In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks with Dr. Ekkehard Strauss, who has published extensively on protection of minorities, prevention of human rights violations, post-conflict peacebuilding, and human rights responses to mass atrocities. Strauss has been an instructor at the Auschwitz Institute’s Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, and was a member of the Task Force on the EU Prevention of Mass Atrocities, which earlier this month released a report assessing Europe’s capabilities to respond to threats of genocide and other mass atrocities.


Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll for the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. In late 2011 the Budapest Centre for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities established the Task Force on the EU Prevention of Mass Atrocities, to look at Europe’s capabilities to respond to threats of mass killings and genocide. They released a report a few weeks ago, which lists four core problems for the capacity to prevent, including issues with coordination and policymaking, and six recommendations to strengthen capabilities, like improving cooperation with other actors and applying a prevention mindset to trade and development policies.

Speaking with me today is a member of that task force, Dr. Ekkehard Strauss. He has worked with the OSCE in Bosnia-Herzegovina, served under the UN High Commissioner, and established himself as a mainstay in the development of peacebuilding, Responsibility to Protect, and atrocity prevention practices. He is currently working as a consultant and researcher in Rabat, Morocco. Hello, Dr. Strauss. Thank you for being here today.

Thank you very much.

Could you start by telling us about the Task Force on the EU Prevention of Mass Atrocities: where the idea came from, what its purpose is, who is on it, and how they arrived at their list of recommendations?

The idea of reviewing mass atrocity prevention capacities of the European Union really came at the time when the U.S. task force started to review the U.S. capacities. And there were different individuals and organizations who tried to convince them to actually undertake a similar exercise. People like David Hamburg, for instance, who was chairing the UN secretary-general’s advisory board on genocide prevention; the Budapest Centre, which was an initiative at that time; the Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide; and other people. Unfortunately, none of us succeeded in convincing the European Union. So we basically took this initiative forward as a citizen initiative and initiated a process where we invited 12 people with very different experiences, from different European countries, to form a task force and to review these capacities using a methodology which was mixed. First, by a desk review of what is out there on reviews of EU capacity to react to conflict, violence and crisis. And the content you find in the report is basically an analysis of this task force, of the interviews, plus our own experience in crisis situations, and with different European institutions, and what is the state of play in the discussions on genocide prevention today.

How did you personally get involved in atrocity prevention? Can you tell us a little bit about your start in this?

I think one very important part for me was, while I was still undertaking my law studies, to start the basis of an internship with the UN and there being exposed to what it really means to be a victim of systematic violence and state-sponsored, large-scale violence. For me, this was a different dimension to the work on human rights violations due to individuals, due to exceptional situations, and so on. This is serious as well, it’s important to work on it from a human rights perspective, but for me, this other dimension, that states really systematically get after their own people, was like a new encounter. So I wrote a doctorate thesis on prevention of human rights violations, looking at legal standards and trying to look at how they are not reflected in the different institutions we were in the process of creating in the early ’90s, the international ad hoc tribunals and so on. We were basically hoping that some of them would have a preventive effect. And then I had the great opportunity of somehow field-testing many of the things I had worked on in Bosnia immediately after the war, and I moved on to Kosovo and Serbia while the crisis was unfolding there. Then in 2004 I had the great chance to work with Juan Méndez and support him in establishing the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. And this was somehow the coming full-round from my different theoretical and field experience to do something that I still find very fulfilling.

And how did you become involved with the Auschwitz Institute?

The Auschwitz Institute, actually Fred Schwartz came to see Juan Méndez, I think back in 2004 or 2005. And he presented his idea of having trainings in Auschwitz. And I think we were — at the beginning, after the first meeting — I think we were a little bit skeptical among ourselves whether this is something that would work and whether people wouldn’t just go home with a lot of overwhelming impressions about the Holocaust, an almost perfect system of destroying people that you are confronted with when you visit Auschwitz. Then when this idea evolved, and we got also our own experience with training of government officials, I think we got more and more fascinated by the idea. And I think it’s a fascinating experience. I think the concept has proven that our skepticism was unfounded. I think it’s a very good concept to actually have people making the transition from looking at the Holocaust, experiencing Auschwitz, experiencing being there and being exposed to this, and going through an experience where you think, “This is exceptional and it cannot happen anywhere else,” to then slowly making the experience of “No, it could happen somewhere else. No, these are average people who committed it. Yes, there was a lot of preparation, ideology, and anti-Semitism and so on that existed,” but I think that for me, this experience from an observer, and then from a teacher’s point of view, was fascinating how it worked for the people who participated.

Do you find yourself optimistic, based upon your experiences doing that and based upon your experiences in assessing the United Nations to stop genocide and mass atrocities, do you find yourself optimistic for the future?

I do. I mean, I’m very optimistic. But I have to say that I’m not optimistic that there will be a world free of genocide. From working on this for quite some time and having visited many of the countries which experience genocide, I think each time and each century has its own genocides, and we might witness genocides while we speak and we will only find out in a couple of years based on legal findings and so on, and say, “Okay, Darfur was a genocide,” and so on. So I’m not optimistic that we will prevent all of them, but I think we can be much better in detecting signs very early and taking them seriously, and intervening at a point where we still do not have these exceptional numbers of victims. I don’t think that long-term prevention will really work in all of the cases. We can educate and train and establish institutions and so on, and this will hopefully do a lot of good with regard to human rights. It might make it more difficult to convince people to participate in systematic killings of particular groups, but for each of those you find  historic examples where they had the same and they had a genocide nevertheless. But I think by making mass atrocities something that is possible, something that is a plausible conclusion to developments on the ground, I think we will contribute to preventing, hopefully, more of these cases. But still I think there are genocides in the making that we don’t even know about. There are situations that we will not capture with our early warning methodology, but nevertheless we should continue and learn, and I’m very optimistic that we get better every day and every month.

Well, I hope the recommendations that you and the task force have given will be a shot in the arm toward that improvement. Thank you very much for talking to me.

Thank you very much—and I’m so glad it finally worked out.