first of all, this generation has to understand that climate change is going to be one of the critical issues that you face.  Now, oftentimes you’ll hear people say, well, environmental issues, climate change, we don’t have time to worry about that right now because we have much more urgent issues — we have to educate our children, we have to feed people, we have to develop — maybe later we can worry about environmental issues — which I understand why a lot of African countries and poorer countries in Asia or Latin America or other places would say that, because historically, that’s basically what the United States and developed countries did.  

The United States used to be terribly polluted.  If you went to Los Angeles, you couldn’t — it was like Beijing is now.  It was very hard to breathe if you ran outside.  You had lakes and rivers that were so polluted that one of them caught fire.  (Laughter.)  That’s serious; that’s some pollution there.  The same is true in London when London was first developing during the Industrial Revolution, because of all the coal that was being burned, and the soot.  

Here’s the problem.  Whether it’s fair or not, the issue of climate change is not like traditional environmental issues in the sense that’s it’s just isolated in one area.  Global climate change will affect everybody.  And because the changes could be so severe, frankly, the countries that are most likely to be adversely affected are the poorer countries because they have less margin for error.

So if you have changing weather patterns in, let’s say, the Indian Subcontinent, and the monsoon rains shift, suddenly you could have millions of people whose crops completely fail.  Well, the same is true in Africa — if rain patterns and drought starts changing, subsistence farmers are completely vulnerable.  If you are in coastal communities, and the oceans begin to rise, millions of people could be displaced.

So this is something that everybody is going to have to take seriously.  Now, what we’re going to be doing is, here in the United States, we are initiating some of the most aggressive action to start reducing the emission of carbon that produces climate change.  There’s going to be a Paris conference later this year in which we’re organizing China and other countries that are big carbon emitters to participate, and set targets for reduction of carbon pollution.

Now, Africa, per capita, doesn’t produce that much carbon.  So some African countries have said, well, why should we have to do anything?  Well, the answer is, is that you have to project where you’re going to be 20 years from now or 30 years from now. If you get locked in now in, for example, the way you producing energy that’s producing a lot of carbon, given the youth of Africa and its rising population, you could end up being the major carbon emitter if you don’t take plans now.

So what we’re saying is, learn from our mistakes and find new, sustainable ways of generating energy that don’t produce carbon.  

When I was in Nairobi, I highlighted the work we’re doing with something called Power Africa, which has generated billions of dollars with the goal of electrification throughout sub-Saharan Africa.  But part of what we’re trying to encourage countries to do is don’t automatically take the old models; think about new models of energy production, and try to leapfrog over the old models.

So, for example, with solar energy, we were looking at solar panels that you could send into rural areas, put on the roof of a hut, and for the same price per day that people are purchasing kerosene, they could have a small — solar panels and pack that generates light and provides what they need.  And in fact, it will pay for itself in a year, and then they’ll save money after that.  

And so, in the same way that you’ve seen banking and financial transactions off smartphones, cellphones, leapfrogging some of the old ways of doing business in advanced countries, the same has to be true for energy.  And we want to encourage new models.  We are going to be providing — the United States and other wealthier countries are going to be providing billions of dollars in money for adaptation and mitigation.  But what’s more urgent is how do we create the energy that’s needed for Africa’s growth and development in a way that does not make the problem worse, but instead makes the problem better.

All right?  (Applause.)  Okay, this young lady right here.  You’ve got the mic coming.

Q    Hello.  I’m from Mauritania and I’m 23 years old.  So my question is simple:  You, as a President, and you as a citizen — a U.S. citizen, will you, after leaving the White House, keep up this program?  Because we still need it.  (Applause.)  

THE PRESIDENT:  Yes.  It is a simple question, and I’ve got a simple answer:  Yes.  (Applause.)  Now, here’s what we’re going to try to do.  We want to institutionalize the program so that the next President and future Presidents and the United States government continue to sustain the program.  (Applause.)  So that’s going to be important.

And since I still have this job for the next 18 months, I haven’t been completely focused on what I’m going to do afterwards.  (Laughter.)  The first thing I’m probably going to do is I’m going to catch up on my sleep.  (Laughter.)  So I’m going to do that for a couple months.  (Laughter.)  But I can guarantee you that one of the things I’m interested in doing when I leave office is to continue to create these platforms for young leadership across the globe, to network, get relationships, to work together, to learn with each other.  (Applause.)  

