Course teaches lessons in genocide prevention

Course teaches lessons in genocide prevention

A group of scholars has been dissecting the root-causes of genocide so that future violence against whole peoples, like the current slaughter in the Sudan, might be avoided.

In February, two professors and an activist incorporated the International Academy for Genocide Prevention, building on a graduate-level course at Columbia University’s Center for International Conflict Resolution, the City College of New York, and a slew of European universities.

The course, which will be taught for the third time in the spring of ‘007, teaches students how to recognize genocide rather than superficially studying genocides.

"The focus of our organization is to act before there’s violence," said Henry Huttenbach, a participating distinguished professor at the CCNY and one of the IACGP founders and directors. "When there’s [already] violence, you don’t prevent. The best you can do is stop, and [then] it becomes too late."

The academy was the brainchild of Huttenbach, Andrea Bartoli, the director of Columbia’s Center for International Conflict Resolution, and Wayne resident Eric Mayer, a social activist with a history of championing human rights. While it is housed at Columbia, it is a collaboration that goes beyond the campus. Mayer had been working on the project for three years, meeting with high-level international leaders, including Mikail Gorbachev, the former president of Poland, and representatives of the Vatican. Then he met Bartoli and Huttenbach. They designed the graduate course as a way to reach the most people.

"The credit must go to Bartoli and Huttenbach," said Mayer, a Holocaust survivor. "It’s a way to repay a debt for the gentile people who at the risk of their lives, saved mine during World War II."

But the Holocaust will not be the focus of the course or the academy’s mission. Hitler’s rise to power and the Holocaust will certainly be used as examples but within the context of deconstructing how a genocide can occur.

"Hitler didn’t have the masses [in the beginning]," Mayer said. "He started one at a time and then got the masses. The only vaccination is education."

In Germany, Mayer said, it became acceptable to be anti-Semitic. So the first goal of the academy is "to immunize people against prejudice." People need to understand that there are other societies with different views, cultures, and religions, Mayer said.

The next step will be to increase the interaction between people of different backgrounds who can put aside their differences. This is not to take away from ethnic pride, Mayer stressed, but to increase pride in our common connection as human beings.

The course uses four genocides as its base: the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, Rwanda, and Cambodia. The more the students understand the background, the better position they will be in to prevent a crisis, Huttenbach said.

Bartoli likened genocide prevention to fire prevention. There did not used to be fire brigades and fire prevention regimens, but these have helped to save lives. He hopes the academy’s genocide education will have the same effect.
In November, the academy will sponsor a symposium at Columbia for state representatives and other government officials. Genocide, Bartoli said, is not possible without "the collusion or the active participation" of government, so the conference will aim to create an effective collective response within government, and will feature speakers from across the globe, including, Mayer hopes, the president of Rwanda.

"We have to learn many lessons from the past," Bartoli said. "It is, unfortunately, way too easy for a relatively small number of people to kill an extraordinarily large number of people. The possibility of genocide increases when bystanders do not feel responsible for what happens in the system."

A German corporation, which Mayer would not identify, has also approached the academy about teaching its course to the international staffs of corporations.

"The seed of genocide is economic," Mayer said. "It is very significant because they’re willing to take the lead in this."

Mayer recalled a memory from his boyhood in Germany. In 1937, his father, who fought in the German cavalry in World War I, went to a veterans meeting where he told his compatriots to get rid of "that clown," Hitler. Mayer’s father, who was arrested three times and later killed in one of the camps, is the inspiration for his work in teaching about genocide and the dangers of hate.

"It is important to [teach] rather than to build memorials," he said. "My father would be happy if [donors] spent money on teaching people rather than putting up another stone."

For more information on the academy, its class, or the upcoming symposium, visit

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