Genocide Prevention in the Real World: A Tale of Four Countries

Donald Steinberg, CEO of World Learning Inc., SIT's parent organization, was honored July 19 by the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Keene, NH, with the Susan Herman Award for Holocaust and Genocide Awareness. This award is in recognition of Don’s lifetime work in combatting mass atrocities, his leadership in the U.S. government and civil society for genocide prevention, and his ground-breaking research into the root causes of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Following is a copy of Don’s remarks:  

Presentation by Donald Steinberg, World Learning CEO at the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, July 19, 2017

Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a great privilege to speak this evening at Keene State’s Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.  The Center was founded as a resource facility, but your work has gone far beyond, providing vital research and advocacy to help students and the broader community stand up for the prevention of mass atrocities.  Drawing on outstanding scholars and advocates like Dr. Susan Herman, the Center is quickly becoming the eyes, the ears and the conscience of our global community. 

steinberg award
Pictured left to right are Thomas White, coordinator of Educational Outreach, Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Awareness, Keene State College; Patrick Smith; Kati Preston, Holocaust survivor and author; James Waller, Cohen Professor for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Keene State College; Don Steinberg, CEO, World Learning Inc.; Mary Smith; Vahidin Omanovic, executive director, Center for Peacebuilding, Bosnia; Hank Knight, director of the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Awareness.

I would also like to thank the Center for the honor of receiving the Susan J. Herman Award for Holocaust and Genocide Awareness.  I didn’t plan a career dominated by issues of mass atrocities.  Frankly, I cannot imagine anyone who would.  I grew up Jewish, but my ancestors came from Russia and Ukraine, and the Holocaust seemed long ago and far away.  I do remember at the age of 10 learning about the Holocaust and asking my father why God allowed it to happen.  He had no good answer – no one does – but he said that even as they were taken to their deaths in concentration camps, Jews reaffirmed their faith in God.  If they could do so, what right did he have to use their tragedy to abandon his faith?

Growing up, I wanted to fight global poverty, defend human rights, and end conflict.  Little things like that!  I’ve been fortunate to work on these challenges for four decades in more than 100 countries, but mass atrocities have been a constant companion.   Indeed, if you spend your life in this area, at least one searing event – a Rwanda, a Cambodia, a Bosnia – will demand your courage, break your heart, test your skills, and challenge your humanity.

Never Again?

It’s become a ritual for each new U.S. president now travels to the Holocaust Museum in Washington and say two words.  In 2007, George W. Bush declared, “The words ‘never again’ do not refer to the past -- they refer to the future and it is our work to make it impossible for the world to turn a blind eye.”  Five years later, Barack Obama said: “Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture.  ‘Never again’ is a challenge to us all to pause and to look within.”  And this April, Donald Trump said: “Today, we mourn, we remember, we pray and we pledge: never again.”

Looking at the world today, we must ask tough questions.  Why doesn’t “never again” apply to Syria or Yemen or eastern Congo or South Sudan?  Where is our moral courage and political will?  Are we hypocrites?

I’ve been asked to reflect on these questions by recounting some personal experiences from what I consider success stories in South Africa and Kenya, and failures in Somalia and Rwanda, then draw some broader lessons and conclusions.

South Africa:  The Role of Leadership

In 1990, I went to serve at the U.S. Embassy in South Africa, arriving just after Nelson Mandela strode proudly out of prison.  Apartheid was in its death throes, but many feared a bloody civil war would pit Xhosas, Zulus, whites, and other groups against each other, destroying the country.  Thankfully, these observers under-estimated the leadership and vision of Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and others. 

Mandela had called for the world to help the ANC move from a resistance movement to a government able to deal with a complex society.  My job was to send ANC economists abroad for training in land reform, anti-monopoly policies, and affirmative action.  When Mandela’s team balked at leaving South Africa at this historic time, Mandela brought them together and said he did not plan to become president for another four years.  They said: “But Mandiba, you can walk into Parliament House today and take over.”  Mandela responded:

Yes, we could seize power now, but if we did, we would inherit the wind.  The whites and others do not trust us, because they know we have bitterness in our hearts.  Moses knew the Israelites needed 40 years in the desert to cleanse themselves before they could enter the Promised Land.  If they could take 40 years, we can take four.

