About the Series Learning Resources
auschwitz: inside the nazi state
Understanding Auschwitz Today Introduction Lessons of the HolocaustThe Origins of Genocide How the World FailedThe Task of JusticeHow the Holocaust InformsWhy It's Crucial to Understand

The Holocaust & Current Issues of Genocide

The Panelists


"Genocide is a specific term that was coined to mark a signal event that demands the world's attention no matter what. So I think it's important to use it carefully. But in using it carefully, that can't be an excuse for us not to use it when, indeed, we need to."

Gayle Smith

Gayle Smith

Gayle Smith is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and served as a special assistant to the President, and senior director for African Affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.


"'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

Jerry Fowler

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.


The Discussion

Was there a name for what the Nazis were doing to the Jews in occupied Europe?

FOWLER: The focus [of the Allies during WWII] was on winning the war. The focus was not on what was happening to the Jews who were being systematically exterminated. One reason is that it was difficult to even comprehend what was happening. There wasn't even a word for it.

One of the contributions that came out of that era was the coining of the term "genocide" by a Jewish refugee from Poland, named Raphael Lemkin. He was trying to make people understand what was happening in Nazi-occupied Europe. He thought that if he could give a name to it, people would understand exactly what it was that the Nazis were doing.

SMITH: The term genocide takes on a certain intensity—as we are seeing in the case of Sudan, for example—that compels at least public attention or attention from policy makers. But at the end of the day, I don't think we can wait until the term genocide is invoked to respond to a number of crises around the world where people are being literally slaughtered.

What is happening in the Sudan?

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.

What are the legal consequences for using the word "genocide" by a leader or government?

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.

When should the word genocide be used?

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.

How can the experience of the Holocaust teach us to respond to current genocides?

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.