Curating Silences

I started participating in conversations about archival silences during the second phase of digitizing our oral history collection. While creating a quality report spreadsheet, I started to take a closer look at the way the previous staff coded interviews. I noticed a homogony within an otherwise silenced group —  the lack of Righteous and resistance members was particularly disheartening.

But this is a fairly conventional view of archival silences. As we began reprocessing our Record Group collection a few years ago, I started to take notice of how much silence existed throughout. For example, the “persons” listing in the index of the Brodecki Family Record Group:

Piekarska, Joseph (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Piekarska, Marysha (nèe Zylberstein) (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Piekarska, Lolek (b. August 1, 1930, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Monich (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Jacob (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Lola (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Sissman (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Issac (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Sara (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Ellush (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Reuven (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Moshe (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Kubis (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Zosia (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)
Zilberstein, Miriam (b. Unknown, d. Unknown)

This represents the bulk of what we know about Zosia Piekarska’s immediate family. We have no photographs of them. We have no documents from them. We know the bare minimum of what happened to them after the Nazi’s invaded Poland.

We often discuss the cultural destruction taking place within a genocidal event but what is seen in the later archival collection is the physical manifestation of this process. In a real sense, we have collected silences. [1]

As we’ve been reprocessing, I’ve started collecting data from each of the updated finding aids. We will eventually use this information for a spatial representation when we update our Survivor’s Room and Tower of Remembrance exhibits; however, it’s left me with a number of questions about the nature of archival silences in our work (in no particular order):

  • How does curating large groups of “record silences” help inform the larger conversation of archival silences?
  • How might examining the tactics of genocidaires record keeping inform our view on archival silences?
  • What would a comparison of genocidal regimes’ record keeping methods tell us about the creation of archival silences?
  • How can the methods we use in curating genocide records be applied to other archival silences?

There are certainly articles dealing with these questions in varying degrees. However, as we’ve been doing the work, I find I’m attempting to address the rather specific interplay between appraisal, processing, silence, discovery, and remembrance in a way that I suspect is unique to human rights work but may be useful in addressing other silences.

[1] At present, the number of people indexed with minimal information is 66%.

Obama, not likely to stop genocide

The Museum started a sort of book club — which is really more of a topic-based discussion group — and during our first meeting (last night) I made a comment that I don’t think went over well. The subject of this first meeting was Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell, and in a broader sense the United State’s lack of involvement in cases of genocide.

During this discussion, I commented that I suspect that very little is actually going to be done by the Obama administration to curtail the ongoing genocide in Darfur. The reason for me saying this is actually enumerated in Power’s conclusion:

Obama is certainly coming into the job with a tremendous amount of knowledge about the current situation. Even if he weren’t receiving an intelligence analysis, it would be hard to overlook the various national activist groups that have organized around stopping this particular genocide. Nonetheless, for reasons I’ll discuss a few points down, I suspect this administration will wind up hiding “in the fog of plausible deniability.”

As Power points out, perpetrators are often keeping their eyes on Western reactions in order to gauge if they should take the next step. Having seen little reaction from Washington over the last five years, it’s unlikely that Sudan is going to suddenly reverse course because of a new administration. If the United States decides to do anything less than overt (which I think is highly doubtful) Khartoum is going to continue unfettered.

This is, without question, the real problem. Regardless of whether Obama’s administration has the “moral will” to act, his policy makers are going to have an incredibly tough time convincing Congress to commit to ending this, or any other, genocide. Even if they could, the real crux of a solution in Darfur lies with China.

Basically, no force, sanction, or relief is going to be successful without the backing or cooperation of China and, unfortunately, the United States has little leverage to apply in order to make this happen. Not only has China rebuked any attempt through the United Nations, but their continued oil interests in the region makes force and sanctions utterly untenable from a diplomatic and economic standpoint (to say nothing of the physical).

This last point is probably not even worth mentioning. No sitting President has been held politically accountable for inaction and considering the economic and domestic problems, it certainly won’t be starting with this administration.

Truly, this is one of those times when I’ll happily be wrong. I hope that Obama does intervene in Darfur; and I would be lying if I said I hadn’t voted for him with the hope that he would reverse our position on stopping genocide. But at the same time, I approach this from the long lens of a genocide researcher, and it’s from that vantage point that I suspect no real impact will come from a new administration.

