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Owen Pell at The Harpur Edge

Owen Pell works to educate nations
   about genocide prevention

By Eric Coker

The Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation is taking the lead in building a world that prevents genocide and mass atrocities.

As an Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR) board member, Harpur College alumnus Owen Pell '80 is on the front line of developing and promoting new approaches to genocide prevention.

"Working for AIPR is interesting because I have a portal into a world that is otherwise very much hidden from view," Pell said. "It is interesting to watch."

Pell, who also serves as a partner in the New York office of the international law firm White & Case and has helped Holocaust survivors and their families recover property taken by the Nazis, returned to Binghamton University on Feb. 25 to discuss AIPR's efforts and the history of trying to define genocide. Pell also visited political science and history classes and spoke to students at a Harpur Edge "lunch and learn" session.

The Auschwitz Institute, founded in 2005 by Fred Schwartz, is the only United Nations-sanctioned organization that provides government and military officials of U.N. member states with education and training on genocide and mass atrocity prevention.

AIPR brings officials from Africa, Latin America, South America and other areas of the world together for a week of training at the site of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp in Oswiecim, Poland.

"The reason we do that is because there is a power of place at Auschwitz that is difficult to find anywhere else in the world," Pell said during his talk in Casadesus Hall. "The reason Auschwitz is unique and unlike other massacre sites you find is that Auschwitz is the one place that people from dozens of countries were brought to be destroyed. Auschwitz was the center of an international conspiracy to wipe out a huge number of people."

AIPR uses Auschwitz as "a teaching tool," Pell said. The training sessions include the teaching of Holocaust history and the principles of international law; the development of training programs; how to engage with non-governmental organizations; how to design memorials; and ways to establish "responsibility to protect (R2P)" processes.

"We are trying to make Auschwitz more than a cemetery," Pell said.

Pell attended a training seminar at Auschwitz in November 2014 and said he noticed that being at the former camp had an effect on participants from African and South American nations.

"None of them had ever been there before," he said. "I was the first Jewish person most of them had met. Walking around Auschwitz was a challenging experience for them, especially when they began to realize that if they had been migrant workers in Germany at the time, they would have ended up there, too."

Pell recalled a human-rights lawyer from Uganda being struck by the power of Auschwitz and telling him that Africans do not embrace memorialization.

"She told me: 'Life makes a hole in every human heart. One of the things that fill the heart is hope. And you can't have hope without memories,'" Pell said. "She said: 'In Africa, we have no memories.'"

So far, AIPR has trained people from more than 60 nations, including 300 government bureaucrats (eight of whom are heads of ministry). Besides the week at Auschwitz, regional training sessions are held in Argentina and Uganda. The AIPR training program has also been established for the United States Army War College and the United States service academies.

"The theory is that there will come a time in the next 15-20 years when the chief of staff of the military will have gone through the (AIPR) training," Pell said. "Maybe that will help."

The AIPR's genocide-prevention training is a 30-year plan to ensure that atrocities witnessed in places such as Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Sudan never happen again.

"A lot of this is about planting seeds," Pell said. "It's about trying to find people who will rise up into levels of power. It is percolating ... We have reached a tipping point. We are now looking at genocide as a process."

The road to genocide prevention

Of course, genocide and mass atrocities have existed since the ancient world, continuing into the establishment of the new world and proliferating in the 20th and 21st centuries. The struggle to define genocide and develop a responsibility to protect has taken place over the past 80 years.

The architect of genocide prevention was a Polish patent lawyer named Raphael Lemkin, who Pell said was fascinated by the history of ethnic killings. At a 1934 League of Nations conference, Lemkin proposed crimes of "barbarity and vandalism" under international law.

"Lemkin saw things that others did not see," Pell said. "It probably ate at him like a cancer that he couldn't get everyone else to see it."

Lemkin talked about unique crimes against collectives and considered vandalism as cultural defacement.

"He wrote that this was a societal disease," Pell said. "His argument was that in modern society, it was contagion. If not checked in all society, it would spread like an epidemic. The man was 50 years ahead of his time. He was all over this issue before Hitler was doing anything. It was remarkable."

Lemkin's foresight and perseverance were so remarkable that the AIPR named its genocide-prevention seminars in his honor.

It was not until the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948 that genocide became a crime under international law and was defined in legal terms as acts committed by a state with intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

"Genocide is more than murder," Pell said. "It's an intent to destroy a cultural unit — a collective."

As mass atrocities continued during the 20th century, the definition was broadened to include "crimes against humanity," Pell said. But the challenge remained to treat genocide as a process instead of a crime.

"Everyone was still struggling for definition," he said. "If you're busy trying to define what it is we don't like, we may not be doing a good job of stopping it."

Prosecution is never a complete answer, Pell said, pointing out that the death penalty does not solve crime problems.

"The fact that you hang a bunch of Nazis does not prevent the next genocide. It does not deter."

Atrocities in Africa finally forced the United Nations to determine that the world needed to move beyond "crime" and focus on prevention. The U.N. World Summit of 2005 established that the protection of population is an attribute of sovereignty. The pillars of "Responsibility to Protect" not only included states protecting their population, but the international community assisting those states.

The United Nations created a special advisor for genocide prevention and tasked AIPR with organizing groups of nations to take part in training programs. Forty nations in the Organization of African States agreed to address the issue, while more than a dozen countries in the Latin American Network decided to participate.

"National mechanisms" – entities created within a country dedicated to the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities – were created. Ideally, the national mechanisms will gather information, assess risks, alert the population and determine policy response when genocide precursors are seen.

"We have moved beyond legal characterization," Pell said. "It's more than making a case against someone. We are looking at factors such as historical patterns and political culture. We are trying to identify red flags (that lead to genocide)."

What's next?

Amid all of the training, public-policy challenges remain, Pell said.

"We found our inner Lemkin," he said. "We are talking about process and we are engaged. But how do we move from the U.N. General Assembly to the factory floor?"

The involvement of corporations will be critical to future genocide prevention, Pell said. The more that states, non-governmental organizations and multi-national corporations can engage with one another, the faster the path will be to human-rights breakthroughs.

Pell pointed to AngloAmerican, a mining company, funding AIDS/HIV research in South Africa as an example of corporate social responsibility.

"(The chairman) said: 'This is no longer just a public health issue. (AIDS/HIV) is bad for my business in the long term.'"

Pell will design a corporate-training program as AIPR works to get more corporations into genocide prevention.

AIPR also plans to partner with schools and academics on the subject, Pell said. Genocide prevention will enter the college mainstream as those relationships expand, he predicted.

"More and more universities are looking at genocide studies because these are recurrent events," Pell said. "There are dozens and dozens of countries where there are predictable cycles of violence. It is a social ill that needs to be addressed. You are starting to see it on college campuses already because scholars are reacting to what is coming out of the U.N."

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Last Updated: 3/1/17