And by the way, it’s not just in Africa.  So we’ve set up a young leaders program in Asia.  We’re doing the same thing in Latin America.  Because the goal is, eventually I want not only for there to be a network of thousands of young African leaders who know each other across borders, are sharing best practices, sharing ideas, but I also want you to know young leaders in Indonesia, or young leaders in Chile, or young leaders around the globe.  

Because I said before, ultimately you’re going to be global leaders, not just leaders in your own country.  It begins in your own countries where you can make your mark, but one of the powerful things about technology and the Internet right now is you can learn and forge relationships and learn best practices from everyplace.  So if you’re an advocate for women’s rights, and you’re doing great work in Nigeria, it may be that somebody in Burma can, on the Internet, see how you organized your campaign and how you were able to finance it and what you were able to accomplish, and suddenly what you’ve done in one country becomes a model for action all across the world.

So this is going to be a top priority of mine.  I will definitely continue to be involved in that.  All right?  (Applause.)  

Let’s see, I’ve got to call on a man now.  Let’s see.  Let’s see.  I’m going to call on this guy right there.  Yes, you right there — just because I like that hat.  (Laughter.)  That’s a sharp-looking hat right there.  

Q    I come from Madagascar.  

THE PRESIDENT:  There you go.

Q    We Madagascar fellows are involved in the environmental entrepreneurship.  So what is the commitment of the United States towards young entrepreneurship and climate change?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, as I said before, we are pledging — we’ve got a billion dollars for entrepreneurship; half of it we are going to direct towards women entrepreneurs and young people who are entrepreneurs, because they’ve been underrepresented in terms of access to capital.  And as I mentioned to the young man earlier, the opportunities for entrepreneurship related to clean energy, related to conservation — which oftentimes, in a place like Madagascar, involves tourism and ecotourism — there’s huge potential there if it’s done properly.

So the key is, in some cases, just the access to financing. But part of what you’ve learned, hopefully, with YALI is part of it is also having a well-thought-out plan.  Now, not everybody can afford to go to a fancy business school and graduate and have all the credentials, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a good idea.  And one of the things that we’re trying to do, particularly through online learning, is to create some of the basic concepts for how a business or a nonprofit can get started, how it can be properly managed, how you can do the accounting in a way that’s efficient.  We want to make sure that we are a continuing partner for you as you start your business and you learn.

And this is where these regional networks that we’re setting up is also useful, because not only will we have online learning but these regional hubs, initially in four regions of Africa, allow you to continue to network and access through the U.S. embassy, or the chambers of commerce, or private sector participants who are partnering with us, so that you can have hands-on mentoring and learning as you are developing your business plans, and as you’re trying to move forward.

The one thing, for those of you who are entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs, to remember is all around the world, even in the United States, not every idea succeeds.  So if you want to be an entrepreneur and start a business, you have to believe with all your heart that you’re going to succeed, but then when — and if — one of the businesses fails, you’ve got to be able to get up, dust yourself off, figure out what you’ve learned, and then start another business.  And eventually, it’s from continually refining your ideas and exploring what works and understanding what your market is and what consumers are looking for, that eventually, you have a chance to succeed.  

Okay.  It’s a young woman’s turn now.  Well, she’s just dancing over here, so we’ll have to call on her.  (Laughter.)  That doesn’t mean, by the way, everybody should dance.  (Laughter.)  I just wanted to point that out.  Go ahead.

Q    Mr. President, thank you.  I’m from Cameroon.  And I would like to find out if you will support Africa’s condition for permanency at the U.N. Security Council.  Thank you.  (Applause.) 

THE PRESIDENT:  So the Security Council was formed after World War II, and obviously the world and the balance of power around the world looked very different in 1945, 1946, ’47 than it does in 2015, ’16 and ’17.  So the United States is supportive in concept of modifications to the structure of the United Nations Security Council.  I will be honest with you — how that happens, and how you balance all the equities is complicated.  As a matter of principle, I would think that there should at least be one representative from the African continent on the Security Council, along with representatives from the other regions of the world and some of the other powers that have emerged.  

I will tell you that — because, for example, Latin America does not have a country that’s represented — it does get complicated, because you have to figure out how — let me put it this way.  Everybody probably thinks they should be on it.  And so even in Africa, if you started saying, okay, let’s say we should have an African — is it South Africa?  Is it Nigeria?  Is it — see?  (Laughter.)  Uganda?  See?  Suddenly everybody was thinking, well, why not me?  The same is true in — Japan considers itself, as one of the largest economies in the world, suitable.  Brazil thinks it should be on.  India, the world’s largest democracy.

