Jerry Fowler, director of the Committee on Conscience, is a guest on Common Ground, a weekly radio program on world affairs. Fowler discusses the work of the Committee and provides an update on the situation in Sudan.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: Eliminating genocide, next on Common Ground.
JERRY FOWLER: We have to believe that we can reduce it, that we can fight it when it happens, and we can strive for the day when it is eliminated.
KEITH PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details, or visit our Web site at commongroundradio.org. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in 1993 and quickly became one of the most popular attractions in Washington, D.C. But the founders wanted to make sure the institution was more than just an archive.
KEITH PORTER: They created the museum’s Committee on Conscience. The Committee’s job is to alert the world of current or future cases of holocaust, genocide, or other crimes against humanity. I recently spoke with the Committee’s Staff Director, Jerry Fowler, and asked him to first define genocide.
JERRY FOWLER: The international community defines genocide basically through the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. There’s a detailed legal definition, but what it amounts to is the intentional physical destruction of groups in whole or in substantial part.
KEITH PORTER: In sort of day-to-day operations then, how does your committee work? What are the tasks that you carry out?
JERRY FOWLER: Well, our mandate is to alert the national conscience, influence policymakers, and stimulate worldwide action to confront and work to halt acts of genocide or related crimes against humanity. So what we seek to do when we take on a situation, is to bring it to the attention of the public, increase the attention of policy makers on it—influence them--to make situations higher priority than they have been in the past. The overall goal is to try to stimulate action to confront and work to halt the violence.
KEITH PORTER: Tell me something about the standing agenda and the different kinds of alerts that you give out—to the world—about potential genocide, at least, around the world.
JERRY FOWLER: Well, the framework that we’ve adopted is one of graduating categories of urgency. One problem is the issue of defining genocide and determining that something is or is not genocide.
One of the most shameful and appalling aspects of the situation in 1994, when what we now know as the Rwandan genocide erupted, was the literally verbal gymnastics that governments, especially the US government, undertook not to use the word “genocide.” T hey said, “We don’t have enough evidence. We don’t have enough information. We don’t really know.” When that shouldn’t really be the point. The point should be to prevent genocide.
So what we’ve tried to do is put aside the issue of the ultimate determination of whether something is genocide. If there’s violence that threatens the existence of a group then we should be able to say that there’s a threat of genocide. In that case on our, as it were, categories of urgency, we would issue a warning. If it was something that was so blatant that it probably was genocide or immediately was going to become genocide, we would say it’s an emergency. And then the very lowest level is “watch,” where you have potential for the eruption of genocide.
But the basic idea is to be able to alert people, talk about these situations, urge a political response without making the ultimate legal judgment of whether it’s genocide or not. Because often you don’t know the intent of the perpetrator. The facts are difficult to come by. If we get caught up in that debate we risk replaying the disaster of Rwanda.
KEITH PORTER: You have these different levels of alerts that you give out. Tell me something about the history of those and what watches, warnings, or emergencies have been issued since the Committee has come into being.
JERRY FOWLER: Well, we’ve only adopted this structure within the last year or so. Right now the situations that we’re focusing on are Sudan, for which we’ve issued a genocide warning—which we define as meaning organized violence is underway that threatens to become genocide. And Chechnya, which we’ve put on our watch list, that lower level of urgency. There’s the potential of genocide. Those situations are serious enough that they needed to be dealt with because they get into that ambit of genocide; of intentional destruction of entire groups.
KEITH PORTER: When people come here to the museum, how do they learn about the Committee on Conscience and what visible examples or visible element is there that reminds people that genocide and holocausts are not necessarily something just of the past?
JERRY FOWLER: For people who physically visit the museum we now have a special display on Sudan that is right outside the auditorium where the orientation film is shown. It includes as part of the display a brochure that people can take away with them. We’ve distributed over 100,000 of those to visitors at the museum. We’ve also distributed them through schools, synagogues, churches, any venue that we can find, actually. But a lot of them to visitors of the museum.
This was important because it was the first time we physically used space in the museum for an ongoing situation outside of Europe. But it represents a commitment by the leadership of the museum and the memorial to continuing to alert the public, including the public who come to the museum, to these contemporary situations.
KEITH PORTER: Inside the public area of the museum, Fowler walks us through the Sudan display.
JERRY FOWLER: It basically lays out in a fairly small space, but through text and photographs and even a couple of artifacts, the basic parameters of the catastrophe in Sudan and the basis for the Committee on Conscience genocide warning. It lists the aspects which we think in their totality support the genocide warning.
These aspects are the government’s practice of dividing ethnic groups in order to destroy them, pitting ethnic groups against each other, using mass starvation as a weapon of destruction, tolerating the enslavement of women and children by government-allied militias, bombing civilian and humanitarian targets, shattering the communities of people who have fled the war zone, keeping them from rebuilding their lives once they get out of the war zone, and then persecuting people on the basis of their race, their religion, and their ethnicity.
