WASHINGTON (A.W.)—On June 10, in a special panel session presented by the International Genocide Scholars Association (IAGS) in the U.S. Capitol building as the finale to their 8th Biennial Conference (titled “The New Face of Genocide in the 21st Century”), panelists involved in the formation of the Genocide Prevention Task Force spoke about the December 2008 report “Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers.”
Panelists included Lawrence Woocher, the senior program officer at the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, United States Institute of Peace; Donald E. Braum, the senior adviser for civilian-military engagement at the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, U.S. Department of State; and Bridget Moix, the legislative secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
The Genocide Prevention Task Force was launched on Nov. 13, 2007, and was jointly convened by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the American Academy of Diplomacy, and the U.S. Institute of Peace, and funded by private foundations. Some of its key objectives include developing military guidance on genocide prevention and response, and incorporating it into doctrines and trainings; investing $250 million in new funds for crisis prevention and response; and making $50 million of this amount available for urgent off-cycle activities to prevent or halt emerging genocidal crises.
“I’m speaking from my own personal views on how this presidential administration might deal with issues of genocide,” said Braum, “but let’s look at who they’ve appointed to positions of power: there’s Susan Rice as U.S. ambassador to the UN and Samantha Power at the National Security Council heading the Human Rights Council there. Another important position is the U.S. ambassador-at-large for the War Crimes Tribunal.”
He continued, “If you look at who this administration’s appointed you have to be optimistic that we’re going to have some highly capable people tackling these issues.”
But, Braum, added, “There’s a shortage of people at the Department of State offices and the Office for Reconstruction and Stabilization.” The latter is “meant to provide that civilian surge…that within 30 days can be called from their job to provide special skills. This is going to give the U.S. a way to respond quickly to these situations in a way we never have before.”
“The plan is to develop a planning tool for the U.S. military to have in place for the future to actively prevent genocide,” he noted.
Bridget Moix spoke next, stating, “We do have a new administration with people in it that are committed to changing U.S. policies to deal with genocide. We have a great representative Congress on issues of genocide as well. We wanted to make sure this report didn’t just gather dust in policymakers’ desks.”
She continued, “We’re hoping we can get language in Obama’s first National Security Council strategy meetings that include genocide prevention. But so far the report has been very well received on Capitol Hill. This report offers an important blueprint for moving forward on creating a U.S. government policy on genocide prevention that currently is not there.”
Following the panelists’ initial remarks in support of their report, former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans—recalled from his position in 2006 because of his public acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide—countered the official line of the U.S. State Department. During the Q&A session, he said, “One of the criticisms my Armenian friends have made of the report is that if the U.S. can’t bring itself to recognize the Armenian Genocide, how can we really be serious about preventing future genocides?”
U.K.-based Kurdish human rights activist Adnan Kochar was also critical of the panelists’ praise for the report. “You are all sitting with the people that make the crimes. Before the U.S. invasion there was only one mafia-like family controlling crime in Iraq. Now we have seven families, all supported in their positions by the U.S. government.”
“My point is that America is always polishing things to make it look like you’re doing good things, but you’re not,” he said. “You talk about using ‘Washington Tools,’ but these tools have nothing to do with the people in these countries. So don’t pat yourself on the back and say, ‘We’re doing a good job.’”
Peter Balakian, an IAGS Executive Board member and author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and the American Response, added to Evans’ critical comments on the report. “Former Ambassador Evans has pointed out a fundamental hypocrisy, and that is that the report does not deal with the Armenian Genocide honestly. It’s time for the Obama energy and moral honesty to trickle down into the next level of government. Why can’t we begin to see some of those results now?”
Moix responded to Balakian’s question by contrasting the concerns of the Armenian communities to those she deemed more immediate than the seemingly academic nature of U.S.-Armenian genocide recognition—a ruse often propagated by detractors against such recognition. She noted, “My organization agrees with your comments, but we also believe we need to see some pretty fundamental foreign policy changes now, too.”
“All of us want to support the right thing,” she said. “But Israel has not formally acknowledged the Armenian Genocide either. Sometimes for policymakers there are trade-offs. Unfortunately that’s a fact of life.”
Speaking to Kochar’s comments, Braum continued, “Likewise in Iraq, through de-Baathification we unfortunately got rid of a majority of qualified Iraqi military personnel that could have aided the U.S. … But, there are a lot of ‘below the radar’ initiatives by the U.S. and British governments in democracy trainings that went far in preventing genocide in Kenya.”
Henry C. Theriault, an IAGS Executive Board member and associate professor of philosophy at the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Worcester State College, rebutted the panelists’ position. “This report refers to the Armenians three times, yet never uses the word ‘genocide,’” he said. “What that says to the political community is that it’s business as usual when it comes to dealing with U.S. allies. Unlike the case in Kenya, which you’ve also cited three times, where the U.S. has no vested interests.”
A Tamil minority Sri Lankan audience member, who would only identify herself as a current George Washington University public policy student, was also critical of the panelists’ remarks and the U.S.’s lack of genocide intervention. “In our case, actions by the Sri Lankan army were identified as a potential genocide [against ethnic Tamils by the Sri Lankan army, on the military pretext of counter terrorism], and still nothing has been done about it. So I’ve become somewhat cynical on these issues.”
Woocher responded, “Washington is political. We can’t just wish that away. Preventing genocide is really hard. If we make incremental progress, we have to acknowledge that and know we can solve this monumental problem.”