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Genocide Scholars Meet in Minnesota
By Marisa Helms
Minnesota Public Radio
June 11, 2001

Scholars of holocaust and genocide studies from around the world are in Minneapolis this week to discuss deterrence and prevention of genocide, and to learn more about the work of the international war crimes tribunals. The keynote speaker at the conference Sunday night was Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, the former president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and past appellate judge for the tribunal for Rwanda.

Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, former president of the war crimes tribunal in the former Yugoslavia, spoke about prevention of genocide at a conference in Minneapolis Sunday night. She will be a guest on MPR's Midmorning Tuesday.
(Photo courtesy of Washington College of Law)
DURING 100 DAYS IN THE SPRING AND SUMMER OF 1994, up to 15 percent of Rwanda's population was slaughtered during a civil war in that country between the Hutus and the Tutsis.

In 1998, while visiting Rwanda, Judge McDonald went to a genocide site that is now a museum filled with skeletons of Tutsi victims - piled up in room after room. Nearby were stacks of the victims' clothes.

"You don't have to see it to appreciate the extent of genocide. But when you see it, you say, uh-uh. When they said, never again, they meant never again. We meant it. We meant it and we mean it now. We'll do something - regardless of where it occurs," McDonald said.

For those working in human rights, not forgetting - and not denying - mass killing is critical for preventing future genocides. Over the last decade, academics in social science, political science, history and other disciplines have increasingly begun looking at historical and contemporary genocide as an area of study and activism.

Steven Feinstein is director of Holocaust studies at the University of Minnesota, which is hosting the fourth international conference of the Association of Genocide Scholars. He says there is a frighteningly callous rationale behind the mass killing of a presumed enemy.

"Genocide is state-directed. So when the state decides to kill a certain group of people, because it's convenient, you get their property - your house is my house. You get rid of an unemployment problem, you get rid of people you dislike aesthetically - a color, a variant of a color, a nose feature," Feinstein said.

Though the Nazis and their role in the Jewish Holocaust are well-known to many Americans, there are several lesser-known incidents of genocide that occurred in the 20th century, including the extermination of Armenians in 1915, Cambodians in 1975, and repeated genocidal acts in East Timor.

Genocide scholars say education and research can translate into a greater public awareness and understanding of human rights issues around the world. Frank Chalk, a specialist on Rwanda and president of the Genocide Scholars Association, says preventing future genocides requires good foreign policy and a major commitment from the United Nations.

"You can provide safe zones for refugees to flee to, and really protect them, which we did not do in Srebrenica. Or you can send an international force to those countries, and protect them. And sometimes, will have to depose the sovereign authorities who are about to launch the genocide, in order to accomplish that," says Chalk. "And we have to be very careful that we only do that when we have the cooperation of local regional organizations, and local regional troops, so that we are not thought to be guilty of a neo-imperialist action."

And finally, says Chalk, international tribunals will increasingly become a significant deterrent to perpetrators.

While there have been dozens of indictments in the Rwandan and former Yugoslavia tribunals, there have been few convictions. Judge McDonald, the former tribunal president, says it's still too early to assess the effectiveness of the tribunals. But she says the war crimes courts are creating a mechanism to send an important message - "That as a world community, we believe genocide is not just intolerable, but it now should be punished. "