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“Goals and Dreams”:
Honoring Rwanda’s Memory and Looking to the Future

From left: Tibi Galis, Jonathan Schienberg, and Jacqueline Murekatete at New York University.

From left: Tibi Galis, Jonathan Schienberg, and Jacqueline Murekatete at New York University.

By MICHELLE EBERHARD

When a community gathers to commemorate a horrific occurrence like genocide, it does so not only to remember the victims, both living and deceased, but also to demonstrate a commitment to ensuring that others might never be made to endure similar atrocities in the future.  In this way, such events are particularly powerful because they underscore the belief that “never again” also means to “never forget.”

April marks the 19th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were savagely murdered by their Hutu extremist neighbors, who believed that a person’s ethnicity determined his or her right to life. Nearly two decades later, the legacy of these victims and their descendants is continually remembered throughout the world, as the darkness of those 100 days of slaughter has left an impermeable mark on humanity, along with a resolve to do better the next time we are faced with similar situations. In an effort to uphold this commitment, on April 14, Jacqueline Murekatete, a Rwandan genocide survivor and founder of MCW Jacqueline’s Human Rights Corner, organized “A Special Program Commemorating the 19th Anniversary of the Genocide Against the Tutsis in Rwanda,” at New York University Law School, co-sponsored by the Latino Law Students Association. Featured guests at the event were Auschwitz Institute executive director Tibi Galis and CBS 60 Minutes assistant producer Jonathan Schienberg.

Murekatete opened the program by reminding those in attendance that it is important to raise awareness and support for genocide survivors in Rwanda, as well as to remember those “whose lives were brutally and unjustly taken away.” She then offered a moment of silence for the victims in Rwanda as well, before turning the microphone over to Khalid Elachi of MCW, who explained that the organization’s goal is “to empower young people to become agents of change,” citing the building of a community center in Rwanda and the establishment of Jacqueline’s Human Rights Corner as examples of how MCW carries out its mission.

These remarks were followed by a short film entitled Jacqueline’s Journey, produced by Schienberg and shown publicly for the first time. In the video, Murekatete discusses her personal survival during the Rwandan genocide, despite losing her entire immediate family and many aunts and uncles, as well as how she eventually arrived in the United States and became inspired to start telling her own story. She emphasized the importance of enabling survivors to achieve their goals and dreams, and to “live a life that our families could be proud of, if they were here.”

The keynote address was then given by Galis, who began by discussing his personal journey to working in mass atrocity prevention.  Growing up in Romania, he said, “We were taught in school that all the tragic moments of humanity . . . were behind us,” admitting that in light of contemporary crises such as Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, “this hope is a bit baseless in today’s world.” As he explained, the prevalence of atrocities persuaded him and others of the need to move away from the idea that such catastrophes are accidents or anomalies, and instead to “try to understand where these mass atrocities come from.”

The Auschwitz Institute, Galis explained, was established to pursue this systematic approach to understanding genocide. In particular, he noted the historic dearth of governmental involvement in prevention, and identified this as the impetus behind AIPR founder and president Fred Schwartz’s motivation to establish the organization in 2005. The need to better understand the complexities and roots of such violence is exemplified in the Auschwitz Institute’s educational program for government officials, the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, which centers on the process of genocide and an “inventory of what has been tried in recent times” to prevent such crimes. In this way, Galis explained, the goal has shifted from “[stopping] the worst from happening at the very last possible moment,” to developing the “restructuring of societies in a way that we see the signals of the bad to come, and we try to do something about that” right away.

The Auschwitz Institute further empowers its participants by offering “resources that they need to start their own” prevention programs domestically, as the organization firmly believes in assisting governments in any way possible to do their duty – “that being to protect and not to harm its citizens. We feel it cannot be more basic than this.” Currently, Galis stated that alumni of the Auschwitz Institute’s programs number more than 200 individuals from 60 different states. He concluded by noting the role that civil society plays in prevention, explaining that “most of the time, we prevent mass atrocities and genocide without even realizing it,” through education and our daily interactions with those in our communities.”