So we’re going to have to design a process whereby all these various legitimate arguments are sorted through.  But what I very much believe is that for the United Nations Security Council to be effective, it has to be more representative of all the various trend lines that have occurred over the last several decades.

One thing I will say, though, about the United Nations — everybody wants a seat at the table, but sometimes people don’t want the responsibilities of having a seat at the table.  And that’s happening even now.  And the one thing I’ve learned, both in my personal life and in my political life, is that if you want more authority, then you also have to be more responsible.  You can’t wear the crown if you can’t bear the cross.  

And oftentimes, in the United Nations — which I’m very committed to, and the agencies there do a lot of really critical important work — but when it comes to, okay, who’s going to actually step up and contribute to peacekeeping, who’s going to actually write a check when it comes to making sure that we’re dealing with the Ebola crisis, who’s going to show leadership in tackling climate change — are you willing to speak out on issues even when it contradicts your own interests, or when it’s politically hard, or when it’s uncomfortable — if you’re not willing to do those things, this is not just something where, okay, I got a membership key to the club and now I’m just going to show off how important I am.  And you see that sometimes.  This happens — and sometimes it happens at our own agencies.  

On human rights, when I was in Kenya, I said that it’s not enough for the United States always to be the heavy who has to point out that it’s unsuitable for leaders to ignore their constitution and try to cling on to power.  Their neighbors have to speak up as well, even if it’s uncomfortable.  (Applause.)  

So my attitude is, if you want to participate then you have to recognize that you have broader responsibilities.  And that’s something that the United States, by the way, for all our occasional mistakes or flaws, or our policies not perfect all the time, the one thing we do try to be is responsible.  If there’s an earthquake or a tornado or a hurricane somewhere, we’re there. We’re stepping up.  When Ebola happened, we stepped up, even when other people were kind of looking around and trying to figure out, well, I don’t know, what should we do?

And that is part of leadership.  That’s true, by the way, for you individually as well.  You have to be willing to take some risks and do some hard things in order to be a leader.  A leader is not just a name, a title, and privileges and perks.  

Let’s see, I think it’s a gentleman’s turn, isn’t it?  All right.  This guy looks sharp, right here in the corner.  I mean, that’s a serious-looking coat.  Look at that.  (Applause.)  That’s a good-looking coat.  Don’t worry, I’ll call on somebody who’s just wearing a suit at some point.  (Laughter.)

Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  I’m from Cameroon.  So we are very grateful for the American leadership in our fight against violent extremism and the military response.  So my question is, what kind of engagement — what kind of support we can expect from you in building resilient communities, especially along the Sahel, where we are grappling with those issues?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, this is something that’s very important.  Look, the sources of violence around the world are multiple.  And it’s important for us to recognize that, sadly, the human race has found excuses to kill each other for all sorts of reasons.  In the continent of Africa, oftentimes it’s been along ethnic and tribal lines.  It has nothing to do with religion; it has to do with you speak a slightly different language than me, or you look just a little bit different.  In Northern Ireland it was religious.  In other places, it just has to do with trying to gain power, or a majority group trying to impose its will on a minority group.  So there are all kinds of reasons for violence.  

But one of the phenomena that we are now seeing is a very specific promotion of violent extremism that oftentimes is twisting and distorting and, I think, ultimately, defying the edicts of one of the world’s greatest religions — Islam.  And it’s being exported and turbocharged through social media, and groups like al-Shabaab and ISIL and Boko Haram.  And the question is, how do we fight back against those ideologies in a way that allows us still to be true to the values of peace and tolerance and due process and rule of law.  

So the United States is obviously committed to this fight against terrorism.  And we are working with countries and partnering with countries all around the world to go after whether it’s al Qaeda, Boko Haram.  But what we’ve also said is in order to defeat these extremist ideologies, it can’t just be military, police and security.  It has to be reaching into communities that feel marginalized and making sure that they feel that they’re heard; making sure that the young people in those communities have opportunity.

And that’s why it’s so important to partner with civil society organizations in countries throughout Africa and around the world who can reach young people before ISIL reaches them, before al Shabaab reaches them, and inoculate them from the notion that somehow the solution to their alienation or the source of future opportunity for them is to go kill people.

