New Class Asks the Question: Can Genocide be Prevented?

New Class Asks the Question: Can Genocide be Prevented?

Students get new insights into why humans commit mass murder

Alex Hinton, a genocide scholar, is teaching his students about new movements aimed at preventing it.
Nick Romanenko
The class opened with a frank statement about one of mankind’s greatest evils.

“Genocide,” a visiting speaker told students in a Rutgers-Newark classroom, is “normal human behavior.”

 “We’d like to think of it as aberrant behavior,” continued Fred Schwartz, founder and president of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. “But it occurs in every corner of the world, in every kind of people. It is something human beings do. It is a disease essentially without a cure.”

But if there is no cure, Schwartz added, there are preventive measures that can minimize the damage.

Such measures – including diplomacy, international legal mechanisms, and human rights initiatives – are the basis of an emerging global movement.

And they are also the focus of a new course at Rutgers: “Genocide Prevention.” The class, which Schwartz visited last month, aims to connect the academic study of genocide with the movement aimed at preventing it.

Genocide is generally defined as the systematic murder of civilian populations, often on the basis of race, religion or political affiliation.

Alex Hinton, an anthropology professor and genocide scholar who created the course, said both activists and scholars are both breaking new ground in their work, but are in many ways separate communities moving on parallel tracks without much interaction.

“Much of the prevention movement has been in the public policy realm, and there has not been much intersection with academia,” said Hinton, “What we are trying to do is to bring those two worlds together.”
Hinton has sought to inhabit both worlds since he traveled to Cambodia as a graduate student in the early 1990s. There, he saw the impact of the mass murder campaign carried out during the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge.

“I made a commitment not just to conduct scholarly research into the origins and effects of such violence, but to seek ways to prevent it,” he said.

Hinton is the author of the award-winning Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide (California, 2005) and is also the director of the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution and Human Rights (CGCHR) on Rutgers’ Newark Campus.

Hinton’s new class left his visitors impressed.

“I don’t know another school that is doing this,” Schwartz, of the Auschwitz Institute, said in an interview. “I think this class is a forerunner of what will happen in the future.”

The roots of genocide prevention date back to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which sought to define the term and secure agreement globally to outlaw the practice.

But more visible, grassroots movement emerged in the early 1990s after two genocidal rampages: the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims by Serbian forces, and the massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda by the ruling Hutus.

“At that point, you had global communications in place, and as a result, everyone in the world knew what happened,” Hinton said. “Those two events shook people up, catalyzed different initiatives, and helped get the genocide prevention movement mobilized.”

The surge of interest in genocide studies and prevention is palpable among the students in Hinton’s class. Yannek Smith, for example, came to the class well-grounded in the field. He has worked as a student associate in the CGCHR since his freshman year. He is engaged in a genocide research project focusing on Native Americans. Smith, a senior, hopes to secure a job after graduation in the human rights field.

Another student, Jade Antoinette Adebo, said both her parents are from regions torn by mass murder. Her mother is from Cambodia, and her father was from Nigeria, where civil war in the late 1960s led to millions of dead in the secessionist state of Biafra.

‘In my family, there is a deep awareness and knowledge of genocide,” she said.

Both Adebo and Smith say the new class is particularly compelling in the way it requires students to critically examine the question of whether genocide can be prevented, and if so, what steps need to be taken.

“It’s an issue you have to look at very soberly,” Smith said. “How can we minimize the damage? How can we prevent it?

Schwartz, of the Auschwitz Institute, presented to students several ways that his organization works on prevention, including training government officials, military personnel, and students. One program helps U.S. military personnel recognize the warning signals in local populations where they may be stationed. 

“We take a very pragmatic view,” Schwartz said. “We don’t try to rely on the good will or morality of individuals, which can be shifted and swayed.”

Rutgers-Newark is hosting the conference Forgotten Genocides, March 28-29. For more information click here.