Genocide Intervention Network’s executive director, Sam Bell, discusses the vision and work behind one of today’s most dynamic anti-genocide organizations.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Welcome to this week’s episode of “Voices on Genocide Prevention.” With me today is Sam Bell. He’s the executive director of the Genocide Intervention Network. Sam, thank you for joining me.
SAM BELL: Thank you for having me.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Sam and the Genocide Intervention Network are wonderful colleagues of ours, who we’ve worked with on many projects. And we invited Sam to speak with me today to tell us a little bit more about what Genocide Intervention Network is focusing on today. But first, Sam, can you tell our audience more about how you became involved with genocide prevention and response issues?
SAM BELL: Yes. So I think-- the way I explain this to people is that I’m a skeptical person by nature, very skeptical person. And when people say, “Things are going to work out for the best,” or, “Oh, it’ll just work out,” I clash with that. It doesn’t resonate for me because I think that oftentimes things don’t work out for the best. But genocide prevention and response resonates with me, because I see a world without genocide and a world without large-scale targeting of civilians as inevitable. That’s it. That is a fact for me, that it’s going to happen. And what keeps me engaged in this is the questions of, “How fast can we bring about that day?” And, “Who is it that’s going to do it?” And so I think that’s the vision that kind of inspires me every day, because I really think that there is a light at the end of this tunnel. And I think that this is the next step for humanity. You know, just like it wasn’t human for one person to be in bondage to another, it-- what’s happening today with mass atrocities and genocide is not where we’re supposed to be.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: How do you struggle with then-- you know, there’s a lot of information out there supporting the fact that wars have actually become much more dangerous for civilians over the 20th and now into the 21st century, that we-- you know, wars that used to be between two armed parties, two armies, have increasingly been waged on the backs of civilians with their suffering, really, bearing the brunt of violence. How do you understand the changing nature of conflicts and maintain that hopeful outlook?
SAM BELL: Yeah. I think that there are evolving challenges as wars change, as technology changes. And I think that we have an opportunity to, more than ever before, to touch actors in all places around the world, armed actors, civilian actors. And I think that the opportunity we have as American citizens is that we do live in a country where we can influence our leaders, and we still live in a country that has extraordinary influence. And part of our theory of change comes out of Samantha Power [A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide], which is not that the U.S. can’t lead on this problem; it can’t come up with solutions, but that it’s never been a high enough priority. And so I don’t know that-- to be honest, I don’t know that we’ve ever tried in a really consistent and robust way, in a whole of government way or a whole of nation way. And I think that it’s possible.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And how is Genocide Intervention Network focusing its efforts now to work towards that dream?
SAM BELL: Yeah. So we’re a member organization, including a thousand student chapters on college and high school campuses. That’s the STAND network. We have a worldwide coalition of investors, mostly institutional investors, that are engaging with companies that are fueling atrocities in our areas of concern. And these are investors that we came to know through the divestment campaign. And then, lastly, we’re trying to develop a community leader in every U.S. congressional district, because we think that this idea of holding elected officials accountable starts with a relationship between a community leader, a high level constituent, and an elected official, and that accountability is a personal thing. And we have to personalize that relationship, and so we have the student chapters. We have the investors who are putting pressure on companies, and then we have this long-term project, which is getting community leaders to put pressure on elected officials.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And can you talk a little bit more about the divestment campaign? We’ve done some interviews over the years, but where does that stand today?
SAM BELL: So the divestment campaign was born out of the realization that revenues from certain industries in Sudan were fueling atrocities in Darfur and that company operations were actually harming civilians in Sudan. And so we’ve got over 60 universities, 27 states, a number of big institutional investors either divest or change their investment policies to put pressure on companies on the ground. And so in the last few years, we’ve had 12 companies change their behavior; not necessarily pull out of the country, but change their behavior.
I’ll give you an example. So a company like La Mancha, which operates a gold mine in Sudan, they were a target of ours for divestment. And through engagement with them, working with the investors who are actually stakeholders in this company, we got them to do three things. One is to submit to an independent human rights impact assessment, so an independent company that comes in and says, “How are your operations hurting people in Sudan?” Two, they agreed to a major humanitarian program in the local community that they’re operating. And three, they went to the government of Sudan and said, “Our future operations in Sudan are contingent on you changing your behavior in these specific ways.” And so that’s really what we’re looking for. We’re not necessarily looking for companies to get up and get out of Sudan but to use their very significant leverage. I mean, these companies are responsible for huge, huge sources of revenue for the government of Sudan. We’re trying to get them to mitigate the problematic effects of their actual physical operations and then to engage with the government and try to use their leverage to change government behavior. And it’ll be one-- it won’t be the silver bullet, but it’ll be one of many elements that we hope will change problematic governments’ behavior.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And that obviously takes enormous amounts of research and dedication. Have you been able yet to move the divestment campaign onto other sites of conflict?
SAM BELL: We are looking at that. But as you say, we-- all our divestment work is grounded in our Sudan company research. So we do research and have company profiles on more than a hundred companies operating in Sudan and including their financial indicators, their-- you know, do they have subsidiaries? And so that takes a real process. But we’re looking at Congo and Burma and seeing, “Are these sites where, you know, a network of investors can influence international companies to change their behavior and to engage with problematic actors?” So that’s definitely our intention but we haven’t gotten to it yet.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: I think it’s also interesting for our audience to understand the actual work that you’re doing. I mean, it takes enormous research capacity to do it intelligently and, as you said, to try to engage companies instead of alienating them.
SAM BELL: Yeah.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: What are the other places on your current agenda, of places at risk of genocide?
SAM BELL: Yeah, so we take a look at-- we take a look around the world and our-- what we call our areas of concerns are places where there’s large-scale targeting of civilians, killing, severe torture, rape. And we’ve highlighted eight areas that meet our criteria, but we are focused not only on, “Are there large-scale, deliberate targeting civilians?” but also, “What can we do about it?” And so obviously, there are constraints in what we can do to make a difference in some of these places and what resources GI-NET has to take on something in a serious way.
The two other conflicts that have really risen high on our list are Burma and, specifically, atrocities that are happening on the Thai border; and Congo, which I know you’ve covered extensively, and I’m sure your listeners are well aware of some of the atrocities that are happening there. But we also really want to-- we all want to be on the lookout for new conflicts that will come up suddenly. One of our goals is to be able to respond quickly and effectively to the next big, vast atrocity crisis that comes up, because a lot of our constituents got into this movement, joined this movement because of the stories of Rwanda -- and Rwanda was quick, hundred days. And we want to be able to obviously do good prevention work, but sometimes prevention work’s not going to work. And so we want to be able to respond quickly and effectively to the large, big crisis that comes at us fast.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: What do you think are some of the major challenges today in implementing or conceiving, even-- because there are some imagination limitations-- but in working against genocide?
SAM BELL: Yeah, I think that one very tricky problem for us is identifying where there’s deliberate targeting of civilians and where is there negligence by armies that results in large numbers of civilians being killed? And that goes back to the intent question, and so that is really hard to do in real time, to figure out in some instances whether civilians’ deaths are deliberate or negligent. And on the negligent side, what’s our responsibility? Because obviously, we’re concerned about civilian deaths as a result of violence. So that’s one.
I think that some elements of the Darfur movement have gotten a little fatigued as a result of not feeling like they have efficacy and that they are able to achieve results. One of the challenges for us is to be able to show when we have actually achieved real, concrete things and even when we’ve achieved things that have not achieved everything, being able to show those. The second thing is to be really realistic and hardheaded about the expectations of our advocacy. And the last thing, I would say, is I think people have to buy into the vision I talked about earlier, that there will be a time when it’s not imaginable that states and large parties that act like states engage in and commit mass atrocities and genocide. People have to be convinced of that to sustain themselves in this work. And that’s not necessarily the easiest vision right now, because you said, you know, conflicts are increasingly deadly and there’s a lot of discouraging news, if you just open up the paper every day.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: What then is your vision for the future of Genocide Intervention Network?
SAM BELL: Yeah, so my-- so the vision for the anti-genocide or anti-atrocities movement, as I see it, is always working on the worst of the worst atrocities at any given moment. And that might not necessarily be huge campaigning on them, but some elements of our movement should be addressing worst of the worst atrocities. Second is the institutional changes, and this is working off of really the Holocaust Museum’s efforts on the Genocide Prevention Task Force Report and other efforts to try to, independent of any specific crisis, improve our capabilities, improve our willingness and create the processes so our government and international institutions are able to prevent and to respond to these things. So that’s-- second is institutional, structural change. And then the third is, to be credible, we have to be able to respond quickly to a major crisis that comes at us fast. And I think that’s a huge, huge challenge for us that we haven’t necessarily wrapped our arms around yet. But if we can credibly do those three things, I think we’ll be a very effective movement that has long-term staying potential.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Sam, thank you very much for coming to speak with me today. For people interested in learning more about Genocide Intervention Network, your website is?
SAM BELL: genocideintervention.net.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Okay, genocideintervention.net. Thank you very much?
SAM BELL: Thank you.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about responding to and preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/conscience.