In fall 2011, the Auschwitz Institute launched the pilot run of a Genocide Prevention Monitoring Internship, operated in partnership with the Office of the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG). The purpose was to offer interns

practical experience in assessing the risk of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes within a single country, while providing the OSAPG with information the Special Adviser can use in his mission to “act as a catalyst to raise awareness of the causes and dynamics of genocide, to alert relevant actors where there is a risk of genocide, and to advocate and mobilize for appropriate action.”

Interns received training on how to assess risk using the OSAPG’s Analysis Framework and submitted reports to the Auschwitz Institute on a monthly basis from (roughly) October 2011 through March 2012. Four countries were selected for monitoring: Bahrain, Indonesia, Liberia, and Zimbabwe. Initially, the plan was to have one intern for each country, but owing to the degree of interest and qualifications on the part of our applicants, for some countries we assigned two monitors.

Now, having concluded the internship’s pilot run, we are evaluating the usefulness of the project, to the interns, to our own work, and to the OSAPG. To that end, we asked each of the interns to write a blog post about their experience, answering two questions: 1) What did you learn about genocide prevention? 2) What did you learn about the risk(s) of genocide in the country you were monitoring?

This week we present the post by Jeremy Garsha, a graduate student in history at San Francisco State University. Jeremy monitored Zimbabwe—not for genocide, but for the broader category of crimes against humanity.

As a monitoring intern for the Auschwitz Institute, the most important lesson I learned was that genocide is not an event, but a process. Being a graduate student of comparative genocide, this is a notion I have been taught, but one I quickly forget. By training I am a historian. I investigate past genocides, where all of the pieces have already played out. It is easy to forget that each moment of human rights violations, left unchecked, has the potential to spiral into the systematic killing of individuals based on their identity. When examining historical episodes of genocide from a present point of view, each event often seems inevitable and intentional. Yet, as scholars and citizens of an international community, we must always remember that genocide can and must be prevented at the very inception of exclusionary ideology and basic human rights violations. If genocide is a process, then it can be prevented at many moments, so long as we have the vigilance and courage to act.

I was privileged enough to work with the Auschwitz Institute, an organization dedicated to preventing conflicts before they escalate into atrocities and genocide. Under their guidance, I had the opportunity to monitor Zimbabwe, a country more at risk for crimes against humanity than genocide. By broadening our search to include not only the legal definition of “genocide” as defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), but also all of the illegal acts listed in Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (2002), my research partner, Yasmin Andrews, and I were able to investigate and monitor a myriad of sources and antecedents that had the potential to become systematic criminal acts. Zimbabwe provided me with a real-world example of why it is important not to become blinded when looking specifically for genocide threats, as many human rights violations do not fit within the parameters of the “national, ethnical, racial, or religious groups” found within the Genocide Convention. When using a broader definition of “crimes against humanity,” however, it became clear that prevention monitoring of Zimbabwe is of prime importance.

Zimbabwe has a history of genocide: 20,000 Matabele citizens were mass murdered by the exclusively Shona Fifth Brigade in 1983–84, in what was called the Gukurahundi (a Shona term meaning “the early rain that washes away the husk before the spring rains”). Zimbabwe also has a recent history of political violence following the disputed election results of 2008, which set up a power-sharing deal between President Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The past episodes of violence, as well Zimbabwe’s decimated economy, has also caused tens of thousands of refugees to flee into neighboring southern African nations. Lacking effective judicial oversight, Zimbabwean government and state security forces operate in a system of impunity. There exists the threat of renewed violence following next year’s scheduled elections, as well as the failing health of 88-year-old Mugabe, who has been in power for over 30 years. The above factors, to name but a few, underscore the necessity of proper and effective monitoring efforts.

A genocide prevention monitor working out of his home in San Francisco is not a replacement for United Nations–backed monitors on the ground. It is, however, a useful and safe alternative when it is not possible to place UN-trained observers in every country that is at risk of genocide. In a globalized world, independent news sources provide an amazing amount of information, and it is remarkable how much can be gleaned by having an individual tasked with gathering and filtering these streams of media. As monitoring interns, our task was to collect, not analyze data. Reading reports on Zimbabwe from across the globe left me with one final realization during my six-month internship, our shared connection of humanity.

I have always had an academic interest in Zimbabwe and southern African history, but working as a genocide prevention monitor reminded me that there is no shortage of information in the digital age. Anyone with an Internet connection can instantaneously plug into world events. With this connection comes the responsibility to take action when human rights anywhere are threatened. In Zimbabwe there is the concept of unhu, a variation of the Zulu term ubuntu, popular in southern Africa, which refers to the notion that one’s humanity is created and nurtured because of its shared connection to others. Crimes against humanity are just that, crimes that violate our shared understanding and connection to humanity. Genocide in one particular region affects us all, and we are all tasked with the responsibility to prevent future human rights violations from escalating into mass atrocities.