After giving his presentation, Galis was joined by Murekatete and Schienberg for a discussion moderated by Roberta Richin, a member of the Board of Directors Emeritus at MCW. Richin posed the initial round of questions, beginning with Galis and asking about challenges facing international organizations. Galis’s response included the need to educate the leadership of institutions on what an institution is expected to deliver and implement, as well as communication problems between organizations. He also stated that organizations like the Auschwitz Institute are “the beginning of the answer,” but that good intention requires money as well as words.

Richin’s question for Murekatete focused on the connection between the “small stuff,” such as schoolyard bullying, and the “big stuff,” specifically the genocide in Rwanda. Murekatete agreed that it is sometimes difficult for individuals to recognize the long-term process that culminates in genocide, and discussed in particular how what occurred in Rwanda was a result of years of escalating hostility, propaganda, and dehumanization.

Richin then opened the floor for questions from the audience. The first focused on seeking perpetrator justice years after atrocities have been committed, to which Murekatete stated simply: “There is no deadline to the suffering . . . the horrors . . . that [victims] endured,” and that efforts to find and hold killers accountable for their actions should reflect this limitlessness. The next was addressed to Schienberg, and asked him to talk about the hardest part of making Jacqueline’s Journey. Schienberg stated that he sought to depict “what [survivors] would want me to represent,” while at the same time respecting that “it’s a very personal thing that people experience,” and that we must be careful of not generalizing too much from story to story.

Another question, to which Schienberg also responded, centered on the role of the media. He discussed how media attention can be big, but that this doesn’t necessarily stop atrocities. In addition, he stated that “media still has an obligation, obviously . . . and [journalists] need to be persistent in trying to expose . . . the happenings in those countries where atrocities are being committed.” As the moderator Richin summarized at the discussion’s conclusion, “words have power; words have consequences” – and so does a lack of words.

Jeanne d’Arc Byaje, deputy permanent representative of Rwanda to the United Nations, spoke after the panelists, and offered a view of the progress Rwanda has made since the genocide. In particular, she noted the improvements the country has achieved in its justice sector reformation. She was followed by student Jessica Gatoni, who read two poems written in honor of Rwanda: one from the perspective of a survivor trying to guard the memory of those she had lost; the other about youth empowerment and the concept of agaciro, which means “dignity” in Kinyarwanda.

Murekatete closed the event with words she had echoed throughout the afternoon: “goals and dreams.” Indeed, it is this potential that was lost during the genocide, and it is this same potential that Murekatete and others hope to help cultivate in the descendants of survivors, as well as in all individuals in the generations to come. This cultivation, however, cannot be done from the sidelines. It must occur through the work of those actively committed to preventing opportunities for individuals, who would otherwise attempt to steal or destroy these dreams, from becoming a prominent voice in their society. As Galis eloquently stated earlier, “When we see a problem and look away, we are to a certain extent supporting the roots of evil.”

Photo: Alex Zucker

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.

Photo: http://www.dvgn.de

In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks to Dr. James Waller, Academic Programs Director for the Auschwitz Institute, as well as Curriculum Coordinator and Instructor for the institute’s Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention. He currently holds the position of Cohen Chair of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State Collge. In 2002, he published the first edition of Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing and he is now working on his next book, titled Genocide: Ever Again? anticipated for publication in 2014. He has conducted fieldwork in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Argentina.

 

Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. So far in these podcasts we’ve spoken with individuals doing amazing things in the field of genocide prevention. Today I’m taking a look inward at the Auschwitz Institute itself. Why it’s here, what it does in the field of genocide prevention, and how it uses the tools available to effect positive impacts. Speaking with me is Dr. James Waller, author of the book Becoming Evil, coordinator for the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, and the Academic Programs Director for the Auschwitz Institute. Thanks for talking to me today, Jim. It’s good to have you with us.

 Thanks, Jared, it’s great to be with you. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity.

So how was it, Jim, that you first got involved with the Auschwitz Institute?

My first connection with the institute came in 2007. I was at a conference of the International Association of Genocide Scholars in Sarajevo, and before the conference Fred Schwartz had sent out a note to everyone who was going to participate at the conference, explaining a little bit about his vision for the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. And it happened that Fred and his wife, Allyne, came to a presentation where I gave a talk on my work on perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocity, and immediately after my talk Fred came up, and Allyne, and asked me to join them for dinner that evening with John Evans, and Deborah Lipstadt, and Tibi Galis, and a few other people, and at the dinner Fred talked a bit more about his vision for the institute.

And in some subsequent conversations over the next few months, he and I chatted about my work, and how it might fit within the institute itself. And I think really, for me, Fred opened up the next chapter for my work in perpetrator behavior, to think about it from a standpoint of how it might apply itself to prevention. And at the inaugural seminar, the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention we had in May 2008, I was honored to be one of several different instructors of that seminar. And since that time I’ve been able to participate in every single seminar we’ve had, with kind of increasing responsibilities that today have led up to the position of academic programs director.

 So it sounds like, in starting with the institute, it changed you as much as a person as it changed your work.

Yeah, I think it did very much. I think I really had not made a connection of what I did with issues of prevention. I think in my courses I talked about the need to make “never again” a reality, but I really didn’t know what that meant in practice, or even in theory. And so I think Fred’s great challenge, and I think really the genius of the institute, is to say that we have to marry all of the great work being done in academic research, with fieldwork, and policymaking, policy implementation, that we need to get this information outside of academia to the people who matter more than academics in this area, and that’s people who make policy and implement policy at governmental levels. And Fred’s push, and I think really the institute’s push to have that cross-boundary conversation, has really been the key to the success of the institute to this point.

What sorts of things has the institute done so far, in that sort of respect, in fieldwork and in effecting policy change. What has it done so far, do you think, that has contributed most to preventing genocide?

You know our legacy to this point, just about five years into it, is pretty remarkable in terms of the couple of hundred policymakers that we’ve trained through the Raphael Lemkin Seminars for Genocide Prevention, the several dozen U.S. military personnel that we’ve trained through the Fort Leavenworth program that has come through Auschwitz as well, I believe in three different seminars. So I think what we’ve done is bring to people who might not otherwise have had access to this information, some of the cutting-edge information on genocide prevention. And really, what I think broadly about what we’ve tried to accomplish at these seminars, it really is trying to help people understand what genocide and mass atrocity crimes are, from a legal perspective, from a ground perspective.

Secondly, trying to help them understand what the risk factors are for genocide and mass atrocity prevention. And thirdly, and this is most important whether it’s military or policymakers, trying to help them understand what leverage and responsibility they have in their unique positions, where they can make a difference in the face of this. And I think we’ve built a network of people who have some really fairly nuanced understanding of the challenges of genocide and mass atrocity prevention, who I think draw on each other for information as much as they draw on us. And I look at the development even of our Latin American Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, which developed from one of the participants in our very first seminar, who went back and recognized that the strength of what genocide prevention could be, would lie really in strong regional efforts. And the opportunity we have to work on that in Latin America, and now in an emerging program in Africa, to build capacity for regions, and states within regions, to make a difference here. I think that’s really been the legacy, an incredible legacy, of just the five years of this institute.

What do you think the biggest challenges are in achieving those missions as we currently define them?

Jared, I think the biggest challenge is that prevention isn’t as appealing as intervention. Intervention kind of has a heroic “something’s going on, we come in, we stop it.” Clear, concrete stuff that you can use for a newscast or a video clip. I mean it’s just something, for lack of a better word, heroic, about that kind of heroic, about that type of intervention that makes news. Prevention doesn’t have that same focus. When we do good prevention, people never hear about it. People never know about it because we’ve prevented something from occurring, or we’ve prevented a conflict from escalating into genocide and mass atrocity. So it doesn’t quite capture peoples’ imagination as much, simply because we’ve stopped something from occurring, as opposed to something like intervention.

So I think our challenge is trying to rise above that and say that the costs of prevention are so much less, in every way, than the costs of intervention. And while prevention may not seem quite as heroic an effort as intervention, that it just makes economic sense, it makes sense in terms of life and loss of life, it makes sense on every level for us to invest in prevention, rather than stepping in to stop conflict, once it’s escalated to this point.

Do you think that as a society, and especially as a Western society, we run up against the same sorts of hurdles, where we understand that it’s better to educate than to imprison, it’s better to have nutrition than to have open heart surgery. Do you think that we’re going to run up into those same issues where we just don’t want to think about the hard work that has to be done beforehand, and we prefer to just wait and see?

