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On Tuesday, 12 February, Columbia University World Leaders Forum hosted International Criminal Court (ICC) President, Judge Sang-Hyun Song, for an address titled The International Criminal Court and the Fight Against Impunity for Atrocity Crimes. University President Lee C. Bollinger gave the opening remarks, wherein he spoke of the electoral violence that wracked Kenya in December 2007. During that time, more than 1,000 people died and 600,000+ Kenyans became internally displaced. As a result, four individuals accused of crimes against humanity–Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, Cabinet Secretary Francis Muthaura, Education Minister William Ruto, and radio executive Joshua Sang–are due to stand trial this spring at the ICC. Regardless, Kenyatta is running for president in next month’s elections in Kenya.
Judge Song began his speech with a brief personal background, before delving into the titular topic. He stated that the fight against impunity for atrocity crimes is far broader than the ICC, though the ICC is at the forefront. Believing that law is the best tool for prevention, he also stressed the importance of the UN, states, and civil society working together to end impunity. The UN and the International Court of Justice were created in the aftermath of World War II; together with the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals, the seeds of international criminal justice were planted. However, it soon took a backseat to the Cold War. The field further developed as a result of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the 1990’s. The Rome Statute was negotiated in 1998 and entered into force in 2002.
To date, the ICC has tried individuals from DRC, Uganda, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Kenya, Libya, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mali. In 2017, the Court’s jurisdiction will expand to include the crime of aggression. Because peace and justice are interlinked, Judge Song spoke of the mutually reinforcing relationship between the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the ICC. Darfur and Libya were both referred to the ICC by the UNSC, but the use of UN funds was prohibited. The UNSC can limit or expand the jurisdiction of the ICC, which bears judicial responsibility, while states are responsible for enforcement. Aside from the issue of money, the UNSC needs to take a more consistent and vigilant approach.
The ICC is a court of last resort and in order to strengthen national justice systems, Judge Song said development agencies need to be involved. The UN is also in a unique position, as it can advance the rule of law throughout the world. The ICC is not a hierarchical institution. All judges and prosecutors are independent and their own bosses. To carry out its mandate, the ICC must maintain its independence and integrity and remain non-political.
After discussing the above, the floor was opened for a Q&A session:
The first question was in regards to Kenya, and how the ICC plans to proceed with its trials without local support and cooperation. Judge Song said the cases will begin in April as originally scheduled, and won’t be affected by the political processes, though logistics are not easy. The ICC constantly consults the host government on an array of issues.
The second question focused on the tension between international stands and sovereignty/non-member states. According to Judge Song, countries, perhaps most notably the United States, have their own reasons for their reluctance to sign onto the Court, including a fear of abuse of power by the prosecutors and a fear of unnecessary political influence by the UNSC. In terms of the US/President Obama, there is close cooperation on matter of mutual concern and intelligence sharing. Judge Song also noted that the US government dispatched military advisers to Uganda to aid in capturing Joseph Kony and other LRA members. The ICC endeavors to strengthen national capacities.
Finally, 1/3 of the 18 ICC judges must be women, but today, 11 out of 18 are, which may have some bearing on the development of jurisprudence. Obviously, there are no American judges so there is no American influence, such as the practice of witness proofing. Ad hoc tribunals have jurisdictional primacy over the ICC, which has a strong desire to develop its own jurisprudence.
In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks to Kate Doyle, a senior analyst for the National Security Archive in Washington, DC, whose work has been key to putting together the facts of the genocide against Guatemala’s Mayans under the country’s military dictatorship in the 1980s. She went into Guatemalan records and tracked the chain of command that allowed lawyers representing victims to get a ruling in Spain classifying the case as a genocide. Last year she received the ALBA/Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism last year, and currently she is conducting new research into mass atrocities in Guatemala.
Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll with the Auschwitz Institute. Today we’re looking at the criminal trial of Efraín Ríos Montt, who is considered to be at the center of culpability for the mass killings in Guatemala, which came to a peak under his dictatorship in the ’80s. He faces charges for 15 massacres in the Ixil region, and the deaths of 1,771 unarmed men, women, and children during his reign in 1982 and 1983. The trial opened at the end of January with Montt facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Speaking with me now is Kate Doyle, a forensic archivist working for the National Security Archive in DC. She played a major part in tracking down the chain of command that allowed lawyers to get a ruling in Spain that the case amounted to genocide, which has led us to the ongoing trial. Hello, Kate. It’s good to have you here with us.
Hi, Jared. Thanks for having me.
Can you tell us a little bit about the factors leading up to this historic trial and the work you’ve done contributing to it?
Sure. The efforts on the part of Guatemalans to bring Ríos Montt and the senior military command, and many others, to justice, since the end of the long, 36-year civil conflict in 1996, has itself traveled a very long road. The initial filing on the charges of genocide and charges against humanity against Ríos Montt and seven of his co-conspirators, in Spain, took place in 1999. So, many years ago, the case was filed by a well-known Mayan activist in Guatemala named Rigoberta Menchú, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize many years ago. Rigoberta filed the case shortly after the Spanish court had indicted General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, in an effort to try him under the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes committed in his country. That took place in 1998. So Menchú and the organizations and massacre survivors that she represented decided to file a case based on the same model of international human rights justice in 1999. And that case began to work slowly, slowly through the system of the court in Spain.
And in the meantime, in 2000, the following year, again, a group of survivors that belonged to an organization called the Association for Justice and Reparations, and another group, the Centre for Human Rights Legal Action, inside Guatemala — these are Guatemalan activist organizations — filed a case in the Guatemalan national court, charging Ríos Montt and his senior military command with genocide and crimes against humanity in, again, the year 2000. That process, that parallel process, has brought us to the point we are today, with the Guatemalan case actually going to trial finally, earlier this year.
What significance does it have for the victims and their families?
Well, this is an extraordinary development, obviously. The survivors of the massacres and the family members of those who did not survive have been working to see this day for 30 years. So you can imagine that there is a tremendous amount of sort of supressed excitement — sometimes not so suppressed; people do shout out and applaud sometimes in the courtroom — but in general, people are there to observe and listen, and there is a tremendous amount of hope. People have come on buses from all over the country in this particular trial, since it focuses on an area of one of the rural departments of Guatemala known as the Quiché. The Ixil communities that were affected by the massacres in that region in 1982 have sent representatives down to Guatemala City to observe the hearings: the various presentation of evidence, and the arguments of the defense and prosecution to this point.
So it’s really been a very emotional experience for many, many people to watch this unfold, as slow and considered as it has been. And it is a very, very important victory, I think, for those communities. Just to see this man, and in this case his senior military intelligence chief, José Rodriguez, have to sit in the courtroom and listen to the presentation of the case by the prosecution. That alone has been really quite an extraordinary experience for people.
So it’s quite important, then, that this case is being tried in a national court, rather than an international tribunal?
It is. I mean, I think it’s the international case, the case introduced by Rigoberta Menchú and many others, in 1999 in Spain, has been a critical catalyst, pressure, prod for the national case. So in no way would I want to diminish the importance of that effort and that process, because that has had a very particular and powerful effect on getting this national case to move along.
That said, of course it is especially resonant for people, and powerful for people, to see Guatemalan lawyers in a Guatemalan courtroom, arguing before a Guatemalan judge, on the outlines of these terrible crimes that were committed by the Guatemalan military against its own citizens. So yeah, it has a special power, the fact that this is being held in a national court, and I think it’s important to recognize that there really isn’t another case we can think of around the world where a country has been willing and able to try one of its own former heads of state on charges of genocide, in its own court, without international support and contribution, and the presence, usually, of international judges. So this is really groundbreaking, I think, all around the world, in terms of international justice.
How do you think that Ríos Montt has been able to escape this for so long and remain immune, immune to these charges?
