"'Never again' is not the message we got from the Holocaust. The message we got is that the Holocaust will replicate itself. What was acceptable once will be acceptable again."
Jerry Fowler is the first staff director of the Committee on Conscience, which guides the genocide prevention efforts of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He served previously as legislative counsel for the Lawyer's Committee on Human Rights where he worked on a variety of issues concerning human rights. Mr. Fowler teaches human rights law and policy at George Mason University Law School.
SMITH: What's happening in Sudan is a terrible crisis. In Western Sudan, a rebellion against the government—sparked from the government—is causing a crisis of extraordinary proportions.
They enlisted local Arab militia as security forces and authorized them to rape and pillage at will, which is what they did. Within months more than a million people were displaced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands were pushed across the border and the death rate skyrocketed into the tens of thousands.
The government has allowed Arab militia to attack African villagers. The tragedy here [is that] Sudan is an African country and all of the people of Sudan are Africans. What the government has done is played the card that distinguishes one set of people from another set of people as a way to turn them against each other and attack those that they perceive to be in rebellion.
FOWLER: I think that is a really important part of the problem in Sudan. Something that we see common to the problem of genocide is political leaders who use differences between groups for political purposes. They manipulate the grievances and that's what creates the conditions where you can have mass violence on the scale that we see in Sudan today. They've created this sense of otherness that really creates the conditions for mass violence.
FOWLER: There are no hard and fast legal consequences. There is an international treaty for the prevention and punishment of genocide but it's very vague about what obligations countries have to actually act. I think the effect of using the word is much more moral and political, than it is legal.
What countries promise to do is undertake to prevent and punish the crime of genocide. But the treaty doesn't list what those undertakings have to be. Some governments even argue that that only applies in the territory of a government. It's more the political and moral weight of the term that has caused governments to shy away from using it in the past.
FOWLER: Sometimes we get too wrapped around using the word genocide. If we are talking about prevention, you don't have to have a finding of genocide before you start preventing. By definition, prevent means before. But once you believe genocide is happening, I guess the term to use is suppression—suppress genocide, which is what we need to be doing in Sudan. And then punishment comes after you've failed in those first two events.
SMITH: If you look around the world, there are any number of places where there are mass killings going on—where there are events that may be looked back upon and deemed to be genocide—but which we are not doing anything to prevent on the grounds that somehow we can't.
It doesn't always take the intervention of troops. Sometimes it takes diplomacy. Sometimes it takes resources. Sometimes it just takes shining a spotlight on these crises to break the cycle of impunity.
We are going to have more and more of these cases where people recognize that they can carry out these acts whether it's legally determined to be genocide, or ethnic cleansing or mass killing—whatever abhorrent crime that it may be—and that they'll continue to do it with no consequences.
In the case of Sudan there are a number of things that could have been done, that could be done now, and will still be required in the future. But it takes some bold action.
And just calling it genocide and then failing to act is in many ways almost worse, because it's acknowledging that this crisis of huge proportions is taking place. Having named it, we can now walk away. Well, those people are still suffering.
FOWLER: I totally agree that what you call it is not as important as what you do about it. But, as we've said in the past, governments, the U.S. government has shied away from using the word because they didn't want to create pressure on themselves to do something.
FOWLER: I think there are two ways in which learning about the Holocaust helps inform the way we look at genocide. The first is it raises questions about responsibility. The second is it shows us that choices have consequences.
We see in the history of the Holocaust people making choices. Some choices led to the worst sort of evil. The other choices led to extraordinary goodness and selflessness, and we learn that the choices we make have consequences.