Genocide prevention and engaged scholarship

It is entirely apt that Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, should be the recipient of a UNESCO Chair in Genocide Prevention – especially since it was there that the man who coined the term ‘genocide’, Raphael Lemkin, taught law in the 1950s.

Professor Alex Hinton, director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights and newly inaugurated UNESCO chair, agrees.

Not only did Rutgers-Newark already have “an ongoing interest in genocide prevention that we wanted to take to the next level, but the legacy of Lemkin adds another inspirational dimension to our attempt to address one of the most urgent problems confronting the world today,” he told University World News.

Indeed, it was this same scholar and activist who helped draft the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948.

Speaking at the launch ceremony, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng shared these sentiments: “I welcome the establishment of the Rutgers UNESCO Chair in Genocide Prevention and the contribution this programme could make to research, education and outreach in the field of genocide studies.”

The UNESCO chair will directly build on the international network of partnerships that have already been formed by the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, or CGHR.

Among these is the Cambodian Genocide Memory Project, a programme that has grown out of a long-standing relationship with the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, or DC-Cam, in Phnom Penh. Not only have several of its staff members pursued doctoral studies at Rutgers-Newark, but one is currently running the centre’s genocide education programme.

And the relationship goes both ways: Rutgers-Newark welcomed Youk Chhang, director of DC-Cam and a CGHR senior research fellow, last week to speak after the screening of an award-winning documentary on sustainability in Cambodia, A River Changes Course.

Alex Hinton has dedicated his life’s work to the problem of genocide and mass atrocities by focusing on the trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders in Cambodia. He has written several books on the subject including the award-winning, Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the shadow of genocide (2005).

Chair on genocide education

Rutgers-Newark is not the only institution to have been singled out for a UNESCO chair pertaining to this pressing global challenge this month.

Stepping into the position of UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education is the executive director of the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation – Institute for Visual History and Education, Dr Stephen Smith OBE.

Smith’s mandate at the Los Angeles-based institute has been to make available for educational, research and advocacy purposes the narrative of visual history as it relates to the European Holocaust and crimes against humanity.

“Education, knowledge and understanding are the keys to stopping the horrors of genocide for future generations,” he told University World News.

“By combining the resources and the nearly 52,000 testimonies in our Visual History Archive with dedicated researchers and educators around the world, USC Shoah Foundation and UNESCO will be in a great position to develop and create educational programmes that can span across the globe to help create a more respectful world.”

UNESCO chairs programme

It is all part of UNESCO’s larger UNITWIN chairs programme. Inaugurated in 1992, the programme today involves more than 854 higher education institutions in 134 countries.

In seeking to establish networks within the higher education and research communities worldwide, it promotes knowledge exchange and inter-university cooperation along with the enhancement of institutional capacities and promotion of educational initiatives.

As such, speaking at Smith’s appointment, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova affirmed her expectation that the new chair would contribute to increased international cooperation by connecting with UNESCO’s network of university chairs and by supporting “issues pertaining to the history of the Holocaust, genocide and to human rights”.

This sentiment was echoed by Adama Dieng a week later at Rutgers-Newark: “Academia constitutes an important partner in increasing awareness and understanding of the crime of genocide and the kind of measures that can be taken to prevent it.

“I am certain that [the chair] can serve as a bridge between scholars and practitioners, and that it constitutes an excellent addition to both the UNESCO Chair programme and the academic tradition of genocide studies at this institution.”

That is exactly what the Rutgers-Newark chair will do, Hinton explains: “We want to create an interface between advocacy organisations and higher education institutions in terms of genocide prevention. We want to close the gap between the worlds of scholarship and public policy.”

Noting that these two groups of people often ‘don’t talk enough’, he adds: “There is an obvious imperative vis-à-vis genocide prevention, but we also want to look deeper at the root causes, historical processes, the dynamics involved in genocide, and situations when prevention initiatives have not worked.

“We are therefore looking backward and forward at the same time.”

Already building on a global set of partnerships at the CGHR, the first programmes initiated by the UNESCO chair include educational initiatives linked to genocide prevention.

A colloquia series in 2012 explored the range of ways genocide and gender tragically intersect, while a current series is exploring the relationship between genocide prevention and global justice.

Judicial mechanisms that help facilitate the transition to peace and reconciliation – key issues to prevent recurrence – for countries recently engaged in mass atrocities, conflict or genocide are being considered.

“We are going to take up the question of intervention and prevention directly next year. By considering their relationship, we will consider conceptual issues like humanitarianism, global ethics and new research trends,” says Hinton.

“It’s all about engaged scholarship.”