Ríos Montt’s ability to avoid prosecution on human rights crimes is the result of a confluence of all kinds of factors. First of all, the war didn’t end until 15 years after the crimes in this particular case were committed. So you had an armed internal conflict continuing all this time, and the Guatemalan military was an absolute front, center player in Guatemalan politics, government, security, the economy, every aspect of Guatemalan life until very, very recently. Another reason is that Ríos Montt in the early 1990s created a political party and became a member of congress. And that gave him immunity, for years and years, from prosecution of any kind related to the wars.
And that, I think, is linked to a third reason why it has taken so long for Ríos Montt to be tried, and that is the Guatemalan justice system was severely damaged during the civil conflict. The military stocked it with judges who were either former military people, relatives of military, or just friends to the military: very conservative, very supportive. Also, the judiciary system was systematically targeted for intimidation, threats, attacks, murders. There were a number of judges that were murdered both during and after the conflict.
So all of these factors — the ongoing war that lasted well into the 1990s; Ríos Montt’s own immunity that he managed to get by becoming a member of congress, even from the worst, most heinous crimes imaginable, such as genocide or the crimes against humanity with which he’s charged now; and the weakness of the justice system in Guatemala — all of that, plus the just across-the-board lack of political will to try members of the military for human rights crimes, conspired to delay and obstruct the process of justice for decades.
What implications do you see this having in the field of human rights law, specifically dealing with cases of mass atrocities?
One of the reasons this trial happened is because of the pressure that was brought to bear on the Guatemalan justice system, and the government in general. Internally, there was an incredibly sustained, committed amount of work that went on, on the part of the survivors’ organizations, the human rights groups, and the organizations committed to human rights justice there. But internationally, the role that the Spanish case played in continuing to push this on, and continuing to focus international attention on this case was also critical.
Is there anything exceptional about this particular case of these 15 massacres that allowed that to happen?
One of the elements that has been exceptional, and I think this is also critical for these trials, has been the identification of evidence. In the case of the Guatemalan Ixil region, where these 15 massacres — as opposed to the hundreds of other massacres that took place during the conflict — were carried out, is that number one, there have been multiple exhumations done: the unburying of the massacred dead over the last 15 years. And those exhumations have been done almost exclusively by a nongovernmental organization called the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala.
They have been able to compile extraordinary, powerful evidence of the identification of the people found in these mass graves, hundreds and hundreds of men, women and children. They’ve been able to put together profiles on the kinds of people targeted, and clearly these were not all men carrying weapons. These were people of all ages, down to infants, who often had their hands tied, or had been blindfolded, or otherwise constrained before killed. So this kind of data, matched with a DNA laboratory in Guatemala City, where the office has its headquarters — that has been crucial for the development of the evidence in this case.
And the other piece of evidence that has been central to the case has been the appearance of documents from inside the Guatemalan military command. These are records that were provided to the National Security Archive by sources that have requested anonymity, but we’ve been able to, over the course of many months, verify the authenticity of these materials. And these are basically both the commands — on the part of the Guatemalan senior military command, back in 1982, to carry out the scorched-earth operations that targeted these Ixil communities — and the reports from the field, as the patrolling units were walking through the villages and encountering civilians and killing them; encountering fields of corn and burning them down so people wouldn’t have food to eat; encountering peoples’ homes and schools and churches, and razing them to the ground. These reports were sent back up the chain of command to the army chief of staff in Guatemala City, and we now have these reports, and they are at the heart of this case.
Sounds like this is just the beginning. Do you think there is a possibility that U.S. officials could end up being charged in connection with the crimes?
Well, who would charge them, Jared? I think that’s the problem. It is certainly going to be a closely examined question as to precisely who within the U.S. government supported, aided, abetted the doctrine and the strategy behind these counterinsurgency operations. It will be a closely examined question whether or not the United States provided material assistance of any kind. And it will be an equally closely examined question as to what extent U.S. officials were responsible for how that war was waged and the civilian deaths that resulted. The problem with that line of inquiry is what comes next? Who is going to take on an indictment of U.S. officials for the crimes of genocide in this case, or for aiding and abetting the human rights violations that took place?