Mandela carried out a well-planned charm campaign to calm the fears of the white and non-Xhosa population and especially their security forces.  He ensured full ethnic representation in the transitional government and the new Parliament.  He instituted a power-sharing system that limited his own party’s ability to change the constitution.  He emphasized truth and reconciliation rather than vengeance through Desmond Tutu’s commission.  He even became the top fan of the Afrikaners’ favorite rugby team, the Springboks. 

And while thousands of lives were lost in the next four years – mostly in ethnic violence stoked by white supremacists – a blood-bath was averted.  Mandela’s inspired, forward-thinking and moral leadership made the difference. 

From Somalia to Rwanda

Regrettably, we can’t rely upon once-in-a-lifetime figures like Mandela to save the day.  I learned this lesson when I then went to serve in 1003 as White House deputy press secretary and adviser for Africa at the start of the Clinton administration.  That period was dominated for me by the witches’ brew of war and death in Somalia and Rwanda. 

In fall 1993, American soldiers were in Somalia delivering life-saving relief to hundreds of thousands of people facing a famine that had already killed a quarter million people and threatened twice that number.   In contrast to a leader like Mandela, warlords like Mohammed Aideed were thwarting the relief and profiteering from the suffering.  When U.S. Army Rangers tried to capture Aideed, eighteen were killed and their bodies dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in what is now known as Blackhawk Down.

Our Administration had never fully articulated to the American people or Congress why our forces were required for the delivery of this assistance, and there was a firestorm of criticism.  President Clinton initially stayed the course, but the pressure grew so great that he soon announced a full withdrawal of our forces over the next six months. 

When it was completed, I traveled with the President to Fort Drum, New York, where the Rangers had been stationed.  The President rightly felt he should meet with the troops and families there, and explain why their comrades and loved ones had lost their lives in a remote African location.  Clinton said:

Our actions in Somalia were a great victory, measured in the hundreds of thousands of children and men and women who are alive today.  The mission you undertook was without precedent.  American soldiers did not go to Somalia to conquer but on a mission of mercy, a mission accomplished, a mission to be proud of.  Let history record that.

And while true, you could see from the angst in the Clinton’s face that he knew history would judge our Somalia engagement a failure that should not be repeated elsewhere.

A few weeks later, a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down in Kigali, ushering in the start of the Rwandan genocide.  Soon after, 10 Belgian peacekeepers were murdered and their bodies skinned in a conscious effort to scare off Western forces.  Like many colleagues – Madeleine Albright, Tony Lake, and President Clinton himself – I’ll always regret that we simply assumed the American people, still shaken by Somalia, would not support using U.S. forces to stop the genocide. 

Still, we could have done much more.  Some of us proposed jamming the genocidaires’ radio station, Mille Collines, which was calling for extermination of all Tutsis – labeling them as “cockroaches.”  We tried to provide General Romeo Dallaire’s brave U.N. forces with new equipment, including 50 armored personnel carriers (APC’s).   And we pressed African countries to provide a protective force to save as many lives as possible.

But each time we pushed for these steps, others would ask:

Where’s the public outcry, the hallelujah chorus of support from Congress and civil society we’ll need when the going gets tough?  If American troops lose their lives again, won’t this doom peacekeeping forever?

And so, the jamming of Mille Collines was caught up in a legal debate as to whether it would violate of free speech and international law.  

When we shipped 50 APC’s to Uganda for Dallaire’s forces, the U.N. wouldn’t accept them because they were painted military green and not peacekeeping white.  They refused to paint the APC’s themselves, and they were sent back to Germany.  The APC’s didn’t arrive until it was too late. 

When I went with Vice President Gore and Reverend Jesse Jackson to urge African nations to send peacekeepers immediately to Rwanda, our efforts were thwarted not only by the lack of trained forces, but also by disputes over who would pay for what parts of the deployment.   Time and again, the forces of inaction triumphed until the 800,000 lives were lost. 

Actions and Architecture

This shameful response imposed on me a lifetime commitment to learn the lessons of Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, and other tragedies, and apply them whenever we can.

I left the White House to become ambassador to Angola.  I had helped the negotiation of a peace agreement to put an end to a Cold War proxy war that had cost a half million lives and left three million people homeless over a quarter century.  For four years, I worked with my colleagues from the United Nations, Russia and Portugal, dodging gunfire, landmines and rocket-propelled grenades in a tortuous process that ultimately succeeded.  Since then, I’ve engaged in conflict prevention and peacebuilding in Darfur, South Sudan, Haiti, Kenya, Kosovo, and elsewhere. 

