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This week’s Guest Preventers on the AIPR blog are Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman, codirectors of the 2010 award-winning film The Last Survivor, which follows the lives of survivors of four different genocides—the Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur, and Congo—as they struggle to make sense of tragedy by inspiring tolerance in a new generation. 

From very early on, our goal was to make a film about genocide that left the audience with a feeling of hopefulness and optimism—that there was something they could do to end this tragedy. Now we are working with a coalition of groups to bring The Last Survivor to communities around the globe, spark dialogue about how to prevent genocide in the future, and bring much needed support and attention to the most vulnerable communities of survivors and refugees around the world.

As filmmakers, we believe the most effective way to raise awareness and, ultimately, to prevent genocide is by listening to and supporting the people directly affected by it. Too often, refugee and survivor communities are neglected by the genocide prevention movement, so, as part of our film’s grassroots campaign, we are working to bridge this divide by connecting refugees with anti-genocide activists in the United States. We hope this will help foster personal relationships and provide opportunities for activists to get to know the people they are advocating for, who are living in their own communities. If we learn from each other’s experiences, we can become a stronger force speaking and acting out against genocide.

We hope that you will consider joining us in this effort by bringing the film to your community so your friends and neighbors can learn about these atrocities and hopefully get inspired, like we did, to do something about it.

Everyone has personal reasons for getting involved in the movement to prevent genocide. These are ours.

Michael Pertnoy, founder and executive director, Righteous Pictures

When I was 18, I had the opportunity to journey to the concentration camps in Poland on a program called the March of the Living. Up until that point I had learned a lot about the Holocaust in school and in many ways it was overwhelming—thinking about the statistics, seeing the horrific pictures and graphic film footage, I felt helpless. But as I walked arm in arm with the Holocaust survivors from my home community, marching through the death camps into the gas chambers, the focus was no longer on the millions of lives lost, but the power of those who had survived; those who had passed through the worst that the world has to offer and emerged with something to give to the world—a renewed sense of purpose, an obligation to provide a firsthand account of one of history’s darkest times, and to share their story so future genocides could be prevented.

On that trip in 2002 I made a promise to the survivors that I would carry on their legacy to my generation and beyond. In 2006 I returned to the camps. By then, the genocide in Darfur had been raging for more than three years. Over 300,000 people had been killed and millions displaced. And I wasn’t even aware yet of the violence in Congo and the other nations around it. It was after this trip back to the camps, as a recent college graduate, that I decided to get involved with the growing anti-genocide cause that was mobilizing across the United States. It was the confluence of these experiences that birthed The Last Survivor, and the rest was history.

Michael Kleiman, cofounder and creative director, Righteous Pictures

My grandmother on my father’s side and her three sisters fled Belgium to escape the Nazi occupation in World War II. I remember hearing stories about how the four of them were hidden in the back of a pickup truck and smuggled out of the country to the south of France, where they hid in a barn for six months before escaping to Portugal and then the United States. I grew up with these stories.

When I was a junior in college, a friend of mine told me in passing about the genocide in Darfur, which had been going on for three years at that point. I was taken aback, not only by the horror but by the fact that I’d never heard anything about it. I considered myself politically aware at that time—mindful of the world around me. So I did what any film student would do: I picked up my camera and made what I now consider to be a terrible short film about the genocide in Darfur and its absence from the news. I always wanted to do more, so when Michael came to me with the idea for a film about genocide survivors, I jumped at the opportunity.

Syria: Draft Resolution in Security Council

On Wednesday, France, Britain, Portugal, and Germany submitted a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council condemning the actions by the Syrian government against civilian protesters. Explicitly referring to the Syrian authorities’ responsibility to protect its civilian population and suggesting that the violent measures may constitute crimes against humanity, the draft resolution called for an end to the violence, the enactment of political reforms and an investigation of the situation in full cooperation with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The resolution also urged other states stop and prevent sales of arms and related supplies to Syria. Discussion on the draft resolution is to begin on Thursday with a vote taking place in several days. While the draft resolution has the support of as many as 11 of the 15 members of the Security Council including the United States, Russia and China have expressed strong reservations against it, leaving open the possibility of a veto.

The draft resolution follows last Thursday’s warning from Special Advisers of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, Francis Deng, and on the Responsibility to Protect, Edward Luck, and Human Rights Watch’s report regarding the situation in Syria. Deng and Luck expressed alarm at the attack on the civilians, called for “an independent, thorough, and objective investigation,” and urged the Syrian government to cooperate with the inquiry and “to refrain from further attacks against the civilian population.” The Human Rights Watch report, in addition to detailing what it considered to be “crimes against humanity,” went further, recommending that the UN Security Council not only condemn the human rights violations, but also refer the violations to the International Criminal Court and adopting sanctions against Syrian officials if necessary.

Kyrgyzstan: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Reports

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International each issued new reports on the Kyrgyz government’s investigation into last year’s ethnic violence. As a result of the violence between the Kyrgyz and the minority Uzbeks, nearly 500, mostly Uzbeks, were killed, and 400,000 fled their homes. The Amnesty International report, which alleges that some of the atrocities against the Uzbeks may have constituted crimes against humanity, argued that the government did not fully investigate the violence perpetrated by the ethnic Kyrgyz and possibly even the security forces against the ethnic Uzbeks. Human Rights Watch detailed allegations of torture, as well as ethnic bias against Uzbeks during the trials following the investigation. Furthermore, the organizations expressed concerns that the government’s inadequate investigations may lead to future unrest between the two ethnic groups.

Bangladesh: War Crimes Tribunal

Bangladesh has been instituting a war crimes tribunal relating to its 1971 independence war against Pakistan. One to three million, mostly civilians, are estimated to have been killed, and approximately 300,000 women were raped. The tribunal, which is investigating the participation of Bengalis in the atrocities, is significant as it raises questions on whether accused war criminals should be tried in an international court or in a domestic tribunal, and whether countries without advanced legal systems have the capacity to properly deliver justice. The tribunal, charged with prosecuting genocide and crimes against humanity, is also important because it will be considering sexual violence as evidence in its decision-making. The court’s independence and fairness has been a point of contention, with Human Rights Watch, the International Bar Association, and the International Centre for Transitional Justice all expressing concern over several aspects of the proposed legal proceedings. It remains to be seen whether the tribunal can proceed free from political pressure and according to international judicial standards.

Photo: Guardian

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