Last week I joined activists, experts, human rights defenders, and survivors of atrocities from 33 countries on 6 continents in Istanbul, Turkey, to discuss global efforts to end mass atrocities. The gathering was impressive and inspirational even as the location, in a country on track to take in a million refugees from its burning neighbor Syria, was also a stark reminder of just how much work remains to be done.
Sitting on a panel exploring how activist constituencies can be built up to combat genocide and atrocities, I shared the experiences of United to End Genocide, from our roots in the unprecedented activism of the Save Darfur movement to the increasing online activism embodied in our recent efforts on BashirWatch and the viral success of partner groups on Kony 2012.
The convening was marked by honest explorations of tough questions. In a discussion I led on U.S. policy to end mass atrocities, we asked whether the new Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) could be an example for other countries or if, in the context of ongoing atrocities in Burma, Congo, Sudan, and Syria, the APB even mattered. A Congolese activist challenged whether any structure in one government could ever really be a model for the unique political and cultural contexts of other countries, particularly as it was still finding its own way. A participant from the United Kingdom cited the APB as a strong point of leverage for further governmental efforts in her country. Though there was no final consensus, the general sense was that yes, the APB matters, but its ability to act as an example for other contexts in other nations is limited.
Reassuringly, other efforts to end mass atrocities already exist and are expanding in countries throughout the world. Canada has a Parliamentary Group that focuses on Genocide Prevention. Latin America has long had a Human Rights network and has recently set up its own Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocities Prevention. And several African countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda have set up national committees for the prevention and punishment of genocide and mass atrocities.
The question is not whether people across the globe share the vision of ending mass atrocities, but rather how to connect those efforts in the most effective way for making international genocide prevention as strong as possible.
Again, the setting was both inspirational and sobering. Among the participants were Human Rights Defenders risking their lives daily, and survivors of mass violence in Cambodia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere looking for a way forward even as the country they gathered in continues to foster controversy for its refusal to call what happened to Armenians almost 100 years ago a genocide. Days before the convening, water cannons and tear gas had been used to clear protestors from Istanbul’s Taksim Square. And it was sobering to remember that just a few hours’ drive away, hundreds of thousands of refugees were gathering along the Turkish-Syrian border.
But a spirit of growing solidarity was also acutely present at the convening and shown itself in unique ways. Brazilian participants at the conference joined Turkish protesters in silent solidarity with their yearning for better freedom and human rights. A Sudanese activist, banned from his home country for his human rights advocacy, was traveling to the Turkish-Syrian border to lead Syrian opposition in a training in peaceful advocacy. The challenges continue to loom large, but one can take solace in the awareness that the networks to meet them have already begun to grow.