Archive for right to remedy

The Legacies of ‘Never Again’: Genocide Prevention Activism

By: Jalileh Garcia, Staff Writer for Rights Views

Every year in the month of December, the Historical Dialogues, Justice, and Memory Network holds a conference where scholars and practitioners share their scholarship and experiences in the field of historical dialogue. 

This year’s theme was “Prevention Activism: Advancing Historical Dialogue in Post-Conflict Settings.” The event’s theme sought to understand how to address and redress the violent past in order to prevent ethnic and political conflicts in the future. The conference took place  December 12-14 at Columbia University. 

From left to right: Andrea Zemskov-Zuege, Ilya Nuzov, Mark Wolfgram, Baskara Wardaya, and Elisenda Calvet Martinez. Photo by Jalileh Garcia

On Saturday, December 14, Mark Wolfgram from the University of Ottawa opened the event “Uses of History in Genocide Prevention II” by stating that the panelists would speak about their experiences and expertise in different countries and on distinct thematic issues that addressed how to ensure non-recurrence of genocides and mass atrocities through prevention activism, or the effort to record, acknowledge, address and redress the violent past. 

Ilya Nuzov, the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk Director at the International Federation of Human Rights, started the panel. He focused on the normative aspects of preventative activism, particularly on truth as a tool of prevention. The right to truth is linked to the right to effective remedy, which is codified in Article 2(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 14 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and Article 6 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), among other international agreements. Nuzov shared that truth has two aspects: the individual and collective. Individually, it is the right of each person to know what happened to them or their loved ones in past genocides that have affected them. Collectively, it is the right of society to know what happened in their violent past.

“While punishment is used as the primary measure to ensure non-recurrence of genocide and other mass atrocities, the fulfillment of the right to truth also carries a preventative potential,” explained Nuzov. By learning about the causes and events of past crimes, states recognize their responsibility in said crimes, while also acknowledging particular social identity groups that suffered as a result. 

Nuzov then presented the question “What is the legal regime for prevention?.” He argued that the legal basis for the fulfillment of the right to truth lies in the international legal obligations of states to prevent mass atrocity crimes. This duty has been present in various human rights conventions such as the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article 1 of the Convention states that “[t]he Contracting Parties confirm that genocide… is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” While the duty to prevent is mentioned, the extent of the duty is really only expounded in the current draft of the Crimes Against Humanity Convention, he explained. 

Mass atrocities that are left in impunity have the ability of manifesting into future violence, as there has been no accountability for grave crimes, victims are not redressed for their suffering, and there is no consensus on the truth of the events that occurred. As such, addressing grave human rights violations is vital to ensure non-recurrence. Truth, in this sense, could function as a tool to prevent future atrocities. 

Andrea Zemskov-Zuege, consultant with the organizations Change of Perspective and Culture for Peace, presented on prevention activism in Burma, now called Myanmar. Providing a brief historical context of the situation, she highlighted the present massive state-induced media campaign and violence against Rohingya Muslims perpetrated by the Myanmar security forces with the support of armed Rakhine Buddhist individuals. Due to the rise of violence towards the Rohingya, many have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. There has also been the emergence of a Muslim resistance movement, previously known as Harakah al-Yaqin, which is now called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. It is commanded on the ground by Rohingya who use their guerilla training to organize attacks. 

Because the two identities – the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims – are increasingly isolated, Zuege found that the best approach to bridge these communities together would be through narrative. The exchange of experiences through narrative hopes to create empathy, while reducing estrangement and achieving advocacy for minorities by each of the groups. She emphasized the importance of choice in this approach, as it means people are actively willing to learn and share. 

Narrative approaches can take various forms. In Myanmar, there were two projects executed by several organizations. The organizations began by training youth from Rakhine and Rohingya communities to facilitate storytelling sessions among their respective communities based on biographical experiences. Here, facilitators would also introduce basic conflict transformation themes. After coordinating storytelling sessions in their communities, the Rakhine and Rohingya youth facilitators then came together and shared their experiences with each other in efforts to improve their community work. Zuege mentioned how sharing biographical experiences is a central feature of the program in Myanmar, as it a low-key method for the exchange of experiences because it is not confrontational and allows both the Rakhine and Rohingya people to get to know each other. 