Hate groups on Facebook

Daniel posted a comment today which I felt should be upgraded to a full entry. It concerned a Serbian nationalist hate group who are using Facebook to advocate anti-Muslim views and genocide denial.

Reuters’ reported the story earlier this week:

The group, created on Monday under the name “Close Group Noz Zica Srebrenica,” alerted administrators about the language of hatred against Muslims on the site.

“Administrator, we ask you to close the group ‘Noz, Zica, Srebrenica’, which glorifies the acts of genocide that took place in Srebrenica, where 8,000 men and boys were murdered,” read the Bosnian group header on Facebook.

“In addition, this group propagates hatred to all Muslims,” it said. Muslims or Bosniaks account for nearly half of the population of Bosnia, which they share with Roman Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs.

Like many sites of its kind, Facebook does have an extensive Terms of Use policy, which states that the user must agree not to:

*upload, post, transmit, share, store or otherwise make available any content that we deem to be harmful, threatening, unlawful, defamatory, infringing, abusive, inflammatory, harassing, vulgar, obscene, fraudulent, invasive of privacy or publicity rights, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable;
*intimidate or harass another;

Even though the story was published four days ago, the group remains active on Facebook. While it’s likely that none of the administrators can actually read the posts in Noz, Zica, Srebrenica, you would assume a different stance when it comes to American hate groups, particularly considering the above mentioned “Terms of Use.” Yet, after only a few minutes of searching I easily uncovered four active hate groups[1] on Facebook — American Vision, League of the South, The Knights Party (Ku Klux Klan), and multiple variations of White Pride.

We’ve known for years that the Internet gives hate groups and deniers the same exposure that non-profits and grassroots organizations have experienced. It does, however, raise questions about how they should be dealt with as well as how social networking spaces will ultimately be managed.

You can read Daniel’s full entry at his Srebrenica Genocide Blog.

[1] As defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Solutions for Darfur activist burnout

Activism n. : a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.

Darfur activism has been getting a tremendous amount of press over the last few weeks, and not all of it has been positive. For some, the Olympics and Mia Farrow’s alternative games have been the impetus for reflection on how the “movement” is doing.[1]

The real problem is no different than with other activist movements. If the people who are involved on the grassroots level — the most important level for such groups — don’t get a regular sense of accomplishment, their involvement begins to slide off, and the group will eventually become stagnant.

Volunteerism thrives on engaging activities that bring some kind of reward. Regardless of how enthusiastically you care about a cause, burnout is inevitable if the final result is always failure. As Just correctly pointed out in his The New Republic article:

Genocide really is different from other foreign policy crises, in that it will not wait. Either you stop genocide immediately or you fail to stop it.

This creates a “perfect storm” for activist burnout. Fortunately, there are a few things that may help keep your group active, encouraged, and invigorated.

Keep it as social as possible
Even though we’re fighting for a cause, it’s always a thrill to get together with like-minded people. This is why Dining For Darfur is such a great idea, as it combines the social aspect of bringing people together, with an engaging activity.[2]

Work on multiple genocide issues
While you’re working on stopping the genocide in Darfur by organizing letter writing campaigns and public forums, talk to your local coffee shops about carrying free-trade coffee from one of the cooperatives that are helping Rwandan genocide survivors regain their independence, or volunteer to work with a refugee service, helping Sudanese (or Cambodian, Bosnian, etc.) immigrants.

Attempt to partner with other groups
Find other groups that have a similar mission who may need occasional volunteers for events in return for helping organize or host one of your events. This is particularly easy with Holocaust organizations who often do modern genocide programs (including Darfur).[3]

Use Web 2.0 applications
Your group is hopefully already doing this, but if you’re not, then you should start. The reason this is a good idea is because you can push advocacy and education while giving millions of people the chance to respond to what you’re doing. In a world of YouTube, Facebook, and blogs, not having an online presence is damaging even to the smallest of groups.

The key is to keep the group evolving. Despite what might be happening with your issue, if you can push a variety of events and campaigns that appeal to different personalities, you’re far more likely to maintain a certain level of commitment.

While these suggestions are mainly focusing on Darfur activists, you could easily apply them to other groups — environmental, political, social, etc — as any type of organization that promotes change through volunteerism is likely to face the same lags in participation. If you’re working with another cause or would like to find others who might be involved in your issue, you should check out Britt’s, Have Fun Do Good or the Changebloggers Facebook page.