I’ve been encouraged by progress in this space since the 1990s, including changes in legal norms, global structures, and international behavior.  We now have the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court in 1998 to help hold the perpetrators of crimes against humanity accountable for their actions.  At the UN in 2005, every country endorsed the Responsibility to Protect – so that if a nation can’t or won’t protect its citizens from mass atrocities, the responsibility shifts to the international community.  The UN formed its Peacebuilding Commission and the White House formed its Atrocity Prevention Board.  I’d like to salute my U.S. government colleagues with whom we founded the APB in 2012, including Samantha Power, Steve Pomper, David Pressman, Victoria Holt, Sarah Mendelson, Nancy Lindborg, James Finkel and others.

More and more, governments and donors support socio-economic development and resiliency as a vaccine against instability that can lead to disaster.  Further, more than 200,000 peacekeepers are now deployed in UN and other operations.  NATO and its allies have responded in Libya and Kosovo, the UK in Sierra Leone, France in Cote d’Ivoire and Mali, and the African Union in Darfur.

Kenya: Prevention in Action

We know, however, that prevention is the best medicine.  In 2008, the Holocaust Museum, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and others asked Madeleine Albright and Bill Cohen to head a task force to develop a game plan to prevent atrocities before they begin.  I advised the Task Force on how to identify the root causes – or at least measurable indicators – associated with violence that too often leads to mass atrocities.

We had a chance to apply the lessons immediately with the outbreak of violence in Kenya following a failed presidential election in December 2008.   At the time, I was deputy president of International Crisis Group.  A week after the elections, we were deeply concerned over growing ethnic violence in Kenya.  I sent an alert throughout our peace network, which read in part:

The burning of the church in Eldoret with three dozen Kikuyus inside; the history of ethnic violence in the Rift Valley; and the hate speech among Kikuyus, Kalenjins, and Luos take this crisis out of normal post-electoral tensions and put it squarely onto the atrocity prevention stage.  While the parallels between Kenya and Rwanda can be easily overdrawn, the deterioration in other seemingly solid African countries such as Cote d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe could easily be repeated in Kenya to tragic effect.  It’s time to sound the alarm bells.

So what does successful atrocity prevention look like?  First, Kofi Annan, Graca Machel, and Ben Mkapa launched a mediation, backed by the U.S., the United Nations and civil society groups like my own Crisis Group.  For those who suggest that atrocity prevention is being thrust on the developing world by the global North, note that these leaders were from Ghana, Mozambique, and Tanzania.  

These leaders negotiated a power-sharing arrangement with the principal presidential candidates that ended the immediate crisis.  But instead of turning their gaze away and allowing the underlying problems to fester, the world stayed the course. 

The mediators and their partners demanded constitutional reform to reduce the president’s power.  They insisted on accountability for post-election violence; helped dismantle ethnic militias; set up dispute settlement mechanisms; and trained security forces in non-lethal crowd control.  USAID’s “Yes Youth Can” initiative mobilized more than a million Kenyan youth to resist the siren song of ethnic violence. 

The result was a major decline in violence in the elections five years later.  Kenya didn’t just dodge a bullet: it built a more democratic, stable and inclusive society.  The next round of Kenya’s elections is set for August 8.  We’ll see whether the progress still holds.

World Learning’s Role

This experience taught me that unless we invest in addressing the root causes of mass violence, we will be condemned to forever deal with the tragic symptoms.  I’m proud that my organization, World Learning, plays a key role in empowering leaders in the Horn of Africa and beyond to build peace and justice through our development, exchange and educational programs.  

Our Conflict Transformation program trains peace-builders from more than 60 countries, enhancing their skills through a powerful process of study, self-reflection, community building, and collaborative problem solving. 

Our master’s degree in peacebuilding and conflict transformation at the School for International Training in Brattleboro draws on prominent scholars and practitioners like Bruce Dayton, Tatsushi Arai, and John Ungerleider to study identity dynamics, dehumanization, stereotyping, and social psychology.  We train mediators and peacebuilders to help warring parties find their common humanity and reduce conflicts before it’s too late. 

It is no coincide that four Nobel Peace Prize Laureates have been associated with World Learning programs over the past two decades: Jody Williams led the global fight to ban t landmines; Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt movement for women’s empowerment and environmental protection in Africa; Tawakkol Karman stood up for press freedom and women’s rights in Yemen and the Middle East; and Kalish Satyarthi has been an advocate for children’s rights in India and beyond.