And that’s why, when I was in Kenya, for example, and I did a town hall meeting there, I emphasized what I had said to President Kenyata — be a partner with the civil society groups. (Applause.)   Because too often, there’s a tendency — because what the extremist groups want to do is they want to divide.  That’s what terrorism is all about.  The notion is that you scare societies, further polarizes them.  The government reacts by further discriminating against a particular group.  That group then feels it has no political outlet peacefully to deal with their grievances.  And that then — that suppression can oftentimes accelerate even more extremism.  

And that’s why reaching out to civil society groups, clergy, and listening and asking, okay, what is it that we need to do in order to make sure that young people feel that they can succeed? What is it that we need to do to make sure that they feel that they’re fully a part of this country and are full citizens, and have full rights?  How do we do that?  Bringing them into plan and design messages and campaigns that embrace the diversity of these countries — those are the things that are so important to do.  

We still have to gain intelligence and engage in effective military and police campaigns to eradicate those who are so brainwashed that all you can do is incapacitate them.  But the question is constantly, how do we make sure that the recruitment of young people into these terrorist organizations, how do we cut off that flow?  And that requires more than just military efforts.  (Applause.)  

All right.  This young lady right here.  Yes, right here in the green and red.  Yes, you.  No, no, no right here.  Go ahead. No, no, no, right here in front.  Yes, you.  Yes, go ahead.  

Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  I’m from Kenya.  And I’m speaking on behalf of my brothers and sisters with albinism from Africa.  As you may know, Mr. President, persons with albinism in Africa are being killed and their body parts harvested for ritual purposes.  My request to you is to raise this issue with the heads of states from African countries to bring these atrocities to an end, for the benefit of for us in this room, and our brothers and sisters back in Africa.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  

THE PRESIDENT:  Okay, good.  Thank you.  Well, can I just say the notion that any African would discriminate against somebody because of the color of their skin, after what black people around the world have gone through, is crazy.  (Applause.) It is infuriating and I have no patience for it.  

When I was in Africa, I said there are important traditions and folkways that need to be respected — that’s part of who each culture is, each country is.  But there’s also just foolish traditions — (applause) — and old ways of doing business that are based in ignorance.  And they need to stop.  And the idea that a society would visit violence on people because of pigmentation, that’s not a tradition that is worth preserving.  That’s tomfoolery.  That’s craziness.  It’s cruel. 

The same is true with practices like genital mutilation.  That just has to stop.  (Applause.)  You don’t do violence to young girls just because your great-grandfather or — because there’s no reason for it other than to suppress woman.  That’s the rationale.  That’s what it’s based on.  Bride abduction — bad tradition.  End it.  Beating women — not a good tradition.  (Applause.)  I don’t care that that used to be how things were done.  

Societies evolve based on new understandings and new science and new appreciation of who we are.  And so we can preserve great traditions — music, food, dance, language, art — but if there’s a tradition anywhere in Africa, or here in the United States, or anywhere in the world that involves treating people differently because you’re scared of them, or because you’re ignorant about them, or because you want to feel superior to them, it’s a bad tradition.  And you have to challenge it.  And you can’t accept excuses for it.

Grace was up here — you heard the power of Grace’s talking. Now, traditionally, people with disabilities are treated differently because people are ignorant.  And when — here in the United States, we passed the Americans Against With Disabilities Act.  And that opened up more opportunities, and suddenly there are ramps so people can access it, and there are computers and new technologies so that people who maybe couldn’t communicate before can communicate.  And it turns out there’s all this talent and brilliance, and people can do these things.  Well, then people’s attitudes have to change, and the societies have to change.  And that’s why young people are so important in changing attitudes.  

The same, by the way, is true for sexual orientation. (Applause.)  I spoke about this in Africa, and everybody is like, oh, oh, we don’t want to hear that.  (Laughter.)  But the truth of the matter is, is that if you’re treating people differently just because of who they love and who they are, then there’s a connection between that mindset and the mindset that led to racism, and the mindset that leads to ethnic conflict.  (Applause.)  It means that you’re not able to see somebody else as a human being.  

And so you can’t, on the one hand, complain when somebody else does that to you, and then you’re doing it to somebody else. You can’t do it.  There’s got to be some consistency to how you think about these issues.  And that’s going to be up to young people — because old people get stuck in their ways.  (Laughter.)  They do.  They do.  And that’s true here in the United States.  

