The Role of Education in the Prevention of Atrocity Crimes
The Role of Education in the Prevention of Atrocity Crimes
How the UN Can Make the Most of the New Agenda for Peace
How the UN Can Make the Most of the New Agenda for Peace
Speech / Global 4 minutes

The Role of Education in the Prevention of Atrocity Crimes

Opening statement by Jon Greenwald, Vice-President of Publications of the International Crisis Group, to the roundtable sponsored by the Budapest Centre for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities, in cooperation with the Central European University, 19 November 2014, Budapest.

I am honored to be part of this program and even more so to be its first speaker. I have to confess, however, that I am here under a somewhat false flag. My colleague, Bob Templer, was to have performed this function. He is the director of the Center for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery, of the School of Public Policy at this university, which works directly on a number of the issues directly related to this roundtable. I am only a transient member of that institution, camping out next to Bob’s office while teaching about the nuclear negotiations with Iran that are reaching a climax this week, just down the Becsi ut in Vienna.

I can and do say “welcome”, as I know Bob would have done if he had not been called away. After that, I will have to fall back on my own somewhat less specialised experience as a diplomat for 30 years in the U.S. Foreign Service and as vice president for the past 13 years of the Brussels-based conflict prevention organisation the International Crisis Group. The most exciting of those 43 years was undoubtedly 1989-1990, when as the political counselor of the American Embassy in East Berlin I witnessed the Wall come down and Germany reunite in peace.

Like most observers, I was struck by a coincidence that seemed almost too poignant and appropriate to be one, that the Wall was opened on the same date – 9 November – on which in 1938 Kristallnacht foretold the coming of the Holocaust. The peaceful revolution in East Germany and the concurrent sea changes throughout Eastern Europe seemed to suggest we were experiencing a profoundly benign wave of history, or what a prominent political theorist famously proclaimed as the “end of history”. We wanted to believe this would ensure there would “never again” be genocide and mass atrocities in a Europe that would soon be whole and free. There appeared good reason even to believe that such a remarkable series of events would leave a powerfully positive imprint in other parts of the world as well.

There were signs even then, however, that dark forces remained in the world, not least in Europe. We should have seen this better at the time, but I recall travelling from Berlin to Vienna in February 1990, three months after the Wall opened, to take part in a meeting of American embassy political counselors serving in Eastern Europe. As we discussed around a table the rapidly changing situation, each of us explained in turn how the country where we worked was holding its first free election, or negotiating at round tables the peaceful transfer of power to more representative elements of society. And then our colleague from Belgrade began to talk of very different things: of rising ethnic nationalism, of unchained ethnic hatreds, of armed groups being formed. We shook our heads in a kind of collective disbelief and went on with our more optimistic planning. It was not long before the Bosnia War woke us from our dream.

So now a quarter century on – after Srebrenica and Rwanda, after the brutalities of Sudanese conflicts, the twisted hopes of so many “springs”, the agonies of the Central African Republic, the apparently limitless ability of Israelis and Palestinians to find new ways to scar their common Holy Land – can we do better?

We certainly must try, and surely education must be fundamental to that attempt. Without awareness of what has happened in the past and why it happened as it did, without knowledge of false starts and partial successes that have been made at teaching and understanding, we are more than likely to stumble again and again. And certainly in this part of the world there is particular need to remain deeply engaged with the problems of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is still a deeply divided and politically paralysed country.

Education has to be more than reciting figures to school children and devoting a few hours to museum visits and hearing the tales of those who survived past horrors. If it is to be effective, education has to also be positive and forward looking. It needs to teach the values of the “other”, the benefits of mutual respect and toleration, about how what is special in my group is not lost but made more productive when isolation is broken down and cooperation achieved.

And, I suggest, education also has to teach that R2P, the responsibility to protect – a concept my old boss Gareth Evans has devoted much energy to – is not an excuse or cover for big powers to force their will on weaker ones. Nor is it merely a concern of congenital do-gooders. It is a responsibility that nations and peoples share in their own best, most practical and common interest. When recurrence of widespread atrocities is tolerated, we do grave damage to the civilized nature of international life. That is a higher price than any of us can afford.

This does not mean, of course, that prevention of atrocities or correction of atrocities must always or even primarily be undertaken by lawyers or soldiers. Far from it. Diplomacy will always be preferred. In some cases that have reached and gone beyond mere crisis, pragmatism will require that political settlements include distasteful compromise, including with legal principles.

But education in all its facets is an essential first tool of responsibility to protect. If applied with imagination at the earliest stages, it can immunise against the disease. It is, therefore, the first, best defense against contagion. The Budapest Centre for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities has thus performed a considerable service in calling us together for this consultation.

I thank Dr. Tatar and the Centre for the invitation and wish us a productive day.

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