Baskara Wardaya, lecturer of History at Sanata Dharma University, spoke next of the role that everyone has to play in remembering the aftermath of the 1965 mass violence in Indonesia. He provided a brief historical context of the situation, sharing that mass killings in Indonesia led to the deaths of more than 500,000 people in efforts to eradicate “communist threats.” The Communist Party, known as the PKI, had gained much traction in Indonesia. As such, the military had become wary of the party’s rise in power and the possibility of a rebellion in the country. The event which marked history was the murder of six senior army generals and one lieutenant in October 1965, which was subsequently blamed on the PKI. Shortly after, the killings against against any person suspected of being communist or having ties to the communist movement began. Eventually, Suharto, the General of the Army, took power over the presidency in 1967. As such, Suharto came to control all of the narratives of what happened in 1965, concealing the truth about the events that had occurred for the next 31 years, shared Wardaya. 

Organizations hoping to expose the horrors of the 1965 mass killings arose as a response to the government’s efforts to hide the truth. Sekber 65 is one of these organizations. It was established in 2005 and is comprised of civil society members. Sekber 65 raises awareness of the crimes committed by the Indonesian army in 1965 through truth-telling. Members publish magazines, books, or have artistic performances that convey true stories of the suffering that took place. 

Explaining why Sekber 65 takes a non-judicial approach, Wardaya described that “dealing with the 1965 issue by taking the case to court would be ineffective, which is why we started doing these activities.” In fact, through the civil society initiatives, the government has slowly shown more signs of cooperation towards taking on the issue.  

Elisenda Calvet Martinez, Assistant Professor of International Law at Universidad de Barcelona, was the last to speak. Her presentation focused on combating corruption and impunity as a guarantee of non-repetition in Guatemala. She looked specifically at the role that the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) played in the country.

Elisenda Calvet Martinez. Photo by Jalileh Garcia

Beginning in 1960 and lasting until 1996, Guatemala found itself in a civil war fought between the government military forces and leftist rebel groups.  Martinez states that in this internal armed conflict more than 200,000 civilians were murdered. Sources indicated that most civilian casualties were indigenous people, and that the State of Guatemala perpetrated a genocide against its Mayan inhabitants. Yet, according to Martinez, the violence after conflict was even higher than during the armed conflict. As such, the unsustainable violence in Guatemala led to the creation of the CICIG, which was formalized through an agreement between the UN and the State of Guatemala. 

The CICIG’s mandate centered on the dismantling of illegal security groups and clandestine security structures, which were created during the armed conflict. They provided special recommendations for institutional reform, worked on more than 100 cases of high impact, and identified 60 criminal structures. By trying the impunity of the past, the CICIG sought to hold accountable the people responsible for abuses during the internal armed conflict, many of whom continue to retain much of the country’s political and financial power to this day. 

As a whole, the speakers made the audience speculate on how to deal with the past as a way to move forward in the future. Overall, the panelists provided the audience with diverse viewpoints and shared different methods for genocide or mass atrocity prevention ranging from using the normative legal regime to narratives, civil society organizations, or UN commissions against impunity. 

It was particularly interesting to see how Zuege grappled with these questions of truth. She believed that in conflict narratives, individuals with different social identities and experiences would have ideas of the truth that do not always contend. As such, Group A and Group B would believe differently about an issue depending on how they felt. Yet, these narratives begin to line up when one puts them together. Meanwhile, the CICIG determines culpability of individuals involved in illegal and clandestine security forces which reinforces guilt in a case, and not conciliation. While the effectiveness of all of these methods are to be determined or hard to assess, they provide hope that individuals can improve their current or past country situations. 

While the panelists’ perspectives and experiences varied in context, all of the speakers grappled with how to record, acknowledge, address and redress the violent past in order to counter violent and hateful realities. In this way, we see how the human rights regime allows for flexibility in how to address genocide or mass atrocities and ensure their non-recurrence.