I know that in Spain, Balthazar Garzón, the judge in the Pinochet case, did try to open an investigation, and I know that U.S. officials — we know through the Wikileaks documents — flew to Spain to pressure the Spanish government to drop that case. So I think that’s a fascinating and worthy investigation to carry out, and I will be very curious to see how that would be implemented, and in what court, under what legal jurisdiction.
Well, thank you so much for being here with us, Kate. It was a pleasure to have you.
All right, Jared. Thanks for the invitation. It was great talking.
An Open Secret:
Remembering the Victims of Nazi Eugenics
Before the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the forced deportation of millions of Europe’s Jews, the Nazis’ plan for racial purity received a trial run at home, against Germany’s own handicapped and disabled. The idea for this operation was an outgrowth of eugenics, an applied science used by the Nazis with the aim of creating a super race, in which only those deemed “fit” would be allowed to procreate. This could be achieved through positive eugenics, which entailed promoting “fit” behavior, or negative eugenics, which meant that individuals deemed genetically inferior would be prevented from having children. By restricting births of those deemed less than human — individuals the Nazis often referred to as “life unworthy of life” — the master race could thus be progressively achieved within German society.
Initially, the Nazis approached eugenics by passing such legislation as the 1933 Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Progeny and the 1935 Marriage Health Law. The former included compulsory sterilization on the basis of nine neurological and physical hereditary afflictions, such as schizophrenia and hereditary blindness, and the latter further promulgated the idea of racial inferiority by disallowing Germans with particular hereditary disorders from legally marrying.
While discussion of genocide usually centers on the killing of members of a targeted group — the first of five definitions of the crime in Article 2 of the 1948 Genocide Convention — compulsory sterilization satisfies another condition for genocide. Specifically, Article 2(d) of the convention states that genocide includes “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group,” as doing so would result in the eventual elimination of that particular people. In addition, given that many institutionalized individuals who were murdered by the Nazis during both its child and adult euthanasia campaigns were slowly starved to death, Article 2(c), “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” was also involved.
In short, euthanasia, an insidious plan that began under the guise of fake hospitals and the provision of allegedly legitimate medical care, swiftly evolved into the murderous campaign embodied in Operation Reinhard, and, ultimately, the totality of Holocaust extermination and death camps for Jews, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, and all other “inferior” peoples under Nazi rule.
As part of its International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations, the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies at Columbia University hosted a panel on February 7 titled “The Unfit: Disability under Nazism and Fascism,” which focused on the plight of these oft-neglected, very first victims of Nazi genocide. The discussion featured Patricia Heberer and Susan Bachrach of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), as well as the Guido and Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimò Chair of Contemporary Italian Studies at New York University, David Forgacs. Each provided a different perspective on how the Nazis’ quest for racial purity — and the memory of their victims — still has relevance for us today.
The first to speak, Susan Bachrach, focused mainly on the eugenics aspect of the Nazi campaign, and often referenced the USHMM travelling exhibition for which she is curator, Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race. In tracing the evolution of eugenics, which emerged as an early 20th-century field of study supported equally by scientists and academics around the world, she summarized the utopian vision that accompanied the science as being “aimed at some kind of perfection of the human race.” Citing both Darwin and Mendel’s work as starting points, Bachrach stated that “eugenics began as a reform problem that was looking at real problems — social and other.” Essentially, countries like Germany, Britain, and the United States saw eugenics as a potential solution to other issues that had plagued their societies. For Germany, a country devastated after World War I, this included in particular poverty and inflation.
As such, the stage was set for a leader like Adolf Hitler to translate eugenics from theory into practice. Indeed, as Bachrach showed during her presentation, Hitler was propagandized as the “doctor” of the German people, and he seized the ensuing political opportunity by employing both positive and negative eugenics tactics to establish a system of racial hierarchy that would eventually culminate in his “Final Solution” to “the Jewish problem.” As such, he exalted the role of the mother by issuing an Honor Cross of German Motherhood to women who had birthed various increments of children (positive eugenics), while also approving the implementation of hereditary family history cards and such hereditary laws as those previously mentioned (negative eugenics).
