March 1, 2024
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Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention explores what worldwide crises have in common

What are the risk factors in societies that lead to atrocities? Institute builds prevention strategies by studying the history and polices that connect them

Members of the Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention team at its international Frontiers of Prevention conference for 2021-22 academic year. From left to right: Tutku Ayhan (Charles E. Scheidt Postdoctoral Fellow); Kerry Whigham (co-director); Waheed Ahmad (Charles E. Scheidt Resident Practitioner); Max Pensky (co-director); Saghar Birjandian (Charles E. Scheidt Postdoctoral Fellow); Jaime Godoy (Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence). Members of the Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention team at its international Frontiers of Prevention conference for 2021-22 academic year. From left to right: Tutku Ayhan (Charles E. Scheidt Postdoctoral Fellow); Kerry Whigham (co-director); Waheed Ahmad (Charles E. Scheidt Resident Practitioner); Max Pensky (co-director); Saghar Birjandian (Charles E. Scheidt Postdoctoral Fellow); Jaime Godoy (Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence).
Members of the Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention team at its international Frontiers of Prevention conference for 2021-22 academic year. From left to right: Tutku Ayhan (Charles E. Scheidt Postdoctoral Fellow); Kerry Whigham (co-director); Waheed Ahmad (Charles E. Scheidt Resident Practitioner); Max Pensky (co-director); Saghar Birjandian (Charles E. Scheidt Postdoctoral Fellow); Jaime Godoy (Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence). Image Credit: Provided.

As a war rages in Ukraine, headlines across the world speak to its human toll: In the span of a year, more than 7,000 civilians were killed and in that same time, more than 8 million people fled Ukraine as refugees.

Thousands of miles away, a team at Binghamton University’s Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention (I-GMAP) works to answer two pivotal questions: What are constructive ways of helping? What steps could prevent such a crisis from happening again?

There’s not always a perfect answer, but I-GMAP researchers have found that the best solutions begin at the community level. In April 2023, as part of the institute’s annual Frontiers of Prevention international conference, experts from Ukraine plan to visit Binghamton to discuss repercussions of Russia’s invasion, including its economic impact and the documentation of potential war crimes. Ukraine will be one of many topics addressed at the conference, where policymakers and practitioners from around the world discuss the most pressing issues relating to atrocity prevention today.

“As a prevention-based institute, we’re always thinking about how we can get to the next fire before it breaks out,” said Max Pensky, co-director of I-GMAP and professor of philosophy. “Prevention is generally driven at the local level. Government policy doesn’t just go there on its own.”

Whether it’s happening in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Myanmar or within the U.S., I-GMAP explores how atrocities — whether caused by war or mistreatment of a culture or religious group — could be prevented by first studying how they’re connected, through historical or sociological perspectives. They study how governments respond to vulnerable populations, what societies have learned from atrocities such as the Holocaust and how grassroots initiatives can help to heal.

Taking the initiative on addressing the war in Ukraine, Pensky said one of I-GMAP’s goals is to infuse expert voices into a local conversation.

Those I-GMAP invited to the April panel include:

  • a Ukrainian expert in documenting possible war crimes and crimes against humanity;
  • a lawyer from New York University Law School with expertise in alternative approaches to criminal justice, such as avenues to pursue accountability for atrocity crimes committed in the context of an illegal war;
  • a Ukrainian economist who can speak to the use and evolution of financial tools including targeted sanctions and how to identify weak areas in a country’s global financial presence.

Maria Ressa, a journalist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for her reporting on an authoritarian regime in the Philippines, will serve as the Frontiers of Prevention conference keynote speaker in April.

Among I-GMAP’s many other recent projects, in June 2022, it partnered with the Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities to plan a new Civil Society-State Forum in Panama.

“How to bring ongoing atrocities to an end is only a small sliver, because we focus on a much broader view of prevention that’s looking first at everything that we can do in societies to make sure things never escalate to that stage,” said Kerry Whigham, I-GMAP co-director and assistant professor of genocide and mass atrocity prevention.

“We’re assessing what risk factors exist in any society that make it potentially vulnerable for atrocities or large-scale identity-based violence,” he said. “There’s no society in the world where there isn’t one group that is somehow more vulnerable. Every society has work to do.”

What I-GMAP does for Binghamton students

Beyond the research and engagement with other practitioners, I-GMAP offers Binghamton students options for a graduate degree, a graduate certificate or an undergraduate minor. I-GMAP’s Faculty Fellows program also brings together faculty from across the University and from other colleges around the U.S. for yearlong collaboration centered on integrating atrocity prevention methodologies into different academic disciplines.

For Omar Ndizeye, a student in the GMAP master’s program, an opportunity to deepen his understanding of research into the legacy of genocide as a means of prevention was what motivated him to pursue the graduate degree from Binghamton. He received his undergraduate degree in Rwanda and his research background has centered on memorials of the 1994 genocide there. Ndizeye also praised the Binghamton program’s interdisciplinary approach.

“My acquired knowledge has enabled me to understand different research methods, socioeconomic concepts and more tools to understand human behaviors,” Ndizeye said. “I believe this is important in conflict transformation, healing and peace-building, which were my field prior to joining the GMAP program.”

Students from different Binghamton schools who pursue I-GMAP academic programs gain a unique perspective on how their degrees could be utilized in atrocity prevention.

“Take ethical supply chain management, for example. How are we going to identify pyrosilicates for the construction of solar panels that can only be in the supply chain from slave labor in the Xinjiang Province of China, which is an ongoing atrocity?” Pensky said.

He continued, “How does a multinational corporation take seriously its ethical responsibility to not just follow international standards, but to be proactively contributing to atrocity prevention? These are not the kind of conversations you’d typically get if you were, say, based in political science or history.”

A ‘hub’ for atrocity prevention

After assessing risks for atrocities within various societies, Whigham said, the most effective way to bring about change is by taking actions through policy or programming initiatives at the domestic level.

As an example, he pointed to the more than 2 million Venezuelan refugees who fled to Colombia in South America over the last decade. They didn’t have resources for employment or access to healthcare, but over the course of 10 years, cities in Colombia, then the national government, took their own steps to ensure the refugee population became integrated and gained access to necessary resources.

“There is a lot of knowledge on the ground in local communities, from practitioners working at the grassroots level, from policy makers working in all sorts of ministries all over the world,” Whigham said.

“I think the most important mission we have in I-GMAP is that we’re becoming a hub in the world of atrocity prevention practice where academics, practitioners and policymakers can come together to share with each other,” he said. “Hopefully, they can take those tools and multiply the effectiveness of the work that they’re already doing.”

Binghamton University is dedicated to the advancement of social justice for all individuals and populations. To that end, a number of institutes and centers have been established to promote research, ideas, communication and critical discourse in areas including human rights; equality for women and girls; and global health, progressive education and well-being for marginalized populations.

Each of these institutes and centers has a specific focus, yet they all exist to raise awareness of issues of historical, systemic injustices, and to explore ways to rise above these injustices to the benefit of the world’s underrepresented.