Never Again: A Public Responsibility

BY SARAH-CATHERINE PHILLIPS

Student organizers of the GINet concert with Samputu.
Samputu concert.

Past genocides have taught us three important lessons. First, genocide is more costly to end than to prevent. Second, the US will be slow to respond unless it has a direct national security reason to get involved. And third, “never again” lacks the proactive force that it was originally intended to have. Some US students have learned these lessons and taken them to task.

Harvard Law School and Kennedy School of Government students, working with the Genocide Intervention Network, the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur, and physicians for Human Rights planned an advocacy event to do just that. On Sunday night, Rwandan singer Jean-Paul Samputu came to Harvard Square to share a message of hope and convey the urgent need for an effective response to the crisis in Darfur. The audience of over 300 people included Harvard University students, the local Rwandan community, and the Jewish community, all united for a common cause. Representatives from the sponsoring organizations gave the audience ‘actionable’ steps that they could take to respond to the ongoing genocide. Sherry Orbach, Master in Public Policy student at the Kennedy School of Government, concluded that “The concert was really the perfect combination of information on how to get involved and take action. Not only was the music beautiful, but it relayed what this movement is really about.”

With over 300,000 people dead and 2.8 million displaced, the genocide taking place in Darfur, Sudan, is devastatingly effective. The Janjaweed, a militia force backed by the Government of Sudan, has destroyed the lives and livelihoods of non-Arab Muslim Zaghawa, Masalit, and Fur tribes. Many of those who escaped the attacks had to survive a harrowing trek through sub-Saharan terrain to the Chadian border. They must now find food and firewood and try to avoid the multiple diseases that threaten their lives during the rainy season.

The refugees’ already desperate situation recently darkened when Chad announced this week that it was cutting off diplomatic relations with Sudan. Refugees may be forced to return to their “homes,” protected by only 7000 African Union troops defending an area the size of Texas. The futility of this protection is best described by Sally Chin of Refugees International: “The African Union has been given the responsibility to protect but not the power to protect.” On June 1, 2005, President Bush declared that genocide was indeed occurring in Darfur, yet the US and international community delivered little more than logistical aid to the African Union.

Public opinion favors intervening to stop genocide. The Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) conducted a poll in July 1994 and found that 80% of the American population believed that if the UN declared that genocide was happening in Rwanda, then the UN, including the US, should intervene to stop it. Yet when interviewed during the same time in 1994, officials claimed that “there was no call for American intervention either from the public or from members of Congress.” We are faced again with the reality that a PIPA poll conducted in July 2004 that found that 69% of Americans, when asked what should happen if the UN declared Darfur a genocide, thought that “the UN, including the US, should decide to act to stop the genocide even if it requires military force.” Americans generally believe that intervention is necessary for the prevention of genocide. Why then does this crucial gap exist between believing that intervention should happen and demanding that intervention happen?

To fill that gap, in May, 2005, a small student group from Georgetown University decided to create a forceful political will for intervention. The result was the creation of a student organization, Students Taking Action Now in Darfur (STAND), that has spread across the nation to include thousands of students in chapters from Awhatukee, Arizona to Berkeley, California.

After learning that revenues from oil companies operating in Sudan were indirectly funding the Janjaweed through the Sudanese government, Harvard University’s Darfur Action Group took the lead in getting Harvard University to divest from these companies. The precedental value of their campaign was enormous, and subsequently Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, Stanford, Samford, and the entire California university system have followed suit. Better yet, four states including New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon, and Ohio have now divested their assets from Sudanese oil interests, and 11 other states have pending legislation – including Senate Bill 2166 in Massachusetts.

In an even bolder move, students from Swarthmore College set about delivering the means necessary to provide security for the residents of Darfur by fundraising for the logistical needs of the African Union. To date, they have raised over $250,000. Upon graduation the Swarthmore students established a permanent organization, the Genocide Intervention Network (GI-Net). In September of last year GI-Net came together with student leaders from the Harvard Darfur Action Group to take on the ambitious task of building the world’s first permanent anti-genocide constituency. The vision is to stop responding to genocidal crises on an ad hoc basis, and ensure that the public outcry occurs before thousands are already dead.

On April 30, 2006, thousands of students and activists will march on Washington to demand action through the Power to Protect Campaign, organized by STAND and GI-Net in collaboration with other Darfur groups. They hope that politicians on both sides of the aisle will use the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act of 2006 to send additional funds to the African Union, block visas for members of the Janjaweed, and deny port access to ships carrying Sudanese oil. April 30 will mark the tireless efforts by students advocating for intervention in Darfur and working to build public sentiment. Students are arming the US government with the necessary political will to prevent genocide.

The Samputu concert was one event of many efforts by the Harvard Law and Kennedy School of Government students to build the Genocide Intervention Network’s permanent constituency. They are standardizing the methods and communication mechanisms needed both to lobby for Darfur and to use toward future genocides, thereby taking the responsibility of “never again” out of the hands of a few and into the hands of many.

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