Voices of our Community

Apr022015 1

Moving Beyond Witness

by Melanie Nelkin, Chair, Georgia Coalition to Prevent Genocide

It’s tempting to get annoyed by the lost keys, angry drivers, long bank lines and other trivial annoyances that seem to collect by the end of the day.  Realistically, they are “first world problems” and they could be a lot worse.

This year the Georgia General Assembly passed the 4th annual Resolution declaring April as Genocide Prevention and Awareness Month in Georgia.  Why April?  Throughout history, numerous events related to genocides have occurred in April.  As a result, many institutions around the world have designated April, the month we typically associate with emerging daffodils, to remember, commemorate, and act on historic and present day genocides.

In her 2002 Pulitzer-prize winning book, A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, UN Ambassador Samantha Power concludes that the real reason the United States has not done what it could and should do to help prevent genocide was not a lack of knowledge or influence, but a lack of will. She cointed the term "Upsstanders" and challenged us to have the courage to leave the inivisible majority of "Bystanders" behind. Lack of will was not missing in the early years of the genocide in Darfur, Sudan but today, more than eleven years later, the international community of conscience has indeed lost its will.  Back in 2004, a remarkable and powerful constituency coalesced to address the tragedy unfolding in Darfur.  Students, faith based communities, interfaith non-profits, and community leaders came together to warn the world about the first genocide of the 21st century in Darfur.  For a while the media paid attention and even fueled U.S. policy against a genocidal regime in Sudan.

Today, that fiery effort has been reduced to smoke on a conflict that is still as robust.  Worse yet, the perpetrators, including indicted genocidaires are welcome across borders, while continuing to  commit the same atrocities. After 4 years, Syria, still in the hands of the Assad regime claims civilian lives daily. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, over 5.4 million people have been murdered, many of them women as a result of rape. The victims of these crimes only wish they had first world problems.

In a recent New York Times op-ed Sudan activist and actor George Clooney said, “After the spike in attention and concern, the world has largely forgotten about Darfur.  Unfortunately, the government of Sudan has not.”  In fact, Sudan’s President is making a public move to remove the UN peacekeeping mission to avoid further scrutiny of the mass rape that occurred there last fall.

Clooney correctly points out that our “attention spans are short -- especially for places that appear to have no strategic importance”.  On this 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, we are reminded that Hitler also thought the world’s attention span was short when he said in 1939, “Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” 

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein remarked recently that, “Human rights are the only meaningful rampart against barbarity.  Essentially if I may boil down a massive topic into one sentence, states must be willing to protect the human rights of their people and people must be able to hold the State responsible.” 

Patience can be a virtue but in the case of genocide and mass atrocities, patience equals inaction.  Seventy years after the Holocaust, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum considers preventing genocide a “moral imperative”.  Before, during, and since the Holocaust, inaction was and remains the reason that most of the world is comprised of bystanders. It’s tougher to see that from the U.S. where we are walled off from genocidal fronts by thousands of miles of land and sea, and where the media has not helped change the calculus of the bystander.  It’s familiar and convenient to feel overwhelmed but history doesn’t give us do-overs.

This April, we have a renewed oppurtunity to change the bystander calculus through a national campaign called Moving Beyond Witness The campaign unites individuals and organizations through events and provides tools to educate communities about past and contemporary genocides.  It offers us a renewed opportunity to leave behind another century of bystanding by providing us with opportunities to regenerate a constituency of “Upstanders”.  It is within each of us to commemorate the past while galvanizing our actions to prevent and combat genocide today.  Together we can move beyond being a witness and beyond our first world problems.


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