KEITH PORTER: There’s a cross here in a glass case at the very far left side of the display. Tell us about that.
JERRY FOWLER: Well, one aspect of the larger picture is religious persecution. In particular, the practice of the current government in Khartoum to use religion as a way to divide people. It uses religion as a justification for attacks on Christians, on followers of traditional religions, and even on Muslims who don’t follow its extreme form of Islam. So we’ve included that as part of this display. Now, in particular, as an artifact in this display we have a small cross that was fashioned from the fuel tank of a crashed bomber. And as you may know, there are quite a number of Christians in the southern part of Sudan. I find this particular artifact poignant because it shows how the culture is trying to transform the materials of war into things that are culturally meaningful.
KEITH PORTER: And right next to it there’s a picture of a Dinka woman and she’s holding a cross that was made from spent shell casings, from ammunition.
JERRY FOWLER: She’s actually leaning on the cross and the crossbar are two empty shell casings.
KEITH PORTER: This next picture here is easily the most disturbing one in the, in the display. And there are the bodies of what look like three children lying in what I think is the back of a truck.
JERRY FOWLER: There are three young children who were victims of the famine in 1998, which was largely a man-made famine. In the summer of 2000 the government began a series of attacks that, that threatened relief planes, causing the UN to stop its operations for a couple of weeks. That obviously put a tremendous number of people at risk. One of the things that has to be stopped if there’s going to be any progress in resolving this situation is the use of food as a weapon. It’s one of the most devastating parts of the whole system and one of the things that most informs our belief that there’s a threat of genocide.
KEITH PORTER: We move on down to the display—there is yet another artifact that’s in a glass case here. Tell us about that.
JERRY FOWLER: The artifact is a child’s math workbook that belonged to a student in a Catholic-run school in the Nuba Mountains, which is in the central part of Sudan. It has been one of the most hard-hit areas in the last decade, since the early ‘90s when the government essentially cut off the Nuba Mountains and launched a sustained assault against the people of the Nuba Mountains.
This particular school was bombed on February 8, 2000, which resulted in the deaths of at least 14 students and a teacher. And when a Sudanese diplomat in Nairobi was shown videotape of the aftermath of the bombing he said—and this is a quote that we have as part of this display—”The bombs landed where they were supposed to land.” That, in its cruelty, encapsulates one of the great horrors of this situation -- that the government routinely bombs civilian and humanitarian sites. They bomb schools, they bomb clinics, they bomb hospitals. It’s part of their strategy. The bombs land where they’re supposed to land. Often it’s children who are killed. And this workbook has the bloodstains of the victims.
An interesting aspect of this, is that it was a Catholic school and is funded in part by the Catholic bishop of that area, Macram Gassis. But the student whose book this was, is Muslim. In the Nuba Mountains, Muslims, Christians, followers of traditional religions, have traditionally lived together in peace, in harmony. That’s one of the reasons that they have been specifically attacked by Khartoum, because they do show that people of different faiths can live together. And unfortunately many of the victims in the Nuba Mountains have been Muslims as well as Christians and followers of traditional religions.
KEITH PORTER: Jerry, we’re standing here in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and we’re looking at your Sudan display, which has to do with the genocide warning that the Committee on Conscience has issued. Tell me something about how, in your mind, the photos that we see here, the artifacts that we see here, compare and contrast them to the displays you see elsewhere in this wonderful museum.
JERRY FOWLER: Well, I would never compare this display to our permanent exhibition. There’s no comparison. It’s disrespectful to the victims of either situation to compare. These are situations that are beyond compare. But one of the things that has always been part of the vision of creating this memorial is that it would be a living memorial. Part of that living memorial would be the obligation to speak out when groups of people are under attack as groups.
That’s what we see in Sudan. If you take all of the things that we’ve been talking about—mass starvation as a weapon of destruction, tolerating slavery, bombing civilian targets, persecution on account of race and religion—individually each of those actions is a disaster for its victims. But taken together they threaten the physical destruction of entire groups. And that’s what motivates us to incorporate it into the physical space we have here as part of this living memorial.
KEITH PORTER: Back in his office I asked Jerry Fowler if he believes genocide can ever be eliminated as a weapon.
JERRY FOWLER: We have to believe that we can reduce it, that we can fight it when it happens, and we can strive for the day when it is eliminated. When it doesn’t happen. We have to be humble about that. In all humility we coined the word “genocide” 50 years ago, but genocidal practices are ancient. You know, one of the things that has really moved me about being here is the basic admonition that’s in the Jewish tradition, that the fact that you can’t finish a job does not relieve you from undertaking it in the first place.
I think we look forward in some wonderful future to a world without genocide. When we’ll achieve that world I don’t know. But that’s the struggle that we’re engaged in and that we can’t desist from as a tribute and a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. We do need to do everything we can to eliminate that scourge from the face of the Earth.
KEITH PORTER: That is Jerry Fowler, Staff Director of the Committee on Conscience at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
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