[1] The Truth Will Not Set You Free by Richard Just

[2] If I could find enough people, I’d love to pull together a team of Darfur activists for our co-ed flag football league.

[3] See the Association of Holocaust Organizations membership page for a full list of Holocaust institutions.

Why do people exhibit genocide apathy?

Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychology professor, recently recommended that the international community enact a formal process that would require nations to publicly address why they’re choosing not to act. His proposal is based on his NSF-funded study on psychic numbing, which showed that people may respond well to one person in need but become numb to larger numbers.

The problem, according to Slovic, is that moral intuition, guided by feelings and emotions, is not sufficient to motivate action when genocide is happening. Both moral intuition and moral reasoning, that is, logical argument and calculation, are needed to stimulate action.

“Our basic way of responding through moral intuition is a problem because it breaks down in the face of large scale atrocities,” says Slovic. “Our compassion, our empathy, our feeling about what we should do gives us a rush of immediate concern, but it doesn’t sustain us when large numbers of people are involved.”

The solution is to engage moral reasoning, a slower and more logical way of thinking about problems that challenge principles of right conduct, along with moral intuition.

For example, he argues that the U.S. government doesn’t leave it to the moral intuition of citizens to determine how much money they should pay in taxes for Social Security. Instead, moral reasoning leads to laws that require individuals to pay specific amounts for this program.

“Moral reasoning says all human lives are equally valuable,” says Slovic. “Given that, if a large number of lives are at risk, they should be proportionally more valuable than a single life. But if left to moral intuition, we would feel a certain amount of concern for the large number of lives at risk, but that feeling would not necessarily be enough to lead us to action.”

This is one of the most perplexing, and difficult to explain, components of genocide studies. Even though students have difficulty understanding how so many people would do nothing, the evidence consistently shows that the vast majority of people disengage themselves from any involvement in these acts; this is true for people on the ground, facing the genocide firsthand, as well as the international community.

In America, it’s often hard to rationalize how these acts are so passively viewed. Particularly when you consider that:

  1. they do receive a modicum of media coverage,
  2. are often addressed by public officials,
  3. questions frequently surface during press gaggles, and
  4. they’re continually highlighted by a host of non-profit groups

Slovic’s research would seem to help answer the question of how we, as a nation, develop apathy towards ongoing genocides, when we are in fact aware of them. Whether this sort of approach would help governments form a more cohesive (and decisive) policy in dealing with these crimes is difficult to say, but based on the premise, it would certainly be an interesting first step.

Book pulled from curriculum

Barbara Coloroso’s book Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide was recently pulled from a Grade 11 curriculum proposal in Toronto, after protests from the Turkish-Canadian community arose over including the Armenian genocide.

But a committee struck to review the course decided in late April to remove the book because “a concern was raised regarding [its] appropriateness. … The Committee determined this was far from a scrupulous text and should not be on a History course although it might be included in a course on the social psychology of genocide because of her posited thesis that genocide is merely the extreme extension of bullying,” according to board documents.

Ironically, it would seem that Coloroso’s attempt to demonstrate how common, everyday behavior (such as bullying, intimidation, and discrimination) can so easily feed an act of genocide, is the message that the committee decides to criticize during their statement. Normally this is exactly the kind of example Holocaust educators attempt to use in order to draw parallels.

Strangely, the committee decided to use works by Bernard Lewis and Guenter Lewy in place of Extraordinary Evil. Both men are deniers of the Armenian genocide, which seems a curious way to present material for a course covering the genocide, as it would naturally suggest that the committee is hoping their students walk away disavowing the events of 1915.

JEM launches attack against Khartoum

Over the weekend, Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of the rebel groups operating in the Darfur region, launched an attack against Khartoum in hopes of ousting current president Omar Bashir.

Early Saturday evening, the swelling sound of heavy fighting came from Omdurman, a suburb just across the river from Khartoum, and helicopters and army trucks headed toward the area, according to a Reuters reporter in the capital. Earlier in the day, the rebels said they had taken control of Omdurman and would not relent until they had pushed into the center of Khartoum.