The truth of the matter is, is that when I started running for President, everybody said a black guy names Barack Obama, he’s not going to win the presidency of the United States.  (Laughter.)  But what I was banking on was the fact that with all the problems that still exist in the United States around racial attitudes, et cetera, things have changed, and young people and new generations had suddenly understood that, in Dr. King’s words, you have to be judged not by the color of your skin, but by the contents of your character.  

And that doesn’t mean that everything suddenly is perfect.  It just means that, young people, you can lead the way and set a good example.  But it requires some courage, because the old thinking, people will push back at you.  And if you don’t have the convictions and the courage to be able to stand up for what you think is right, then cruelty will perpetuate itself.  

So you guys are on the spot.  If there’s one thing I want YALI leaders to come out with is that notion of you are strong by taking care of the people who are vulnerable, by looking after the minority, looking after the disabled, looking after the vulnerable.  You’re not strong by putting people down; you’re strong by lifting them up.  (Applause.)  That’s the measure of a leader.

All right, how much time do we got?  I’ve only got time for one more question.  Now, first of all, the women — you’ve to put your hands down because I just asked a woman.  (Laughter.)  So it’s got to be a guy.  And I promised I’d ask a guy in a suit.  (Laughter.)  I’m just going to ask this guy right here.  (Applause.)  Look at him, he’s all buttoning up.  He looks very sharp.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  That’s my boy!  (Laughter.)    

Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  I’m from Nigeria.  Thank you.  I want to say we appreciate all the great work that the United States is doing with Nigeria and many other African countries, especially as it concerns infrastructure development policies and all of those.  But I’m of the opinion that if we do not make investment in education more than any other sector of the economy, then we are not building a sustainable partnership. (Applause.)  And I’m saying that with respect to the fact that we are all of the intellectual dream that Africa is experiencing.  Due to the fact the grass seemed green on this side and then the United States attracts so many intellectuals, we should have stayed to development and grown these programs.

For example, recently, when you were in Kenya, you launched a project around power and energy.  I’m of the opinion that if that program is going to be successful and sustainable, then all of those programs should include the partnership of universities. (Applause.)  Because through that, we can build the capacity of universities, and then those countries can go around in other African countries replicating that.  So in that case, we can control the dream that is moving from Africa to the West, or to any other part of the country.  (Applause.)  

So I want to ask, what is the United States doing to control this intellectual dream to the Western world?  And what are you doing to increase, more than others, the investment in education so that our partnership and development can be truly sustainable? Thank you.  (Applause.)  

THE PRESIDENT:  Okay, good.  That was good.  That was an excellent question.  It is an excellent question, but I’m going to reverse the question a little bit.  The question is not what is the United States doing to reverse the brain drain.  The question is, what are your countries doing to reverse the brain drain?  (Applause.) 

Now, many of you have friends who study overseas, they study in the West, and then they decide to stay instead of going back home.  Now, the United States, we are partnering with every country here.  I guarantee you there are programs to invest in education in your country.  There are programs to work with the universities in your countries.  I think you make an excellent point that on big projects like Power Africa, we should make sure that there is a capacity-building component.  And in fact, one of the things that’s been done with our development assistance that we’re providing is to emphasize capacity-building.

So, for example, our Feed the Future program, the goal is not to just keep on sending food forever.  The goal is teaching farmers to double or triple or quadruple their yields, which then gives them more income, which then allows them to buy maybe a tractor or to start a cooperative food-processing plant, that then accesses the market and the money gets reinvested, and now you’re building jobs and commerce inside the country as opposed to just being an aid recipient.  So I’m all about capacity-building.  

But ultimately, why is it that you have so many talented, well-educated young Africans leaving instead of staying?  Why is it that you have so many talented, well-educated people from the Middle East or parts of Asia, or Latin America who would rather live here than there?  

The issue is not just that we’re a wealthier country.  I think it’s fair to say — and you know better than I do — but part of it has to do with a young person’s assessment of can I succeed in applying my talents if, for example, the economy is still built on corruption so that I have to pay a bribe or be well-connected in order to start my business.  (Applause.)  Or are there still ethnic rivalries in the country, which means that if I’m from the wrong tribe, I’m less likely to advance.  Or is there still so much sexism in the country that if I’m a woman, then I’m expected just to be at home and be quiet, when I’m a trained doctor.  Or is there a lack of rule of law or basic human rights and freedoms that make me feel as if I am restricted in what I can do.

