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Genocide and R2P: Bittersweet Remembrance by Margot Charles in MIR The McGill International Review

Is the word “genocide” becoming a commodity on the market for political influence?

On October 29th, the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) and the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center (MHMC) held an event titled Raoul Wallenberg: Lessons for humanity. A lengthy discussion of Wallenberg’s legacy, the event went a long way in showing how politically charged notions of genocide and mass atrocities remain today. While all panelists outwardly agreed on the importance of preventing genocide and holding accountable those responsible for perpetrating such mass atrocities, further analysis of the points raised can flesh out some holes in the discourse, identifying key areas of politicization which should be addressed in the future.

His Excellency Mr. Sjörgen, the Ambassador of Sweden to Canada, talked of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish Jew responsible for saving up to 100 000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. According to the Ambassador, the legacy of Wallenberg’s life is testament to the relevance of individual action and initiative. In other words, Wallenberg showed that one person is not necessarily doomed to oblivion lest a global movement follows. In fact, one person can change the stakes of a situation and even shift the course of history. This was also part of the Honorable Irwin Cotler, Member of Parliament for Mount-Royal’s opening remarks, which listed ten important lessons for humanity to be distilled from Wallenberg’s operations, one of which was the relevance of individual action and the fight we should entertain against the stigma that no one can do anything alone.

Cameron Hudson, Director of the USHMM’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide, emphasized the importance of linkages between public and private agency. He used for this the example of the establishment of the War Refugee Board in 1944. According to him, the push for Roosevelt to implement the Board was individual action taken by the Secretary of the Treasury Mearsheimer and a few of his colleagues in bringing the issue to the attention of the President. As Hudson subsequently argued, this was a great instance of private agency spurring public action which resulted in hundreds of thousands of lives being saved. Both examples, that of Wallenberg’s life and Roosevelt’s administration, demonstrate the game-changing role that individual initiative can have in shifting the stakes of a situation. Specifically, in the case of the War Refugee Board, private agency was crucial in triggering a public reaction, allowing the response to reach the larger spheres. According to Hudson, it is the combination of private and public action that succeeded where either one was insufficient on its own.

Unfortunately, it seems that most examples used nowadays to emphasize the importance of joining public and private agency are uni-directional. In other words, they confine private agency to the realm of raising awareness of an issue, while the responsibility to design and carry out programs to solve said issue is solely ascribed to the public sector. While this may have been an appropriate idealization of the mechanisms available at the time of the Holocaust or even the Rwandan genocide – the other mass atrocity mentioned at the event – how relevant is this simplification today? Given that international campaigns nowadays have the means to mobilize an incredible number of people in just a click of the mouse, should we keep restricting the centrality of private agency to the first steps of the struggle? Or rather, should we export it to the later stages, ones that involve implementing the potential solutions? This question is also very relevant considering that most of the funds for relief actions such as helping victims of genocide are now located in private coffers. A discourse on genocide outlining the role of private agency as truncated and time-sensitive can hence be dangerous. Rather, multi-directional approaches to linkage understanding should be advocated.

Wallenberg’s actions set the stage for a notion that would later be accredited by the states, through the UN, in 2005: that of R2P. The three pillars that the UN outlines in the definition of R2P heavily focus on the prevention of genocide, or at the very least the short-term solutions that can be found to alleviate the suffering of the people targeted. As Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, pointed out, the other side of this coin is the need to hold the perpetrators accountable post-genocide. Here the problem becomes intrinsically legal. Indeed, where preventing genocide is a matter of research and raising awareness, and countering its perpetration one of enforcement, the post-atrocity processes necessarily belong in the legal realm. Read more.

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