by Alex Zucker on 17 Oct 2012 | Comments
Never before has the idea of preventing genocide been so widely discussed, and so popularly supported, in the United States. Thus President Barack Obama’s creation, in April 2012, of the Atrocities Prevention Board, the first high-level U.S. government initiative on the issue. Shortly afterward, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum commissioned a public opinion poll that found 66 percent of Americans believe genocide is preventable and 69 percent think the United States should prevent or stop genocide or mass atrocities from occurring in other parts of the world.
In the public discourse, however, there is still little agreement, never mind discussion, about what it actually means to prevent. With this in mind, there are four points I’d like to emphasize (based on the approach the Auschwitz Institute uses in our programs for government officials):
1) Genocide is a process, not an event.
2) Genocide can be prevented.
3) Military intervention is not prevention.
4) Genocide derives primarily from within a society and therefore must be prevented primarily from within a society.
The destruction of human beings based on their group identity was defined as a crime in 1948, by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the first human rights treaty adopted by the United Nations—even before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Here is the definition of genocide from the UN Convention:
Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Note that killing is only one-fifth of the legal definition. Historically speaking, it’s clear that many terrible things typically happen in addition to, and leading up to, large-scale killing—so it’s crucial to have a definition broad enough to include them all. This is of major importance when addressing the issue of prevention.
To further illustrate:
In 1996, Dr. Gregory Stanton, a U.S. scholar, developed a model of genocide consisting of eight stages:
1. Classification 2. Symbolization 3. Dehumanization 4. Organization 5. Polarization 6. Preparation 7. Extermination 8. Denial
Note here, again, only one of the eight stages actually involves killing—or “Extermination,” as it is called here.
Together these two definitions illustrate clearly that genocide prevention requires more than just putting a stop to ongoing killing. Yet most people in the United States continue to see military intervention as the primary means of preventing genocide. Thus the Holocaust Museum poll revealed that 78 percent of Americans support U.S. military action to stop genocide or mass atrocities, and a plurality of Americans (particularly among men) view military intervention as the most effective method “in preventing and/or stopping genocide or mass atrocities.”
The point at which military intervention is required to stop killing, however, is one at which genocide prevention has already failed. To use an analogy that comes from a realm closer to home for most people: Preventing genocide by military intervention is like preventing alcoholism by walking into a bar and knocking drinks out of people’s hands.
To extend the analogy: Some of you have probably seen the TV show Intervention. Concerned family and friends step in to persuade an addict to enter treatment and get help. The addict enters rehab, confronts her addictive behavior, receives counseling, and, if all goes well, when she gets out continues counseling and enters a 12-step program or some other group to provide ongoing support. Ultimately, though, she is responsible for herself: for preventing relapse, for looking out for her own health. But is there a TV show called Prevention? Of course not. Because, relatively speaking, prevention is dull. It’s slow.
It’s repetitive. It’s boring. There’s nothing sexy or dramatic or outwardly heroic about it.
Yet this kind of careful, continuous effort is exactly what’s needed to ensure an addict’s long-term health. And this same long-term horizon is also what’s required to prevent genocides from occurring or recurring, and to ensure the health of troubled societies.
With this in mind, here are two aspects of prevention we believe are key:
1) Like genocide itself, prevention is a process, not an event.
2) It is up to the country or society in which the genocide is taking place—with help—to take and maintain the necessary steps. For the solution to be effective and long-lasting, the impetus for this change must come from within.
This brings us to two terms you hear a lot in our line of work: “toolbox” and “political will.” As Jonathan Prentice of the International Crisis Group noted, in a May 2011 speech, the toolbox for prevention is by now not only pretty well known, but also pretty full. He listed the following tools:
- Early warning—by NGOs, the media, the UN, civil society
- Institution- or capacity-building
- Reducing economic equities
- Security sector reform
- Strengthening legal protection
- Fostering inclusive governance
We at the Auschwitz Institute add two more items to the list: transitional justice and weapons control. But the main point is to implement these policies effectively.
This brings us to the perpetual bugbear known as political will. Even the best-organized government cannot prevent genocide if its leaders are not motivated to do so. And as appealing as moral and ethical arguments may be, they are never enough by themselves.
So one last point: Without accountability, there can be no responsibility. If there is not a single person—or single agency—in the government whose job is to prevent genocide, it is just too easy for everyone to pass the buck.
What, then, are we left with? To return to the question we asked at the beginning: “What does it mean to prevent genocide?”
It means 1) government decision makers 2) with identified points of accountability 3) committed to long-term solutions 4) using existing tools 5) viewing every situation through a “genocide prevention lens” 6) focusing their efforts on their own societies.
Nothing heroic about it. No drama. But this is not about Nielsen ratings. This is about saving human beings’ lives.
* Alex Zucker is Communications Officer of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, a nonprofit based in New York City and Oswiecim, Poland.