I make this point to say that some of the brain drain is economic.  But some of it has to do with people’s assessments of if I stay in my country, am I going to have the ability to succeed?  And that’s why, when I talk to leaders in Africa, or anywhere around the world, I say, look, if you put together the basics of rule of law and due process and democracy, and you’re able to keep peace so that there’s not conflict and constant danger, and the government is not corrupt, then even a poor country, you’re going to attract a lot of people who are going to want to live there because they’ll feel like they’re part of building something and are contributing something.

Because the one thing I’ve discovered is — right now, I live in a big house but it’s a lease, you know, I have to give it up in 18 months.  (Laughter.)  A big house is nice for the first month — it’s like, well, this is a really big house.  (Laughter.)  Then, after about two months you realize, I can’t live in all these rooms.  (Laughter.)  My life is not appreciably better once I’ve got the basics.  And I think a lot of young Africans would be much more interested in staying even if they don’t have as big of a house, or the shopping malls aren’t as big, or — if they felt as if the basics are taken care of, I can keep my family safe, I can practice my profession, I’m not going to be discriminated against — (applause) — the government is well-meaning and well-intentioned and is not corrupt, and public investments are being made, then people I think would have a sense of meaning in their lives.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be some people who would still rather live in London or New York because they think they can make more money.  But I think that, as much as anything we do, is going to reverse the brain drain.  And that’s why what you do is going to be so important, because if you set a good example of going back home and rebuilding your country, and if you, as young leaders, are creating an environment in which young people can succeed and you’re setting a new set of expectations about how exciting it is to be part of something new — that can help turn the tide.

So, good luck.  (Applause.)  Thank you, everybody.  (Applause.)  

12:22 P.M. EDT

Read More

Speeches: Making Progress: US Prevention of Mass Atrocities

[embedded content]

Thank you very much, Ambassador Daalder, for your warm welcome to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. You are certainly missed at the State Department. I join you this afternoon to mark the third anniversary of the Atrocities Prevention Board, but first I have to applaud you and your team for the Council’s commitment to educating the public about the important global challenges that we face and strengthening the public discourse about U.S. foreign policy. Thank you.

Three years ago yesterday, President Obama announced that mass atrocities prevention is both a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility. The President committed the United States to becoming a global leader in preventing large-scale violence against civilians worldwide, but he made clear that the U.S. cannot and should not intervene militarily every time there is an injustice or an imminent atrocities threat. Instead he called for the U.S. government to use its full arsenal of tools – diplomatic, political, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement – to prevent these terrible crimes.

As one such tool, the President established the Atrocities Prevention Board, referred to in government-speak as the APB, to put this prevention approach into practice. This interagency forum serves a horizon-scanning function by identifying atrocity risks by looking at early warning indicators and bringing together senior officials from across the executive branch to develop coordinated, whole-of-government responses to mitigate them.

The Atrocities Prevention Board speeds up the cogs of our government’s bureaucracy by bringing attention to at-risk cases within the interagency policy process. To be clear, the APB was never envisioned as the singular solution to mass killings, nor is it meant to replace the work we are already engaged in to address atrocities. Rather, its role is to prompt coordination among the larger U.S. national security apparatus to better address these problems early on by recognizing warning signs. The APB’s comparative advantage, then, is focusing on potential or ongoing violence that might escape attention in existing policy fora rather than expending its energy focusing on cases where threats to civilians – such as Assad’s brutalities against the Syrian people – are well-recognized and are the subject of extensive work in regionally-focused policy discussions. This early warning, preventive approach gives the U.S. government additional reaction time to plan and implement appropriate de-escalation interventions. Another benefit of this whole-of-government approach is that when threats emerge, the APB can marshal attention, technical expertise, and occasionally financial resources from across the government to better support our embassy-led responses on the ground.

On this third anniversary of the APB, we are invigorated by the U.S. government’s progress in further highlighting atrocities prevention into the foreign policy process and institutionalizing the capabilities, analysis, and expertise that is needed to do prevention work.

Since becoming Under Secretary for Civilian Security, I’ve worked to strengthen the State Department’s internal response to the threat of mass atrocities and to build a closer relationship with our prevention partner, the U.S. Agency for International Development. I have also redirected the focus of State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), to provide dedicated expertise and a formal analysis, planning, and coordinating role in support of APB priorities. As the new hub for State’s atrocities prevention work, the bureau works with USAID to produce assessments of the drivers of conflict in a targeted set of countries as well as corresponding risk assessments. This new analytical atrocities assessment framework allows CSO to work with the Department’s regional bureaus to develop evidence-based, civilian-focused intervention options, including diplomatic, programmatic, multilateral, and economic efforts. CSO is also developing a growing collection of best practices that are informing more targeted, effective government responses.