“The international community has failed to protect our people, and now we are in a position to do it,” said Tahir Elfaki, chairman of the legislative council for JEM, speaking from a London airport as he headed to Libya, which, along with the government of Chad, is a main backer of the rebel group. “We are not going to stop until this regime is removed once and for all.”

The United States has officially condemned the attack and claims that such actions only frustrate the already tense negotiations. Nonetheless, the government of Khartoum is seen almost universally as a regime that has ignored practically every region of its country, murdering hundreds of thousands and displacing over a million.

While the rebel action was not entirely unanticipated by the international community, reports from the ground, citing examples of Sudanese soldiers joining the rebels, have been particularly troubling for international observers who fear that this could signal the breakdown of party loyalties across the country. To add fuel to the fire, JEM is reported to get funding from Chad, which heightens the risk of cross border conflicts, inter-country disputes, and puts the millions of displaced people in-harms-way.

Denial in policy making

In 1994, I can clearly remember watching State Department spokesperson Christine Shelley standing behind a podium and addressing a room full of reporters. It was the usual State Department briefing, and with the Rwandan Genocide being in the news, one reporter asked, “How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?”

It may seem like a strange question, but two weeks before, during a similar briefing, Mike McCurry, another State Department spokesman, was asked: “has the administration yet come to any decision on whether it can be described as genocide?” McCurry responded:

I’ll have to confess, I don’t know the answer to that. I know that the issue was under very active consideration. I think there was a strong disposition within the department here to view what has happened there, certainly, constituting acts of genocide.

Two weeks later, when Shelley got the clarification question, about how many acts of genocide it takes to make a genocide, she responded, “That’s just not a question that I’m in a position to answer.” When the reporter then asked if she had “specific guidance not to use the word ‘genocide’ in isolation, but always to preface it with these words ‘acts of’?” she responded:

I have guidance which I try to use as best as I can. There are formulations that we are using that we are trying to be consistent in our use of. I don’t have an absolute categorical prescription against something, but I have the definitions. I have phraseology which has been carefully examined and arrived at as best as we can apply to exactly the situation and the actions which have taken place.

The simple fact is, despite all of Lemkin’s hard work, the genocide convention has always been a faulty mechanism, which is backed by sovereign powers only as needed to excerpt policy forces where they’re advantageous. As Jonah Goldberg reported in the Los Angeles Times recently, this type of political maneuvering has recently reared its head in Russia, where the lower house of parliament passed a resolution stating that the Ukrainian famine wasn’t genocide.

Virtually no one, including the Russians, disputes that the Soviet government was involved in the deliberate forced starving of millions of people. But the Russian resolution indignantly insists: “There is no historical proof that the famine was organized along ethnic lines.” It notes that victims included “different peoples and nationalities living largely in agricultural areas” of the Soviet Union.

As Goldberg points out, the distinction the Russians are attempting to make (which many others have attempted to make in the past), is that the victims of this genocide were not an ethnic or religious group, but simply a bunch of people who happened to be living in an area that was decimated by a violent act. He goes on to explain that Lemkin made a number of concessions in order to get the convention passed, after years of fighting for its adoption.

The Russian’s argument, of course, like Turkey’s anti-Armenian lobby, is nothing but a semantic dodge. It’s the same kind of dodge Mike McCurry and Christine Shelley made in order to keep the Clinton Administration shielded from having to take action in Rwanda. And while I agree that this is a loophole that needs to be closed, I can’t help but notice that the United States and her sister nations have plenty of other excuses to ignore genocides, including, unfortunately, those that are currently unfolding.

UN genocide prevention comes up toothless

The United Nation’s Secretary-General recently released a report on the implementation of the so called Five Point Action Plan and the activities of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. For those who aren’t familiar with the plan, it was originally proposed back in 2004 and can be boiled down to a single paragraph, as it was in this 2006 report for the Human Rights Council:

On 7 April 2004, in his address to the Commission on Human Rights on the occasion of a special meeting to observe the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, the Secretary-General outlined a Five Point Action Plan to prevent genocide, which included the following: (a) preventing armed conflict, which usually provides the context for genocide; (b) protection of civilians in armed conflict including a mandate for United Nations peacekeepers to protect civilians; (c) ending impunity through judicial action in both national and international courts; (d) early and clear warning of situations that could potentially degenerate into genocide and the development of a United Nation’s capacity to analyse and manage information; and (e) swift and decisive action along a continuum of steps, including military action.

