The Last Survivor: The Case for Prevention
Lawrence Woocher speaking before the launch of Genocide Prevention Month at the 6th & I historic synagogue in Washington, D.C.
As we begin this final week of Genocide Prevention Month, we thought it was an important opportunity to pause and consider what it is we are advocating for – why we believe a policy of genocide prevention should be adapted both by our own national government as well as the international community at large.
Last week, our post began with a clip from Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, a leader of the Armenian community who has been a tremendous voice and advocate for the people of Darfur. Archbishop Aykazian referred to the 20th century as “the Century of Genocide.” It’s a troubling label to be sure, but one that is difficult to argue with. And now, with genocide raging through six of the first nine years of this new 21st century, we must wonder how much worse it needs to get before we consider a change in our reaction. It is time that we take a serious look at how we have responded to these atrocities in the past and why these responses have continuously failed.
In a word, our response to genocide throughout this unprecedented “Century of Genocide” has been reluctant. Among policy circles, debate tends to center less around what specific actions should be taken to end a genocide, focusing more on whether it is our role to be involved in the first place. The Genocide Convention, passed by the United Nations in 1948, not only outlawed genocide but declared that once recognized, the international community had an obligation to stop it. This seemingly straight-forward legislation has only upped the political ante involved in the word genocide itself – as leaders search lexicons of evil for less obligatory titles: “ethnic cleansing,” “civil war,” or “internal strife.” No matter what the chosen phrasing, the point is the same: despite the violence, as these crimes against humanity rarely pose direct threats to “American interests,” there is little reason to get involved.
Despite the current labeling of our international response policy to genocide as one of intervention, such intervention is rarely the end result. As we have seen all too clearly in the case of Darfur, intervention poses far too great of a political risk to our leaders. And as hundreds of thousands perish simply because of who they are, distant condemnation has proven a far safer reaction for international leaders weary of getting involved in a volatile conflict far from home.
Certainly, it is important to combat this familiar faltering on the part of American and international leaders, who offer great lip service to the need for intervention on the campaign trail, but find their agendas suddenly full once in office. Indeed, the lives of four million refugees in Darfur depend on our willingness to push our leaders to put actions behind their words. However, if we are serious about truly ending genocide in the 21st century, we must recognize that the reluctance associated with intervention in Darfur is nothing new – once a conflict reaches the level of genocide, the politics of the situation have proven far too complicated to render any sort of substantial reaction from the international community.
There is hope, however – hope born out of the fact that genocide is spawned out of years (if not centuries) of ethnic hatred and persecution, combined with political unrest. Genocidal killings are rarely the first action taken up by the groups in power, but are usually a “final solution” that comes at the end of a long path that systematically strips the oppressed party of their rights, liberties, and humanity. A policy of prevention would mean stepping in somewhere along this path of persecution, before the escalating conflict reached the level of genocide. It would mean an ability to take action, make demands, and negotiate with oppressive leaders on a political clock in which thousands were not yet being killed with every passing hour.
Jill Savitt, the director of the Genocide Prevention Project – the organization at the helm of Genocide Prevention Month – likes to draw comparisons between a preventative policy toward genocide and the preventative policy our doctors recommend we take toward our personal health. Fighting heart disease can be very difficult once it is fully manifested. In such cases, patients are faced with a number of non-ideal options for intervening with the disease’s course. These options are often risky and always expensive. But if one is conscious of the warning signs of such a disease – if one seeks to prevent such illness rather than intervene once it is fully spread – the options before him will be much more vast and amenable. Certainly, we’d all prefer to adjust our diets than undergo a risky heart bypass. The same holds true for genocide – when addressed early, the scales of political negotiation have not yet tipped in favor of the oppressor.
So what does that mean for those of us unlikely to be called upon by our President to begin steps toward the adoption of a national policy of prevention? As we move into the flowers of May, what is it that we should take with us as participants in the very first Genocide Prevention Month? Lawrence Woocher, who co-authored the Genocide Prevention Task Force Report alongside Madeleine Albright and William Cohen, points out that though our policies are often defined in their specifics by the leaders and policy makers at the top of the political totem pole, which policies these leaders will spend their time creating is determined by the voice of the people. Only when our leaders hear us call – loudly – for a policy of prevention in the face of genocide will they begin to take steps to create and adopt such a policy.
So as we move away from a month which has seen the implementation of six genocides over the past 100 years; as the situation in Darfur deteriorates; as Omar al-Bashir makes light of an international arrest warrant with little consequence from the international community, it is important that we do not lose hope. The lives of four million refugees in Darfur continue to depend on our ability to move forward – to push our leaders to finally intervene and stand up for those unable to stand for themselves. But when such intervention finally does occur, let us not forget how long and difficult the road toward action proved to be nor the over 400,000 lives we lost along that road. When the international community finally decides to intervene on behalf of the people of Darfur, let those of us who have come together to form this coalition of conscience set our sights on an even loftier goal: that this, the first genocide of the 21st century, also be the last. We do not believe that this is an unattainable goal – it simply requires a change in the way we view our response to genocidal conflict. A recognition that it is difficult to stop genocide from happening again when one waits for it to start before taking action.
You can learn more about Genocide Prevention by viewing the 20-minute version of our film, The Last Survivor and the panel discussion that followed its premiere in Washington, D.C. featuring Lawrence Woocher and other policy experts here. Please visit www.genocidepreventionmonth.org to learn how you can work to prevent genocide in the future.