Bachrach was followed by her colleague, Patricia Heberer, who complemented Bachrach’s presentation on eugenics with her own work on euthanasia, the Nazis’ initial semantic justification for their murderous campaign. Heberer explained that the practice of euthanasia “aimed to restore the ‘racial integrity’ of the German nation,” and went on to discuss the Nazis’ shift from initially targeting children to eventually developing their adult euthanasia program, Aktion T-4, in which over 70,000 mentally ill and disabled Germans were murdered in six different gassing complexes from 1940 to 1941. During the one-year halt to this program, ordered by Hitler, Heberer stated that more than 100 T-4 workers were sent east, to use their “expertise” in the eventual development of death camps like Sobibor and Treblinka.
Importantly, Heberer emphasized that while hers and others’ research on the Nazi euthanasia program has had positive implications for our understanding of history, it has also “overshadowed [the victims’] individual existence and obscured their identity.” As such, the majority of her presentation was devoted to telling individual stories of victims of a Bavarian institution called Kaufbeuren, which was notorious for the savage starvation tactics it employed on its victims. In discussing her analysis of this institution, which has included extensive review of the medical personnel’s documentation, Heberer commented on “the ability or the inability to work” as one of the strongest indicators of a patient’s chances for survival in Kaufbeuren. This emphasis on keeping people around who were able to do work draws an obvious and eerie parallel to the selection criteria later used in concentration camps throughout Europe. In simplest terms, Heberer explained, “a constant need for care was a death sentence.”
The third and final speaker, David Forgacs, brought another element to the discussion by sharing a sample of his work on photographing places of social exclusion. Focusing primarily on mental health institutions during and after the fall of fascism in Italy, Forgacs commented on how the photography charged with telling this particular story had a “way of making these people ‘other’” by persuading its audience to “[look] at the strangeness of the person.” He accompanied his presentation by evaluating the shortcomings of photographic representation of social exclusion by discussing its sensational nature that ultimately “reinforces these people as different from us.”
As each of the panelists demonstrated, the stories of Germany’s handicapped and disabled are powerful and enduring. For her part, Bachrach concluded by saying, “I hope that all of this is a warning,” referring to modern scientific advancements like the human genome project and cloning initiatives — a warning about where we could go “without . . . thinking seriously where that kind of thinking [has] led us in the past.” Even more poignantly, Heberer summed up her remarks by simply reminding us that “those victims of silence still have much to tell us.”
Photo: Michelle Eberhard
In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks to Bridget Conley-Zilkic, lead researcher on the How Mass Atrocities End project. Conley-Zilkic did her Ph.D. on cultural responses to humanitarian interventions in Bosnia and Haiti, has been research director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, and currently serves as Research Director for the World Peace Foundation.
Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. With me today is Bridget Conley-Zilkic, research director for the World Peace Foundation. She’s also lead researcher for the How Mass Atrocities End project. One year ago, she and two others published an article bearing the same name. It challenged some of the connections between idealistic goals and on-the-ground realities in genocide prevention. In June, she put out another piece, exploring and explaining the complex and challenging nature of the field of genocide prevention, which can become problematic even at the definitional level. Hello, Bridget. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you for having me.
Can you tell us a little bit about the project you’re working on and how it got started?
The project How Mass Atrocities End is a sort of multifaceted research project. We’re looking at trends across 50, possibly more, cases from the 20th century, trying to get consistent information about how atrocities ended in each of those cases, so that that can inform our analysis.
The second part of the project is a seminar series. We regularly host seminars — we’ve done several already, and will continue — on places and themes related to the ending of mass atrocities. We bring together key experts, regional experts, thematic experts, researchers, for two days of intensive closed-door discussion, trying to explore the political dynamics around ending atrocities.