 Yeah, no, I think you’re exactly right. I think with some of the biggest problems, for instance, facing American society, we tend to focus on them once they become a problem, and we want to somehow stop the problem with some direct intervention, when much of the groundwork could have been done ahead of time. But again, it just isn’t easy if you’re a politician to get funding, for instance, to do things that are preventive. It’s easier to get funding to do things that intervene and stop a problem as it’s ongoing. But the question is, can we have a longer-range vision to help us understand the tremendous benefits of preventing these problems before they start, rather than responding to them once they’re in place. And I think we’re seeing changes in that. I think we’re seeing changes certainly at the UN level, and understanding issues of genocide prevention. Certainly in the U.S. with the Atrocities Prevention Board, that’s a positive step forward as it starts to develop. Other regions, other countries have started to take prevention seriously. So I think we’ve got to the point where people are starting to get the message. We just now need to keep reinforcing what do prevention policies and practices look like.

So if we could overcome all of the challenges, and if you could imagine the best possible outcome in five years, where would the Auschwitz Institute be, and what might it achieve?

 That’s a great question. I think that for anyone that works in the field of genocide studies or genocide prevention, part of your hope is that one day your field is obsolete, it’s no longer needed. I guess in some ways I think about that when I think about the work of the institute. I hope one day this institute’s not needed any longer, because we simply aren’t facing this problem. I don’t think we sit anywhere close to a world, though, where that’s a reality. I mean the pressing population growth, scarcity of resources, the increase in number of nation-states and contested boundaries, all of these things just lead us, unfortunately, to some pretty dire predictions about what the world will be like and continue to be like in terms of conflict, and also in terms of escalation into genocide and mass atrocities. So I think unfortunately the work of the institute is absolutely still going to be needed five years from now.

I think, for me, our greatest successes will be what capacities have we built for regions and nation-states. In other words, our seminars that they get involved in are meant to empower them to go back and make differences in their own communities and in their own regions. The more that we can enable people to do that work, rather than people coming to us for that work, or coming to the UN for that work, the more that states can build the capacity to do this work in their own state, I think the better off we’d be. So it is, for me, that would be a great point for us to be at five years from now, is to continue to point to programs like in Latin America, like in Africa, where we’ve built capacities for states and regions to engage in genocide and mass atrocity prevention.

You wrote a book called Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. Would you like to tell us a little bit about that book, and about the next book you’re working on?

Yeah, sure. Becoming Evil was first published in 2002 and a second edition in 2007, and basically the central thesis of the book is that it’s ordinary people like you and me who commit the vast majority of genocide and mass killing. And what I’m trying to look at there is how is it that ordinary people become transformed into people capable of committing these atrocities. And I argue in this book that very few perpetrators are born.

In other words, we don’t have people waiting to perpetrate these atrocities just as soon as they’re given permission. I think these are people who, by and large, could never envision themselves committing the type of atrocities we see in genocide and mass killing, but over time become involved by their own choice, by some limited circumstances, in situations that begin to transform their view of the other, the target group, begin to transform their sense of responsibility to their society. Begin to transform their view of the worth and sanctity of human life. And over time they come to think that it’s not just right to do the killing they do, but that it’s wrong to not do the killing. And so as a psychologist I try to understand, or lay out a model, for what are the forces that kind of transform, and influence, and shape people in this direction. While at the same time absolutely saying that these people still hold personal, legal, moral, philosophical accountability for the crimes they’ve committed.

So that’s the work in Becoming Evil. The next book I have contracted with Oxford University Press is a book on partly the history of genocide, but also a thematic book on themes like justice, truth, memory. There’ll be a large chapter on genocide and mass atrocity prevention, that’s part of the book as well. So really it’s a book to introduce educated readers, policymakers, college or university students, to what genocide has looked like historically, and then from that very specific picture to step back and say, what does the study of genocide tell us about justice, how a society rebuilds itself, about the role of truth in rebuilding, about the role of memory? What does it push us to to understanding prevention? And really it’s a book that, had I not been involved with the Auschwitz Institute, I don’t think I would have had that broad a view of understanding genocide, so really it’s in large part my work with the institute that’s led to this book, in many ways.

Do you think that it’s more helpful and more useful, when dealing with that sort of thing, to focus more on the beliefs and the ideological factors that come from things like ethnicity or ethno-symbolic identification, or do you find it’s more effective in finding the roots and causes to focus on economic and political factors?

