Today we present another Guest Preventer from Prof. Alex Hinton’s genocide prevention class at Rutgers–Newark:

Yannek Smith, Class of 2011, Political Science major

Professor Hinton’s genocide prevention course is the culmination of my undergraduate studies. I knew as soon as I heard about it that this was not something to pass up. Here was a unique opportunity to take a class sponsored by the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, taught by Alex Hinton, one of the world’s top genocide scholars. It includes weekly visits by prominent actors in the field of genocide prevention who come to teach the class about their work and share their views on this expanding field. This is something special, and I am grateful to be a part of it.

When most people hear the word genocide, it evokes certain images: the Jewish Holocaust, the Hutus’ massacre of the Tutsis, perhaps Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and (increasingly) the genocide of the Armenians. These are the most infamous cases of genocide in the 20th century, the ones that stick out the most in our recent historical memory. What the course does a wonderful job illustrating is that these atrocities are not isolated cases. Genocide is far more common than most people imagine; it cuts across class, culture, and ideology. The targets include a wide a range of groups, real and imagined, albeit several that are not included in the 1948 Genocide Convention’s narrow definition. More important than academic debates over what constitutes genocide is adopting a utilitarian approach and looking at the roots of this phenomenon and what can be done to stop genocidal behavior in its early stages.

In class, we are learning to see genocide on a spectrum, as a series of steps or stages that can be identified and addressed. We demystify the concept and look at it through a sober lens. This requires accepting many difficult truths: genocide is a huge part of human history (the United States and the greater “New World,” for instance, were founded on genocide), genocidaires are rational actors (there is always some kind of logic to genocide), and it can happen anywhere. Fred Schwartz, the founder of AIPR, would add that genocide, like rape or murder, will never cease to exist. Humans have always done it, and will continue it, and the challenge therefore is to detect it and defeat it in its early stages, or if it is too late, minimize the damage.

The human rights movement is essentially a fight to improve the human condition; to protect people on a global scale from abusive governments, torture, the torments of abject poverty, and—the gravest crime against our humanity—the crime of genocide. Prof. Hinton and our weekly speakers teach us about the shifting paradigms in genocide prevention, the different legal instruments that are out there, and the challenges and barriers of our current international order and the United Nations system. Things are changing fast, and many questions linger: What is the future of Responsibility to Protect? Why is the world sitting and watching as Libyan and Ivoirian people are deprived of basic human rights? How should we address the delicate issue of sovereignty?

The students in our class are in a privileged position: we are intellectually equipped to address these important questions. I hope that this educational initiative will not end with our class, so that in the future a broader range of students can become active participants in the fight against genocide.

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