The third part: engaging in in-depth research on five, possibly six, cases of mass atrocities. These are from more recent history. We’re not going back to colonial or World War Two-era cases. And in these cases we’re asking our researchers to start studying their case from that question of what caused the violence to decrease, and from there, hopefully unearthing not only answers to that new question, but also unearthing new information about the cases that they’re working on.
And from that information, or from that data that you’ve gleaned, what are the implications of what you’ve found for the field of genocide prevention and perhaps for the international community?
We’re fairly early in this research. It was conceived as a five-year project and we’re one year into it. So we don’t have direct policy recommendations by any means, at this point. Some of the trends, though, of what we’re seeing I think are interesting. For one, just the comparative historical basis. In the study of cases across the 20th century, for instance, we had to come up with a way to have a consistent case selection. We decided to go with a numerical threshold of 50,000 or more civilian deaths within a five-year time frame.
Now, interestingly, in the study of genocide, for instance, that is a fairly low number, if you look at the cases that are within the genocide canon, most of which get over 100,000 quite easily — over a million in the most notable cases. However, we found with those high numbers that we could not include almost any of the contemporary cases that, for instance, the anti-genocide movement is working on. The thresholds are so much lower today than they were at previous times.
So that prompts a series of questions that we continue to explore, about whether or not some of the insights and research that have been done on genocide and really high-level targeted civilian killing, do they adhere to lower levels of killing? Might we maybe be looking at the wrong patterns? Might we need to set our sights on slightly different criteria, and understand and try to anticipate how violence unfolds in new and different ways? So that is one question. Another one is we’re trying to get a better sense of the political context that enables mass atrocities to take place — or what you might call the permissive environment — and trying to understand that larger context and logic that governs violence.
Now this is something that a lot of researchers are doing. They’re looking at more strategic uses of violence and then trying to understand how that intersects with the dynamics of ending violence. So how are goals met? Are there other ways that one could potentially intervene — and numerous ways, I don’t mean [only] military — that might hasten ending? If we start from a study of that political dynamic, then we can potentially unearth a different range of options than starting from an assumption that the violence is inevitably going to escalate to total killing for the sake of killing a particular group.
It sounds like you’re talking about a paradigm of outlook for the actors involved. How do you think that we got to there, and how do you think we can make these attitudinal changes at the levels that are necessary to do so?
I think at this point, like I said we’re at the very early stages, so I don’t know exactly what we’ll find overall . The one thing that we are finding, though, is somewhere in between a really structuralistic approach that looks at conditions in sort of an inevitability into how killing will evolve — that on the one side, and then the other, the idea of complete individual agency. Of actors who fully own their acts, in the sense that they have all options open to them and simply choose to kill for whatever strategic reason.
But we also have to understand the political systems and the ways in which power operates, and then the ways in which violence takes place within that system. And I think somewhere in there, in the political organization of society, and the place that violence— how it operates within different political system — I think we will end up understanding the phenomenon better. Now, how that will lead to changing approaches, I’m not sure yet.
Are you optimistic that one day state actors are capable of changing that approach?
I think without question. I think if we start looking at that question that I mentioned earlier, about scale of violence, and how the cases that we see ongoing today — even the worst cases, the ones that I think most demand our attention and new innovations in civilian protection — they are just nowhere near the heights of violence that we have seen over the past century.
Now, we know that violence against civilians has the capacity to spike incredibly vicious rates, so we’re not saying to be complacent, but I think that we can see change in the degree to which states use violence — and non-state actors, although I think that needs a lot more work. And because we can see change over time, I think that we should remain optimistic that further change can occur.
It’s interesting. You’re talking about how maybe they were getting a little bit more into non-state actors, worrying about the sorts of systematic violence they can be capable of. Do you see that as a particularly worrisome trend evolving? It’s not something we have seen so much in the past — the threat of potential mass atrocities from non-state actors.
You know I don’t know. There’s a lot of talk that it is increasingly a threat, and I’m not sure if it is increasingly a threat, or if, given the decline in state-based violence, if it is a threat that is increasingly visible. That remains a big question for me, so I don’t want to make statements about momentous change in terms of what is actually happening. I’m not sure. It might be the case, but I just don’t know. Or momentous changes in how we’re perceiving, in our expectations, for what violence constitutes internationally meaningful violence. So I’m just not sure about that, and I think there’s a lot of work that’s being started on non-state actors, and there definitely needs to be a good deal more to understand those patterns.