Reflections on Lessons Learned

What then are the lessons I take for civil society activists from these experiences?  I’ll limit myself to four. 

First, we must serve the role of watchdogs, alert to warning signs of ethnic tensions, xenophobia, human rights abuses and electoral disputes in many regions.  There’s no single route to atrocities; no single game plan to prevent and stop them.  But the factors that should worry us include over-all levels of violence in the society, high population density, repression that prevents the peaceful release of social pressures, youth unemployment, spill-over from regional crises, abuse of marginalized populations (especially women), past occurrence of ethnic atrocities, and destabilizing events like natural disasters and divisive elections.

Second, as advocates, our most important work may not be in situations already on the global radar screen – such as Syria, South Sudan, or Afghanistan. Instead, we must keep a watchful eye on “high-risk/low-attention” sites like the Horn of Africa, the Mano River states of West Africa, Rakhine province in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Central Asian states, and the northern triangle in Central America.  Nor can we let our guard down once a crisis has been averted: post-conflict countries are especially vulnerable and need collective action to build peace, alleviate tensions and foster reconciliation. 

Third, we must harness new technologies, social media and the world’s 6.5 billion cellphones to share information about potential threats more quickly and broadly.  Voice recognition systems can monitor and target hate speech.  Data-mining can reveal previously hidden relationships related to preparation for atrocities.  We can generate new ideas from tech users through datapaloozas, crowd sourcing, open data, and hack-a-thons.

Finally, impunity must be a thing of the past.  Failure to demand accountability for atrocities creates a cancer at the heart of a society.  Amnesty too often means that men with guns forgive other men with guns for crimes committed against women and children.  Whether it’s through the International Criminal Court, special regional courts, a truth and reconciliation commission, or local structures like the gacaca system in Rwanda, we must demand justice for the most marginalized populations, including women, people with disabilities, the LGBT community, indigenous people, and ethnic and religious minorities.

Believing in a Future

To conclude, I can already hear your first comment, and it’s a tough one.  When I shared my draft for this evening with Ambassador Samantha Power, Freedom House president Mike Abramowitz, World Learning board emeritus Steve Lowey, and others, they all referred to our collective failure in Syria as the “elephant in the room.”  What can we do about this, and how can we still have hope?

I have two reactions.  First, the hopeful steps I’ve described in South Africa, Kenya and elsewhere benefitted from political will that created a supportive environment.  As activists, we must work to build the political will to act in even tougher cases like Syria.  We need to remind our fellow citizens that genocide prevention is not only a moral calling, but it is in our own national interest.  Genocide prevention is equally dangerous to our nation as nukes in North Korea, ISIS in Iraq, and climate change.

Countries that fail to prevent violence and do not protect human rights are more likely to harbor terrorists.  They are more likely to traffic in drugs, arms, or people; to incubate and transmit pandemic diseases; to send refugees across borders and oceans; to require huge spending in humanitarian relief; and to require American boots on the ground.  Further, when America is a bystander during mass atrocities, we lose our moral authority exercise “soft power.” 

I’m encouraged by the work of talented lawyers, journalists, faith leaders, government officials and academics, including you here tonight. 

We know that even if our actions are inadequate or have unexpected consequences, we must never be bystanders to genocide.  Individuals make a difference: here in New Hampshire, Tom White and Jan Cohen insisted that the Holocaust and genocide be taught in the state’s public school curriculum.  Jan and Rick Cohen supported this center, where Charles Hildebrandt, Paul Vincent, Susan Herman, Hank Knight, Tom White, Michele Kuiawa, Jim Waller and others have helped turn “never again” into more than idle words.  

My second response is to go back to the talk I had with my father more than a half century ago.  After our talk about faith, my dad had me read Elie Wiesel’s book, Night, in which Wiesel shares his story of courage and perseverance.  You will recall that Wiesel also calls himself out for so-called “cowardice” in confronting the Holocaust even as he awaited his own expected death at Buchenwald. 

In 2009, Wiesel guided Barack Obama and Angela Merkel on a visit to that camp.  Afterwards, Wiesel said:

We had the right to give up.  To give up on humanity and on culture; to give up on education and the possibility of living one’s life with dignity in a world that has no place for dignity.  But we rejected that possibility.  We said no, we must continue to believe in a future.  To stare into the abyss, to face the darkness and insist there is a future.  To say yes to life, to believe in the possibility of justice.

Once again, my deepest thanks to the Cohen Center for its dedicated work in helping lead this fight, and thanks for listening.