Yeah, you know I’m going to follow in this book what I followed in Becoming Evil, which is to say that I’m very suspicious of monocausal explanations, or explanations that focus on one thing particularly, or maybe two things. I think in anything as complex as this there’s a variety of explanations, and the question is how do they go together, how do they influence each other? Is ideology a part of it? Absolutely so. I mean, belief systems, worldviews, cultural models are incredibly important to perpetrator behavior and understanding the outbreak of genocide and mass atrocity. But I do think there are other structural factors that put societies at risk that we need to understand, poverty being one of those, one of many of those factors. So I’m not wanting to reduce it to say that this is it, there’s just one or two things here we need to focus on. I’m really wanting to understand that multiplicity of factors, and then how those factors interact in these societies. And part of that is understanding that there are a lot of societies on the verge, possibly of genocide and mass atrocity, that don’t take that step. That don’t have that trigger that brings a society into that type of large-scale atrocity. So understanding the things that put a break on genocide and mass atrocity, I think, can be just as important as understanding the things that start to compel a society to think this is their only possible political, social, economic solution, is to exterminate a large group of its population.

Well, I think you’ve given us a lot of reasons for optimism. I hope you’ll come back soon and share a few more.

Thanks Jared, very much appreciate it.

Photo: http://www.keene.edu/news/stories/detail/1345061541160/

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

Jade Adebo, Class of 2012, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Anthropology

When I heard about a class being offered on genocide prevention, I was skeptical. In my experience, classes on the subject of genocide usually focused almost entirely on the violence, devastation, and reconciliation efforts. If ever there was any talk of preventative measures, it was presented in a cynical way, as if every other option had been exhausted. The ever-present discussions and debates over definitions and autonomy of nations left me cynical and burned out. Why was it so necessary to argue about phrasing or over protected groups? Taking the Genocide Prevention class with Dr. Hinton, which was developed in association with AIPR, helped me to fully comprehend the differing dynamics and issues that need to be addressed if proper and effective intervention, and eventually prevention of genocide, can occur.

With all my prior knowledge in genocide studies through the broader scope of human rights, I always supported a change in the study of intervention, based on analyzing and understanding different dynamics within the culture and history of a given country or region. I disagreed with the Genocide Convention’s attempt to create a blanket definition that would dictate how preventative measures would be achieved. From the broader study of human rights, which is still newly accepted as a widespread right, the convention, in its rigid structure and language, assumes that human rights is an international basic human right. This was a discourse brought into many a discussion, and was addressed very well by Fred Schwartz, who referred not to the universality of human rights, but the universality of self-interest. This approach can be easily applied to mandates such as the Responsibility to Protect, or the early warning model.

As the course concluded, I was left with a better sense of direction as to what I personally could do in the area of genocide prevention, which had been the primary interest for my attempted major. The various speakers we had left me inspired and optimistic, particularly Sheri Rosenberg, Gregory Stanton, and Tibi Galis, all of whom were either political scientists or lawyers. Through them, I was able to see how much the legal aspect of genocide prevention ties in with the grassroots work and activism, giving me creative insights as to how my future pursuit of a legal career could still influence intervention, and ultimately prevention.

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.

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

Kaefer Garcia, Senior, Class of 2011. Political Science major, History and Anthropology minors.

I am taking this class because I founded an organization that helps refugee youth through education and soccer to help them progress and learn life lessons. By taking the course, I feel I can learn things that can help me relate to the stories the youth tell and better understand where they are coming from.

I have learned many things while taking the class, but so far two things have caught my attention. Fred Schwartz, of the Auschwitz Institute, opened his lecture in front of the class with a truth that never dawned on me. Genocide is not abnormal behavior, but something that has become a normal occurrence throughout our history. I think this acceptance and acknowledgment is key to preventing genocide, for to see this crime in this light makes it easier to try and understand and prevent it.

Moreover, the fact that when you look around the room in our class and see people from different walks of life, ethnicities, and ideas together to discuss such an important issue in society globally, it is hard not to feel the palpable hope that exists. It sheds light into the dark room of genocide. It speaks volumes of the future generation and its concern and willingness to be aware. This aspect is complimented by the fact that leading scholars in the field are coming to speak to us, which is remarkable to say the least.

So far the class has been very enjoyable and is a great way to highlight my last semester at Rutgers–Newark.

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