The APB has also formalized and increased our coordination efforts. At the State Department, we’ve established an Anti-Atrocities Coordination Group to help facilitate State’s work in at-risk countries, engage with regional experts who know the political, regional, and sub-national dynamics best, and help chart the course for institutionalizing the necessary atrocity prevention tools within the normal State processes. Finally, we continue to coordinate with our embassies on atrocity prevention work. Frontline officers are often the first to detect and report on emerging atrocity risks, and chiefs of mission can request that the APB conduct risk analysis of their host countries as well as identify appropriate interventions to mitigate the risk.

Let me provide some examples to illustrate how the U.S. Government identifies and responds to risks of extreme violence. When the Department’s atrocities watchers grew concerned about escalating tensions in Burundi, they sounded the alarm. This concern immediately initiated the APB process, elevating the level of attention on the threat. The State Department and USAID put together an interagency team from both the regional and functional parts of the government to conduct a thorough analysis of risks for violence, which led to a broad diplomatic engagement and programmatic strategy that was operationalized by our embassy in Bujumbura. The APB process also galvanized over $7 million in State and USAID funds to address the risks identified in the assessment through creative programming. For instance, the USG-financed projects provide conflict resolution training for community leaders, support a saving and lending program to improve economic opportunities for vulnerable youth, and empower civil society partners to monitor hate speech. With this additional funding, the Department was also able to deploy a prevention advisor to support the embassy in advance of Burundi’s upcoming national elections beginning in May. By sounding the alarm early and laying the groundwork two years ago, we are now in a much better position to monitor and respond to the worrying signs of political tension that are coming to the surface in Burundi. Let me be clear, we remain deeply concerned about the rising tensions, and the international community and the region must be vigilant as we urge President Nkurunziza to respect of the two term limit provision the Arusha Accords and continue to press for credible, peaceful elections. We continue to call on all parties in Burundi to play a peaceful role in this electoral process and refrain from violence. We have warned anyone who might be considering violence that they will not be welcome in the United States and that, as appropriate, we will deny visas to anyone who orders, plans, or participates in acts of violence. We will continue to monitor the situation in Burundi closely in the coming days and weeks and take steps to prevent, mitigate, and address violence.

Let’s also look at the Central African Republic. When violence quickly escalated in that African nation in December 2013, the Board’s atrocity prevention experts worked hand in hand with our regional bureaus as senior leaders from across government identified key interventions, including from DOD, USAID, and State. Together, over the last two years, we provided over $100 million in peacekeeping and security assistance and over $30 million in funding for conflict mitigation, reconciliation, justice and accountability, and governance. This has funded everything from community and grassroots peace and reconciliation programs to the purchase of vehicles and other equipment desperately needed by peace keeping forces. This is in addition to the $452 million we have provided in assessed funds to the UN for the UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA). With 2.5 million people – over half the country’s population – in dire need of humanitarian assistance, we have also provided almost $200 million in critical aid, saving thousands of lives. And we have married funding with increased diplomatic and public engagement, including naming a Special Representative and transmitting a peace message recorded by President Obama on local radio stations throughout the country at the height of the crisis.

Another example of this Administration’s commitment to atrocity prevention is US support for the counter-Lord’s Resistance Army mission in the central Africa region that has led to dramatic results in protecting civilians from LRA atrocities. Over the past three years, the Ugandan-led African Union Regional Task Force – with Defense Department logistics and support from US Special Operations Forces and State civilian liaisons – has removed three of the LRA’s top five most senior and notorious commanders from the battlefield. The United States worked with leaders from the Task Force’s member countries to ensure that LRA number-two commander Dominic Ongwen, who was transferred to the International Criminal Court in January, faced justice, and we continue to offer up to $5 million in rewards for information leading to the arrest, transfer, or conviction of LRA leader Joseph Kony. During that time, defections and releases from the LRA have significantly increased, with more than 250 individuals putting down their arms and leaving the LRA, and the number of people killed by the LRA has dropped by over 75 percent. According to the U.N., the number of people displaced by the LRA decreased from approximately 400,000 one year ago to roughly 160,000 in 2014, the lowest number in a decade.