Do you think that there’s a problem with how we define genocide? Do we need to be more inclusive, accounting for instances of mass killing based in economic, social, or political criteria? Or do you think we need to focus more on traditional understandings of what that means?
I think in part this is why we chose to frame our project with the term “mass atrocities,” rather than “genocide.” Because beyond any specific alteration to the legal definition [of genocide] — whether you wanted to include, as you mention, economic or political groups or gender groups, for instance — there are those questions about what it includes or excludes simply by being such a specific legal guideline for understanding political violence. But I think there are other challenges with the term as well.
I think it is often employed not as a descriptive or legal term, but more as an ethical term. And the debates over whether or not genocide has or has not occurred get mired down, I think, in debates about whether and how we should treat the demands of violence. The term becomes almost an exclamation point or a highlighter for saying, “This is violence that demands exceptional attention, exceptional response.” And in that sense, in working on it in an analytical research project, I find it’s not helpful. That’s why we’ve chosen to work with mass atrocities, and to give it a definition that is much more objective.
Thank you so much for joining me today, Bridget. It was a pleasure having you.
Thank you very much.
In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks to Mickey Jackson, Student Director of STAND, the student-led movement to end mass atrocities. Jackson has been part of the movement since 2008, when he served as a high school outreach coordinator.
Welcome. I’m Jared Knoll with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. With me today is Mickey Jackson, director of a student-led movement called STAND, which uses advocacy, lobbying, and other strategies to prevent and mitigate mass atrocities. Hello, Mickey. Good to have you here with us.
Good to be here.
Can you start by telling me a little bit about what STAND does and why it’s entirely student-led?
Sure. I mean what you just said in your introduction pretty much captures it. Basically, STAND is a student-run organization that seeks to build permanent anti-genocide constituencies on campus and in communities around the country. What we’re most interested in is really empowering students to take ownership of their advocacy, because we feel that by doing that we not only give students something to do while they’re in high school or while they’re in college, but we help develop them into lifelong leaders.
So we see ourselves not only as participating in anti-genocide advocacy efforts in the here and now, but we also see ourselves as developing the next generation of human rights policymakers, human rights organizers, thought leaders, and so forth. That’s why we consider it to be so important that we are student-led. Because obviously the best way of developing into a leader is to be a leader. So we feel that by giving students ownership of anti-genocide advocacy — not only at the local level, but at the national level as well — we’re helping to create that new generation of informed, responsible human rights advocates.
Are you optimistic from that, that there is a possibility maybe one day, maybe one day soon, that a really significant measure of U.S. national security interests can be shifted toward international human security interests instead?
I am optimistic, because I think over the last couple years we’ve seen that happening. We’ve seen the Obama administration explicitly identify atrocities prevention as a core national security interest of the United States, and I think that language is very important: that it’s not just a core moral imperative or a core humanitarian imperative — it’s the notion that it is actually a core national security interest of the United States. And that’s very important because I think we would all agree that while moral considerations are nice and humanitarian considerations are nice, when it comes to foreign policy governments ultimately act on the basis of perceived national security interests. So that to me is a reason to be optimistic. One of the challenges that I think will arise is making sure that that continues after this administration leaves.
I think that’s a very pragmatic and grounded approach to it. There’s been some serious criticism recently of the American anti-atrocity movements over the past few years, such as former activist Rebecca Hamilton’s critique of Save Darfur. How do you measure success in the light of these sorts of reactions?
Two things to that. One of the things that I’ve always found admirable in the students who are involved in STAND’s constituency is that they are very open to criticism, and in fact often they’re the ones doing the criticizing, and holding not only STAND as a national organization, but also I would argue holding STAND and the movement accountable. And I think what you see in STAND’s constituency is a willingness to question past approaches, a willingness to think critically about how successful we have been as a movement. So I think there’s very much the attitude that we shouldn’t get defensive in the face of criticism. We should listen to it, and we should try to amend our approach accordingly.
