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Bridging the Gap Between Words and Action: The Latin American Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention

By: Chris Kousouros, Latin American Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention Program Coordinator

RedIf working on the political side of genocide prevention has taught me anything, it’s that there is an immense amount of awe-inspiring ideas conceived and bravely put forth every day. Often the only thing more impressive than an idea itself is the distance that exists between its initial utterance and its realization, even in its most basic form. This distance has claimed the lives of so many wonderful ideas.

So how does one successfully begin a regional network of governments focused expressly on the implementation of public policies and mandatory training for public officials on genocide and mass atrocity prevention? It started with a good idea—backed up by commitment and action.

We had just completed our intensive six-day Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention in Auschwitz, but officials from Argentina, Chile, Panama, and Brazil wanted to take prevention one step further.

The Lemkin Seminar consists of six days of training in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, where all participants—typically mid-to-high-level government employees from all over the world—have the opportunity to listen to and interact with some of the leading voices in genocide and mass atrocity prevention. The seminar addresses prevention from all angles: from the history of the term genocide, to specific case studies, to a theoretical analysis of R2P, to a psychological analysis of perpetrators. You name it, they learn about it. Our aim at the Auschwitz Institute is to create a community of mid-level government workers around the world who have the know-how to react appropriately to warning signs in their own countries or abroad, and to take the necessary steps towards prevention.

Not bad, right? Well apparently the participants from Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Panama wanted more. Their vision was to create a regional network of governments focused expressly on the implementation of public policies and mandatory training for public officials on genocide and mass atrocity prevention. The idea was that if a network was created with the goal of pooling resources, expertise, and political will to create a regional network of genocide prevention sensitive states, and not just individuals, the output could become greater than the sum of its parts.

But how to bridge the gap between such a lofty idea and reality?

First, officials from the four countries mapped out what the Latin American Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocities (the Network) would look like. They took the idea of our weeklong training seminar and figured out how to amplify its reach by developing a Latin American version of our training curriculum that would not just be offered to a handful of government officials a year, but would be implemented as mandatory training in each participating Ministry. The Network would utilize our training seminars bi-annually to develop a Latin American version of this curriculum. At the same time, the people who would attend these training seminars over the next three years (set to finish at the end of 2015) will then, in turn, pave the way for instructors who administer the curriculum in their home countries. This takes the old proverb of teaching a man to fish to the next level. Our global seminar reaches 20-25 people twice a year, but they found a way to spread this education to an entire region, making it self-sustaining at the same time. Kudos to you, Latin America.

But once again, this is only a great idea, now what? A Network like this would require a regional commitment the likes of which has never been seen, ever. But how does such a commitment take shape? Surely all 18 of the Latin American member states wouldn’t wake up one morning and decide to dedicate funding and personnel to prioritize genocide prevention in their national and regional agendas. No, surely not.

To gather the proper momentum and support, we needed the right time, place, partners, and audience for the announcement of the Network. Here’s how it went down:

Time: late March 2012. In the political context of the Arab Spring, most notably the ongoing debate on the implications for R2P (a major tool of prevention) after the Libya intervention, and only weeks after the formal indictment of Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity, signaling what could be a major step in norms of transitional justice (also a major tool of prevention).

Place: Buenos Aires, Argentina. Argentina, a founding member and a driving force in the creation of the Network, is also a global and regional leader in the implementation of processes of transitional justice following the Dirty War, not to mention one of the more influential countries in Latin America both economically and politically.

Announcers: The launching of the Network was announced by representatives of the Argentinean Foreign Ministry, as well as the Secretariats of Human Rights in Brazil, with the Auschwitz Institute and the Office of the Special Advisor to the Secretary General for the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect serving as advisors and acting supporters. The idea was that if representatives from two of Latin America’s most politically influential powerhouses, backed by a reputable international NGO and the United Nations say that the Network is being created, representatives from the other countries would, at the very least, listen.

Audience: Latin Americans. More specifically, representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defense, Justice, and Offices of the Ombudsmen from 18 Latin American countries. Why? Latin America is seen internationally as a leader in post conflict reconstruction and transitional justice, and is comprised of democratic states bearing the scars of past atrocities, in many cases assisted by the US during the Cold War. The founding members of the Network believed that the political will exists in this region to take the lead on genocide and mass atrocity prevention, and the initiative would be seen as internationally legitimate (not driven and/or controlled by the North), because some of the most ardent opponents of neo-colonialism are active members of the Network.

And they were right.

Today, after only 17 months since its inception, the Network has seen the successful completion of its first training seminar in Auschwitz, which was kicked off by words of wisdom from Mr. Adama Dieng, Special Advisor to the Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide. “The achievements of the Latin American Network, after barely 15 months of existence, are already resonating worldwide,” said Dieng.

The Network currently has 11 national initiatives fully functioning, ranging from regional high-level briefings on the Network and genocide prevention, to mini-training seminars for entire governments, peace-keeping troops, national police, and diplomatic academies on genocide and mass atrocity prevention, as well as managing relations between governments and their indigenous populations. Two national mechanisms for genocide prevention have been created within the governments of Argentina and Paraguay, which act as a structural base upon which the goals of the Network are managed by the entire government and civil society, and not just an individual focal point.

What’s more, the Network has since become an example to follow throughout the world, as shown by the recently created African Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, modeled after its Latin American counterpart. The Latin American Network is referenced constantly by high level UN and government officials as an example of regional cooperation in mass atrocity prevention, and was recently included in the UN Secretary General Report, The Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention.

And this just the beginning—there is much work to be done. But through the Network, Latin America has provided a clear example of how, with the right amount of political will and determination, one can indeed bridge that seemingly insurmountable distance that exists in international politics between lofty words and effective action.

