Archive for Transitional Justice

“Not Just a Slogan:” An Interview with Tibi Galis, Executive Director of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, on Genocide Prevention

By Michelle Eberhard, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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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.

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator

An Interview with Filmmaker Pamela Yates

By Jennifer Wilmore, student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs 

Filmmaker Pamela Yates

Pamela Yates is an American documentary filmmaker and co-founder of SkylightPictures, a company dedicated to creating films and digital media tools that advance awareness of human rights and the quest for justice.  In 1982, at the age of 24, she traveled to Guatemala to shoot footage of the hidden war unfolding there between the military government and guerrilla forces. While in Guatemala, Yates also witnessed the government’s genocidal campaign being carried out against the Mayan people mostly, in which at least 200,000 individuals were killed, “disappeared” or forced into exile.  Skylight Pictures used this footage to create a film called When the Mountains Tremble, which won the Special Jury Award at the 1984 Sundance Film Festival.

Since then, Yates has created films on a variety of issues, including poverty and homelessness in the United States, terrorism, and the International Criminal Court. Her current Sundance offering, Granito: How To Nail a Dictator, takes viewers back to Guatemala – along with Yates herself, who is the central figure of the film. Partly a political thriller and partly Yates’ memoir on filmmaking, this feature-length documentary spans four decades to take audiences through a haunting tale of genocide and justice. In the film, Yates revisits her 1982 footage to find evidence that would be entered in an international court case to prosecute those most responsible for the genocide in Guatemala.  Granito is currently up for Academy Award consideration. She also recently directed the development of Granito: Every Memory Matters, a transmedia project using mobile applications to gather testimonies from victims in Guatemala and members of the Guatemalan Diaspora in the U.S.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/27986215[/vimeo]

I had the opportunity to talk with Pamela at a Manhattan café during a busy week for her. She was premiering Granito in New York theaters, and then shortly after our meeting she left for Los Angeles to premiere the film there. To qualify for Oscar consideration, the film had to have a commercial run for at least one week in both locations. What follows is a glimpse into our very interesting conversation in New York.

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What do you believe documentary films uniquely contribute to human rights struggles?

I think the films and media offerings we do humanize the struggle for human rights.  You probably notice that I use a lot of close-ups of faces in my films. That’s because connecting with the eyes of another person fires something in the brain that connects us as human beings. You can have brilliant, footnoted reports.  You can have good television reports.  But long-form documentaries take you on an emotional journey to meet people you probably would never be able to meet.  It also brings the voices of the powerless and of the victims into places where they might not be invited to go.

A film that had an effect on me in terms of wanting to be a filmmaker and choosing films about human rights and the quest for justice was To Kill a Mockingbird.  I didn’t articulate it at the time, but now looking back, I realize it.  I saw it when I was the same age as Scout, and the fact that a six-year-old could actually make a difference – and also this extreme sense of injustice that she had – had a really profound effect on me.

How did you first end up coming to New York?

I ran away from home when I was 16 to the most exciting and dangerous place I’d heard about: New York City. I’m from the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania, so this was like Oz. We used to listen to transistor radios under our covers at night – me and my sisters – and we would get the New York stations, and I was always like, “That’s where I’m going.”

Did you know then that you wanted to do filmmaking?

Pamela Yates in 1982

You know, I always had artistic sensibilities. I’m from a part of the Appalachian Mountains where storytelling is very big. The currency in my town was how good a story you could tell, and my father was a great storyteller. So I think filmic storytelling is just an extension of that cultural richness that I took with me from this Irish-American enclave in the mountains of Pennsylvania.

For When the Mountains Tremble, your 1982 film about Guatemala, you were able to interview some high-level people, including then-President Ríos Montt and top military officials. How did you get that kind of access?

It took a long time and a lot of persistence.  I also realized that I was at this particular moment that I could use to my advantage.  President Carter had cut off military aid to the Guatemalan military because of egregious human rights violations.  And then President Reagan was elected in 1980.  The Guatemalans wanted him to re-open military sales to expand the counter-insurgency campaign, and he was very open to that.  So they saw me and the crew as a megaphone for supporting that in the American public.

What did they think you were doing there?

Well, I never lie.  But I also don’t always tell the full story, and in that case I was concerned for my safety and the safety of the cameraperson, Tom.  Basically, we were just making a very broad statement that we wanted to tell the story of what was happening in Guatemala, and we really needed to have the military point of view.

Rigoberta Menchú, an activist who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, is the narrator of When the Mountains Tremble.  How did you come to know her?

Someone brought her to our studio in New York.  She was so magnificent in the way that she spoke that we decided to show her parts of the assembly of the film, because we were at this impasse, where we had all these great scenes but nothing to really hold it together as a film.  She watched the assembly, then came back and for a few days looked at everything, and she wrote her part.

When exactly did you film her?

In 1983.  She’s actually never in Guatemala, because she was in exile, but the way we filmed makes you feel like she’s a part of it. So her story is told in parallel with this story of what was going on in Guatemala.

You have said that in 2003 a lawyer asked you to look through outtakes of your 1982 footage for evidence that could be used in a genocide case in the Spanish national courts. Was it through this process of revisiting your old footage that you decided to make your newest film, Granito, partly a memoir?

Well first of all, the story was so circular about destinies.  Rigoberta was the plaintiff that brought the case.  So that was one thing.  And then when we started to look through the footage, I saw myself in the footage.  I’m in every single shot, either at the beginning or the end of the shot.  And I realized that I could actually make the film about documentary filmmaking.  I realized I could be a witness.

There’s a part in Granito where you show When the Mountains Tremble to children in the Highlands area where people were killed in the 1980s – was that the first time they had seen the film? 

They had never seen the film before.  And I got the impression from the look on a lot of the older people’s faces that they had never actually seen images like that.  The guerrilla resistance was something that everybody talked about or heard about.  But then to actually see it… they hadn’t seen images like that in a very long time.

Do you find that younger generations’ parents haven’t really been telling them these stories?

Yeah, often.  Especially in the Highlands, because they’re sheltering their kids.  They don’t want them to know about it. They don’t want them to lash out and put themselves in danger.

And then sometimes I think people who have been persecuted feel on some level like it’s their fault and don’t want to share it with anyone else.  For a long time, a lot of the villages in Guatemala thought they were the only ones attacked.  It was only many years later when they all came together that they realized it was this widespread and systemic plan.

Granito follows the process of building a genocide case in the Spanish courts against Guatemalan military forces from the 1980s.  Have people actually been arrested and convicted through this court?

No, but there’s actually this trend happening in Guatemala.  It’s what they call the “Pinochet effect,” where you start with an international court, and that makes it possible for the domestic court cases to move forward.  The fact that there was an international case in Spain emboldened judges and prosecutors in Guatemala into saying, “Now that this evidence has been uncovered in the Spanish national court, we can take that evidence and do it here.”

So on June 17th, the chief of staff under Ríos Montt was arrested and charged with genocide. No army officer in the history of Latin America has been charged with genocide, so this is a precedent. And several special forces people have been arrested and convicted.  More perpetrators of those crimes have been arrested and convicted in Guatemala in the last three months than in the past 30 years.  So we’re really seeing this tipping point for justice.

What would you tell students who might want to get involved with your production company?

Send me an email. Pamela@skylightpictures.com.

Jennifer Wilmore is pursuing a Master of International Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, with a focus on human rights and a specialization in international media, advocacy and communications.