Obviously, the USG has been focused on countering the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) by building a strong multilateral coalition to address the spreading threat as it grew in Syria and then Iraq. In this case, the APB did not need to play a role in raising awareness of ISIL’s atrocities; instead, it was able to play a value-added role by focusing attention on particular cases, helping to prompt swift action. For example, when ISIL drove tens of thousands of members of the Iraqi Yazidi religious minority from their homes last year, the APB again helped ensure a swift USG response by working with our Embassy and consulates in Iraq along with the State Department’s Religious Freedom Office to collect credible information. This information helped inform the U.S. decision to launch strikes that degraded ISIL’s capabilities and gave the local Kurdish military forces enough momentum to break the siege and free the Yazidis from Mount Sinjar.

We recently registered another achievement in advancing a preventive approach to mass atrocities – this time in Nigeria, which conducted a largely peaceful election last month. The US government has long been focused on preventing violence in Nigeria, and the APB worked to complement that focus by spurring contingency planning and advocating for more of an atrocity prevention focus into the normal interagency policy processes. To prevent the violence that left over 800 dead after the 2011 national vote, the APB provided support for the implementation of the USG’s election assistance strategy for Nigeria, contributing to and enhancing multiple USG agencies’ efforts to prevent violence and ensure transparency and credibility more than a year in advance of the election. And while there were dozens killed during this election, which is too many still, there was a dramatic decrease in violence – a decrease many attribute to increased transparency, credibility, and a democratic transfer of power. The APB also helped galvanize the interagency to more effectively address the horrific atrocities being committed by the violent extremist group, Boko Haram, identifying gaps in the regional governments’ security approach, finding some new resources, and developing programs to strengthen the region’s and local communities’ capacity to respond. For example, the APB has contributed to ongoing efforts by the USG to work with the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Benin to support their cooperative efforts to take on Boko Haram, which may eventually include a Multinational Joint Task Force to better coordinate these efforts, while at the same time supporting local communities and law enforcement efforts that address the root causes of the insurgency. In northeast Nigeria, USAID has launched an initiative to improve stability and strengthen democratic institutions. The program focuses on strengthening links between local government, civil society, and communities to mitigate and prevent conflict, increasing access to credible information, and reducing youth vulnerability to violent extremist influences. We are encouraged by the commitment of Nigeria’s President-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, to tackle the Boko Haram threat.

In addition to amplify our prevention efforts, we are also seeking to encourage like-minded partners to adopt a similar approach. I recently led a group of State and USAID officials to meet with UN interlocutors who oversee issues of atrocity prevention, which resulted in a collaborative dialogue that I intend to regularize. We are also further highlighting mass atrocities prevention in ongoing bilateral and multilateral diplomatic discussions, such as the U.S.-EU Civilian Security and Development Dialogue.

Despite its important achievements and the President’s commitment to elevating atrocity prevention as a U.S. foreign policy priority, challenges remain. Chief among these are resource constraints. While APB meetings do not require funding, effective prevention tools do depend on resources, particularly sources of funding that can be accessed and mobilized swiftly. While we have sometimes succeeded in marshaling funding to respond to an escalating crisis, in this constrained budget environment, we often see prevention needs that we are unable to meet before the crisis escalates. In a world of proliferating crises and limited resources, prevention work is more critical than ever.

Some observers have expressed dissatisfaction with the Obama Administration’s commitment to preventing mass atrocities across the globe. I understand their perspective. The APB has not halted violence worldwide; in its three years of existence, it has not protected every civilian from governments, insurgents and terrorists. As imperfect as our current efforts are, they represent undeniable progress – both in further prioritizing atrocity prevention and in delivering concrete results. On the APB’s third anniversary, we are certainly closer to realizing the President’s intent that the United States government embraces the mission of preventing mass atrocities. It is my hope that three years from now, the United States will have made its tools, resources, and actions even more effective in preventing mass violence against civilians.

President Obama took a bold step by elevating concern about mass atrocities as a foreign policy priority. Atrocity prevention, he said, is not just a matter of values and a moral responsibility but also a core national security interest. The President acknowledged that “It can be tempting to throw up our hands and resign ourselves to man’s endless capacity for cruelty,” but he reminded us that Elie Wiesel and other holocaust survivors chose never to give up. Nor can the United States of America.

Read More