* Alfredo Astiz, a former captain and navy spy, has been sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity committed during the 1976-83 Argentinian military dictatorship. He and 10 other former Argentine military and police officers together faced 86 cases of kidnapping, torture, and murder of leftist dissidents. Astiz was accused of participating in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of two French nuns, a journalist, and three founders of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. Fifteen other former military officials were also convicted of crimes against humanity; 12 were sentenced to life in prison without parole, and four received jail sentences ranging from 18 to 25 years. The court has the ability to sentence former officials as the result of a 2005 Argentina Supreme Court ruling that denied amnesty to military figures who committed crimes during the military dictatorship.

* Last week, Uruguay followed suit by passing a law that eliminates the effects of the country’s 1986 Amnesty Law, which protected police and military personnel from being prosecuted for human rights violations, and repeals a statute of limitations that would have prevented victims from filing criminal complaints as of today. In addition to this revocation of amnesty, dictatorship-era kidnappings, torture, and killings are now classified as crimes against humanity. About 30 leftists were kidnapped and/or killed during Uruguay’s 1973-85 dictatorship. Also last week, Brazil’s Congress unanimously approved a  truth and reconciliation commission to investigate more than 40 years of human rights abuses. The commission will have subpoena power, can demand any document it wants from the government, and put witnesses under oath. But it won’t result in prosecutions, since the country’s 1979 amnesty remains intact. It must look at any rights crimes from 1946 to 1988, when Brazil’s current democracy began.

Photo: mercopress.com

Today’s blog post focuses on the topic of transitional justice:

* Last week, the lower house of Brazil’s congress, the Chamber of Deputies, approved the creation of a National Truth Commission. The commission will investigate human rights abuses—including forced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary executions—committed under the country’s 1964–85 military regime. It is expected that the bill will now be promptly approved by the Brazilian Senate. While noting the bill’s significant strengths, the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) has also pointed out its challenges and subsequent opportunities for successfully bringing justice to victims and their families, as well as preventing future violations. Read the ICTJ’s commentary here.

* Current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and former ICTJ president Juan E. Méndez published a book this month, Taking a Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights, together with South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth. A long-time political activist, Méndez was arrested and tortured by the Argentinean government in the 1970s. He was the first executive director of Americas Watch, in 1981, and the UN’s first special adviser on the prevention of genocide, from 2004 to 2007. Taking a Stand offers critical analysis of human rights movements throughout the world and policy recommendations on both the international and domestic levels. The book has garnered favorable reviews, in part for its reliance on facts and research in addition to the author’s personal experiences.

* On September 16, ICTJ held a panel discussion called “Why the Silence on Sri Lanka?” on accountability for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the country’s civil war. Earlier this year, the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka released a report alleging that scores of civilians were killed by governmental operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam between January and May 2009. Led by Gordon Weiss, former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka and author of The Cage, and Dr. Vasuki Nesiah, academic and Sri Lanka human rights activist, the discussion focused on ways to ensure proper investigation of all crimes in Sri Lanka and other steps that will enable victims, and the country as a whole, to work toward a sustainable peace.

Photo: livejournal.com

Today’s post “From the AIPR Team” comes from Operations Intern Jessica Lemire:

As part of our mission to spread genocide prevention around the world, AIPR president and founder Fred Schwartz is currently on a trip to South America to build new relationships (and maintain existing ones) with the governments of Brazil, Chile, Peru, Argentina and Ecuador. I recently aided in communication with foreign ministries so that Legal and Operations Associate Samantha Horn could coordinate these meetings. We hope that new international bonds will help us to continue expanding our programs globally and bring to the forefront the importance of the mission and work of AIPR.

I am particularly excited to see one of these programs, the Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, in person in the upcoming weeks. In April I will be traveling with the rest of the AIPR team to Poland to participate in and help with the organization of this seminar for students from the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. I know that this will be an extremely rewarding experience, not only for the participants, but for me as well. Learning through reading and research is completely different from a firsthand encounter, and I am extremely lucky to be able to have this opportunity to witness the mission of the Auschwitz Institute as it continues to grow and engage the international community on this issue.

Today, we have our first report “From the AIPR Team,” featuring Samantha Horn, AIPR’s legal and operations associate:

Things are extremely busy right now at AIPR. Our next Raphael Lemkin Genocide Prevention Seminar for CGSC students from Fort Leavenworth is coming up in April, and so we are in the midst of logistical details and last-minute curriculum changes for the program. All is going very well, though, and we are excited to be back in Poland soon.

Our founder and president, Fred Schwartz, will be traveling to South America this month, so I have been scheduling meetings for him with ministries of foreign affairs and justice, as well as with U.S. embassies. Mr. Schwartz will be traveling to Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, so it will be quite a trip. AIPR works very closely with the governments of Argentina and Brazil and has had participants in our seminars from these countries, as well as from Chile, but we are looking to expand our reach in the region, as in 2012 we are planning to launch a Raphael Lemkin Genocide Prevention Seminar for Latin America, which will be dedicated solely to the Latin American region with the program tailored to meet the needs of these countries, touching upon issues such as politicide and transitional justice. We are very excited about this initiative, and have the great help of the governments of Argentina and Brazil for this endeavor. Hopefully, this upcoming trip will expand our base.

I am also working on recruitment for our standard Lemkin Seminar, for government officials from around the world. The application deadline is March 1, and so I am in the midst of reviewing applications and calling those countries that have confirmed their intent to participate but have not sent in their applications.  A great variety of countries will be attending, including Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Niger, Brazil, Argentina, the United States, Germany, and Sweden. I believe this will prove to be an incredible seminar, and the beginning for many of them of their work in genocide prevention. All in all, we are busy at work here at AIPR!

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