In terms of how we measure success, in one sense you can measure success very mechanistically in terms of the policy changes that the movement brings about. I think you could make the argument that the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board represents a discrete success of the movement. The progression over the past 10 years of the creation of a constituency that actually cares about atrocities prevention, and the recognition among policymakers that that constituency exists. We try to take a longer view as well, and recognize that in many ways our impact, at least if we do our jobs right, we hope that our impact will ultimately be in the leaders that we develop. Our impact, ideally, 20 years down the line, will be the creation of this next generation of informed, responsible human rights advocates and policymakers.
Do you think that — based on some of these criticisms, where the American anti-atrocity movements fall short — do you think that’s more due to a problem with public conviction, or do you see it more as a problem with the state’s ability to exert influence globally, like has been suggested?
You know, I think the obvious answer is that it’s some combination of both. I do think over the past couple years — between the fact that the financial crisis led to more of a focus on domestic issues, as well as the belief that our interventions, so to speak, in Iraq and Afghanistan largely failed, or at least can’t really be seen as unambiguous successes — I do think that sort of led to a skepticism among the broader public about this notion of atrocities prevention, and about the notion that the United States can or should exercise leverage to end mass atrocities, so I do think that’s part of it.
And I also think that the inability of the United States, and its Western allies in particular, to exert influence in certain conflict situations certainly plays a role in that as well. But there are things that the United States can do. The fact that we can’t do everything doesn’t mean that we can’t do something. And our attitude is, where there do exist opportunities for the United States to exercise a positive influence in ongoing mass atrocity situations, that there needs to be a constituency that’s pressuring our elected officials to take those steps.
Is it possible for movements like this, like yours, to ever be counterproductive? The Kony 2012, for example, anti-atrocity movement resulted in negative outcries, even in Uganda and east Africa. Is that an isolated incident, or is this something you need to be mindful of and concerned about?
It’s absolutely something that we need to be concerned about. I mean that’s — if we talk about responsible advocacy, and if we talk about wanting our advocacy to be effective — obviously it’s extremely important to be self-critical in that way, and to really think about whether what we’re asking for could ultimately end up having negative ramifications. I think Kony 2012 is sort of the go-to example for that, and I think Kony 2012 certainly raised — not only in STAND, but in human rights movements — I think it contributed to raising the consciousness among human rights organizers and activists about the need to be self-reflective in that way. So I absolutely do think it’s possible, and I think it’s something that we would always need to be careful of.
What message does STAND want to send to students who aren’t involved, who maybe don’t think that they have time, or don’t see how what happens on the other side of the world can affect their lives?
As far as the second question, about how it affects their lives, I mean, the simple answer to that is, in a lot of cases it doesn’t. I’m not going to pretend that what’s happening in the eastern DRC or what’s happening in Syria has much of a direct impact on the life of a typical American college student. But I would also say that ours is a generation that recognizes that it’s becoming a smaller world, and that recognizes that in the past the international community has failed to respond appropriately to morally atrocious situations. And among the students that I talk to — even those who don’t think that it affects their lives, or even those who don’t feel that they necessarily have a whole lot of time to devote to anti-genocide advocacy — it’s not a difficult argument to convince students that the pattern of failed responses to mass atrocities should not be continued.
If you think that it’s a problem that 800,000 people died in Rwanda without any kind of international response, then you should be interested in our movement, even if it doesn’t directly affect your life. No matter how much time you have to give, there’s some way for you to plug into a movement, even if it’s just picking up the phone and calling your congressional office. Those things seem small, but when they’re multiplied together they can lead to the types of policy changes that we want to see. And it can ultimately lead to at least progress toward that ideal of making “never again” a reality.
Some impactful words for the youth coming up today. Thank you so much, Mickey, for joining me today, and sharing what you’re all about.
You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.
Photo: STAND website.