While it seems like this is a fairly intelligent and obvious list of steps one would need to take in order to stave off genocide, the reality is that effective action in halting violence is one of those things that time-and-again have stymied international bodies. As United Press International recently wrote:

The report of the secretary-general on the implementation of the Five Point Action Plan on the Prevention of Genocide said more work needs to be done to strengthen the activities of the special adviser on the prevention of genocide.

The report concluded that the United Nations in general “has experienced difficulty” in recognizing the signs of outbreaks of violence that could lead to genocide and in intervening early enough to make a difference.

Ask anyone who works in this field if “recognition” is the problem and you’ll most likely get a clinched-toothed “no.” Simply put, genocide is often easy to spot, but the United Nations and her members, even when faced with hard-and-fast evidence of genocide (as it was in Rwanda), are extremely wary of intervention.

As this report once again affirms, the United Nations remains committed to an approach that recognizes and fully respects the sovereignty of States and sees sovereignty as a positive concept of State responsibility to protect those under its jurisdiction, respect their human rights, and seek international support when needed. While respecting the sovereignty of an individual nation is without a doubt important for insuring participation in the United Nations, it’s unlikely that a country in the midst of a genocidal furor is going to take the responsibility of protecting its own citizens as paramount, since that’s contrary to the very definition of genocide.

It does, however, ensure that other member nations, who may be inclined to aid those who are suffering at the hands of genocidaires, will keep conflicts at arm’s length in order to maintain the principle of “fully respect[ing] the sovereignty of States.” It’s this kind of backwards thinking realpolitik diplomacy that allows genocide to happen without threat of intervention.

Denial is endemic

While Holocaust denial gets the lion’s share of press when it comes to the subject of “genocide revisionism,” it’s certainly not the only case. In fact, in recent years, as the United States has contemplated recognizing the Armenian genocide, the voices of angered Turks has been added to the cacophony of those who strive to paint history in a different light.

In fact, Gregory Stanton (the president of Genocide Watch) included Denial as the eighth, and final, stage of genocide in the briefing paper he presented to the U.S. State Department in 1996:

Denial is the eighth stage that always follows a genocide. It is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres. The perpetrators of genocide dig up the mass graves, burn the bodies, try to cover up the evidence and intimidate the witnesses. They deny that they committed any crimes, and often blame what happened on the victims. They block investigations of the crimes, and continue to govern until driven from power by force, when they flee into exile. There they remain with impunity, like Pol Pot or Idi Amin, unless they are captured and a tribunal is established to try them.

The best response to denial is punishment by an international tribunal or national courts. There the evidence can be heard, and the perpetrators punished. Tribunals like the Yugoslav, Rwanda, or Sierra Leone Tribunals, an international tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and ultimately the International Criminal Court must be created. They may not deter the worst genocidal killers. But with the political will to arrest and prosecute them, some mass murderers may be brought to justice.

While Stanton was primarily speaking about “active” cover-ups immediately preceding a genocide, its fascinating (and depressing) that such acts quickly move from action into mainstream discourse. Even when trials have taken place, evidence has been presented, and testimony has been gathered, the crime is still an on-going source of controversy years after the fact.

David Irving is no doubt one of the better known Holocaust deniers, but he’s only one example of the plethora of those who seek to diminish the crime through the guise of scholarly debate. As academics and researchers alike begin to dig deeper into the origins and events of other modern genocides (Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, et al.), a stream of fresh deniers are following along with their own versions of what happened in each of these cases.

For example, it was recently announced that one such group of deniers (called negationists by allAfrica) are heading to a conference later this month — The Media and Rwanda: The Difficult Search for the Truth. The event is being sponsored by Les Editions les Intouchables, who published a book by Canadian Politician Robin Philpot entitled Ça ne s’est pas passé comme ça à Kigali (“It did not happen like that in Kigali”). Based on the reported speakers, the sphere of discourse is going to be largely limited to those who are attempting to revise as they revisit what took place in Rwanda.

Even though Stanton did an excellent job of outlining the various stages of genocide, it seems like the eighth needs to be expanded beyond the immediate vicinity of the crime. As denial is constantly expanding with the pace of scholarship, and it often grows rather than diminishes over time, it seems apt to address the problem, particularly considering the rate at which the information age has accelerated the course of such specialized revisionism.