By Michelle Eberhard, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University
Established in 2007, the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation is dedicated to the creation of an international genocide prevention network. To fulfill its mission, the Institute has developed several education programs, most notably its Raphael Lemkin Seminar, as well as a genocide prevention network in Latin America in 2012. Following the signing of an agreement with the African Union in February 2013, the Institute will soon be developing a similar network amongst African countries. Below is an interview with Executive Director of the Auschwitz Institute, Tibi Galis.
Michelle Eberhard: How did you become interested in working in genocide prevention?
Tibi Galis: I grew up in a transition country, in Romania, so it was very interesting to experience in person the impact political change can have on society, and that is why I started being rather passionate about transition studies. There was a very easy path from transition studies to transitional justice, which became my area of research, and from there to dealing with genocide prevention. This is very much about trying to undo the circumstances that have led to the problems that transitional justice tries to deal with. It was both an academic and activist journey to getting to working in genocide prevention.
M.E.: What is the biggest challenge for an organization like the Auschwitz Institute in carrying out its mission?
T.G.: Probably the biggest challenge would be what all not-for-profits struggle with, which is the fact that we have to dedicate a lot of our work to securing the funds we need to do the work that we do. At the same time, though, it’s very surprising how the issues that people traditionally think of as challenging have not been so [difficult] in our work. Working with governments is traditionally depicted as being a very difficult process, and our experience is that there is so much interest within governments to make this issue a more effective part of their work that they are very cooperative and very [willing to] work together.
M.E.: In February, the Auschwitz Institute signed an agreement with the African Union to establish the African Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention. In light of the current continental conflicts, including those in Syria and Mali, what do you see as being the greatest obstacles for effective implementation of the initiatives outlined in this agreement?
T.G.: The international climate of conflict, and focusing on ongoing conflicts, can be very obstructive to a continent-wide initiative focusing on prevention. We’ve seen this a lot, especially in governmental attitudes towards longer-term policies that focus on prevention as opposed to crisis management. Of course, for natural reasons, crisis management is prioritized, and the Auschwitz Institute wants countries to prioritize crisis management. At the same time, that prioritization sometimes translates into giving up on preventive policies altogether, which this program wants to make sure is not an acceptable position for its participating governments. The greatest challenge, I believe, will be to make sure that governments understand the need for longer-term policies oriented specifically towards prevention.
M.E.: What is your response to individuals who say that it is impossible to prevent genocide, or who think the only way to prevent such atrocities is through military intervention?
T.G.: The response I usually offer is that genocide prevention needs to be understood not as an action, but as a process, like any other political, long-term process. Genocide can be prevented, and we have the proof of that within societies that function and do not break down into spaces for permanent war between groups. Genocide prevention is indeed creating the environment for groups to be able to manage their political differences within an established framework. […] Military intervention is crisis management – sometimes military intervention can play a role in preventing further atrocities, but we at the Auschwitz Institute focus on the many, many peaceful ways of engaging societies to prevent genocide, and those methods are actually a lot more successful.
M.E.: How have the Auschwitz Institute’s programs, particularly the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, been successful in their mission of preventing genocide?
T.G.: What we have found is that the institutions that have been engaged with the Raphael Lemkin Seminar and with the Auschwitz Institute for a long period [of time], have actually managed to pull through and establish changes in the way they work that resulted from the knowledge imparted through the Seminar and through subsequent collaboration. Many of our participant institutions have refocused their policies to include more group-related policies [and] more assessments of risk-related situations [for minority groups] in their society, and we think that contributed to reshaping policy in those countries, towards the groups that are at risk.
M.E. Human rights work, and specifically work done in the realm of atrocity prevention, can oftentimes be frustrating and complicated, given the need to work with various individuals and organizations from all levels and affiliations (i.e., government, NGOs, civil society). In spite of this, how do you remain committed to your objectives, and pursue them in a meaningful and positive way?
T.G.: It’s actually not that difficult to engage the actors that are relevant for these issues. What is difficult is to make sure that that engagement is substantive, and that requires drawing on lots of other kinds of work that is connected to research [and the] analysis of existing policies. We are very lucky at the Institute [in regards to] the readiness of NGO, academic, and research communities to share their experience with us and with our governmental partners. Again, the surprise is that both governments and civil society are very ready to work on this.
M.E.: Considering everything the Auschwitz Institute has contributed to the field of genocide prevention, which of its accomplishments are you most proud?
T.G.: I think what we are most proud of at the Auschwitz Institute are really our contributions to the existing trend of establishing national mechanisms for genocide prevention, similar to the Atrocities Prevention Board in the United States, the national commissions for genocide prevention in different African countries, [and] national mechanisms of genocide prevention in different Latin American countries. I think the [national-level policies] of genocide prevention is one of the big steps that humanity has taken to make “never again” a reality, and not just a slogan.
M.E.: What advice do you have for graduate students interested in working in human rights upon the completion of their degree?
T.G.: I would encourage human rights graduate students to be very conscious, even before the completion of their degree, that they need to engage with different organizations in order to be able to work in this field. […] Actually getting engaged with different topics and different organizations before you graduate – through internships, through focusing your research on them, through basic socializing with an organization by attending their events – helps the chance of entering the field later on, and entering the field from a good position: one where you have realistic expectations related to the field. But beyond that, my advice is to just keep doing what you’re already doing, because once somebody makes the choice [to study] human rights and issues related to them, you are already on a great, rewarding path.
Michelle is a MA candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Michelle is concentrating in genocide studies, and she worked as a communications intern with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation.