The Ferencz international justice Initiative
To avoid revenge and retaliation, victims of oppression must know that their oppressors have been brought to justice; and efforts must be made to heal the wounds of those who have suffered.
—Ben Ferencz, last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor of Nazi war criminals
Research shows that effectively dealing with past atrocities is critical for societies to prevent future atrocities. With the creation of the Ferencz International Justice Initiative, the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide is working for the first time to strengthen our collective capacity to end impunity for the worst crimes, thereby deterring future perpetrators. Through this work, the Ferencz Initiative supports those seeking redress—rather than revenge—for past crimes, in an attempt to deter future crimes. By supporting victims, affected communities, and their representatives, we seek to advance justice for mass atrocities. In this way, the Ferencz Initiative strives to fulfill the mission of “law not war,” which is championed by former Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz, whose generosity makes this work possible.
The Ferencz Initiative recognizes that justice and accountability for atrocity crimes can take many different forms in different contexts. While it will often require prosecuting those most responsible in a court of law, it may also involve efforts to discover the truth of what has happened, to preserve the memories of those affected, and ultimately to seek healing and reconciliation. Understanding how best to achieve justice and accountability in different situations requires the direct input of affected individuals, communities, and their representatives.
The Ferencz International Justice Initiative implements its mandate in three ways:
- Empowering, educating, and giving voice to the most compelling and committed active agents of change—survivors of mass atrocities, affected communities, their advocates, and local civil society actors—to seek justice;
- Connecting those local active agents of change to the decision makers, policy makers, and institutions which can help realize their demand for justice; and
- Strengthening decision makers’ understanding of and commitment to the role justice can play in preventing mass atrocities.
At our inaugural event, the Ferencz Initiative brought together 70 international experts and local justice actors from every continent in a first-of-its-kind convening. The convening was carefully designed to empower local justice actors in conflict and post-conflict situations to develop holistic, victim-driven strategies to advance justice and accountability in their unique contexts. Survivors and human rights activists from Iraq, Burma, South Sudan, and Nigeria were inspired to learn from the coalitions of resourceful survivors in Chad and Guatemala, who pushed for justice for decades, and ultimately saw the leaders who had tortured them, killed their families, and wiped out their communities held accountable for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Inspired by this catalytic exchange, local justice actors in Iraq, Burma, and South Sudan have asked the Ferencz Initiative to partner with them to apply and implement these lessons in their unique contexts. Responding to this call, the Ferencz Initiative is establishing Justice Advisory Groups that will bring together multi-sectoral and cross-regional justice experts and policy makers and local justice actors in a regularized forum, with the long-term goal of creating the political will and the tools to achieve justice for the unspeakable atrocities they have faced.
Reinforcing our work that will support local justice actors in specific country contexts, the Ferencz Initiative is also working to develop the ecosystem in which justice can thrive. Our projects include:
Informing policy makers on ways justice can be a tool to help end the cycle of atrocities and ways to design effective accountability and truth-seeking mechanisms. We host policy panel discussions, provide briefings and advisory support to policy makers; and connect victims to policy makers directly so their voices and demands for justice can be heard.
Fostering pragmatic research on the ways in which governments can more effectively support and implement the international legal framework on genocide. Our research projects include an analysis of the US government’s application of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention). The report seeks to foster greater commitment for justice among policy makers, and more broadly, to strengthen the US government’s response to genocide and mass atrocities. Through interviews with roughly 70 experts, we are developing a practitioner’s handbook, which will support victims of atrocities and affected communities who are seeking to advance justice efforts and build on lessons learned from other contexts for how to develop long-term, holistic, victim-driven justice strategies.
Educating the public, students, and other key audiences on victims’ demands for justice; the importance of accountability for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity; and Ben Ferencz’s mission of “law not war.” We do this through public programs (such as country-wide film screenings of Syria’s Disappeared), the annual Our Walls Bear Witness program and exhibition (in 2017 we projected images on the exterior of the Museum’s building to raise awareness of the atrocities in South Sudan), and a special exhibition titled Syria: Please Don’t Forget Us which documents the story of Syrian human rights activist Mansour Omari. Building on the lessons of justice after the Holocaust, we are developing educational curricula and tools to inspire the next generation of change agents and to teach a variety of audiences about practical ways in which the rule of law can help prevent atrocities.
To close the impunity gap globally, there is a fundamental role to play by a myriad of international, regional, state, and local actors. This is why the Ferencz International Justice Initiative is so crucial. It is thanks to such important grassroots, well-constructed efforts that we can hope to continue to answer, in Ben’s eloquent words, “the plea of humanity to law.” In the footsteps of our legendary friend, Ben, the Initiative housed at the Holocaust Museum and in partnership with it, will continue his tireless work by honoring the principles for which he has fought so valiantly and unshakably all his life: raising awareness about the evils of atrocity crimes, educating successive generations about the horrors of war and conflict; advocating for accountability and strengthening efforts to end impunity for atrocity crimes with the hope of deterring future atrocities—stressing the centrality of victims in all their work.
—Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor, International Criminal Court