What Does It Mean to Prevent Genocide? Tibi Galis Speaks at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

New York, June 14, 2012 – Tibi Galis, executive director of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR), spoke at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs June 12 on the topic “What Does It Mean to Prevent Genocide?”

In his talk, broadcast live over the web, Galis outlined the approach taught in Auschwitz Institute programs for government officials, emphasizing that genocide is a process, not an event, and that military intervention is not the same as prevention.

“We really hold the view that prevention is not simply stopping killing,” Galis said . “It needs to come a lot earlier. Genocide prevention most often is equated, especially where we are, in the U.S., with military intervention in situations that seem unsolvable in any other way. What we argue is that the work needs to come a lot earlier than that, and genocide prevention is a story that is a lot longer than that. . . . It’s like talking about preventing alcoholism, talking about it as going into the bars and knocking [drinks out of people’s hands]. It’s not necessarily an effective way of preventing alcoholism. In a similar manner, going and putting in the military where a regime is already killing people comes at a very late stage. . . . It means we have failed in our job beforehand to prevent mass atrocities from happening.”

Explaining what states can do to prevent genocide, Galis defined the primary tools in the genocide prevention “toolbox” (adapted from a speech by Jonathan Prentice of the International Crisis Group):

  • early warning,
  • institution- and capacity-building,
  • reducing economic inequality,
  • security sector reform,
  • legal protection for disadvantaged groups,
  • fostering inclusive government,
  • transitional justice, and
  • weapons control.

“If you hear this,” Galis said, “you will think there is nothing new under the sun. It’s kind of true, there isn’t too much new under the sun when we want to prevent genocide. These are things that we have been aware that our governments had to deliver in the past, too.” It is also important, he stressed, for policymakers to bear in mind that warning signs of genocide may be missed if they are looking out only for conflict in general, as opposed to genocide in particular.

Galis returned repeatedly to the theme of engagement—engagement of citizens with governments; of NGOs with governments; of governments with other governments—noting that genocide prevention is “not a small process, it’s not an easy process, and it’s a resource-intensive process.”

Responding to an audience question about current cases of genocide and mass atrocities, Galis said, “I am the first one to call out how bad we are still at preventing mass atrocities and how many crimes happen around us. This is not to say, though, that the work that we need to take forward is not already being done. It takes time. It took time for the [Genocide] Convention to become anything else than a piece of paper. . . . It took time for anything that approaches an international criminal justice system to come together. But we are there. We are making serious advances in this field. But we need to continue pushing and, at the same time, realize that these atrocities that happen today are great indicators of how badly our governments are still doing their job and how much help they need in doing it better.”