This piece was originally published before the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act became law in 2019.
As the school year draws to a close, students and teachers in Facing History and Ourselves classrooms are exploring the theme of “Choosing to Participate.” After delving deeply into historical case studies, from The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy to Holocaust and Human Behavior, they’re asking an important question: How does history educate me about my responsibilities today?
For genocide prevention advocate Mike Brand, learning about the past nurtured a commitment to human rights and led to his career in conflict resolution and prevention which has taken him around the world - from Sudan, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Washington D.C. We spoke with Mike about his emerging awareness of the problem of genocide when he was in college, his current efforts in support of the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, and his belief that today’s students have an important role to play.
How did you get interested in the issue of genocide and mass atrocities?
I learned about the Rwandan genocide when I was taking a human rights course in college in 2006. It blew my mind that in my lifetime this genocide happened where a million people lost their lives and nobody that I was associated with ever heard about Rwanda. I didn't learn about it in school. I took a Holocaust course in high school, but we never spoke about Rwanda at all. I called my parents and asked, “Hey, have you guys ever heard about this?” They didn't know about it, none of my friends that I was with in college knew about it, and so that just really didn't sit well with me. I was planning on doing med school and going and being a doctor abroad and I decided, no, I wanted to work on prevention—preventing these things from happening in the future.
So I got involved in STAND, the student anti-genocide movement at the time, the GI-Net, the Genocide Intervention Network, because this was right at the height of [the genocide in] Darfur. And so I got more and more involved, and started an organization on campus, and that's just what I've been doing since.
What’s the state of the field right now?
There was a lot of talk during the Darfur genocide about political will, and we needed to have the political will to act. And then, during the Obama administration, we really had all the political will we probably could have had. Samantha Power, who literally wrote the book on American inaction (A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide) was now in government, working as an advisor to President Obama. President Obama, during his time as a senator, said all the right things during the Darfur genocide, actually went to some Darfur refugee camps, spoke a lot about taking action. But then during his eight years in office we had Syria, we had South Sudan, we had Central African Republic, Burundi, Myanmar - countless examples.
And I think what we’ve realized is that we need to be focusing a lot more on actually preventing mass atrocities. Because once an atrocity gets to a place where there's genocide, major war crimes, or crimes against humanity, it's very hard to walk that back. So how do we get upstream of violent conflict? How do we work on root causes and drivers of violent conflict? How can we learn to invest more in this long-term approach and recognize that prevention takes a long time?
What is the Elie Wiesel Act, and how could it strengthen the United States’ ability to prevent genocide and mass atrocities?
The Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act was born out of a few years of work around this topic. President Obama’s administration created what's known as the Atrocities Prevention Board, which allowed different agencies in the US Government - like the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Treasury Department - to come together with the purpose of trying to address the issue of preventing mass atrocities and genocide.
The Elie Wiesel Act would build on this with a permanent Mass Atrocities Task Force. It would also authorize what's called the Complex Crises Fund, which is this small fund of money that allows for the US government to react a lot more rapidly to emerging crises that are happening. And it would provide training for Foreign Service officers. Our Foreign Service officers, the American men and women that are serving abroad in embassies around the world, are really our first line of defense and our first line of communication around these issues. As they hear things on the ground about what's happening, they report that back to Washington and then all the policy people can come together and figure out what we need to be doing. But for many years they were not getting any training in what are the early warning signs of atrocities and genocide.
This act would require that all Foreign Service officers that are going to at-risk areas would have to be trained in the best practices of atrocities prevention, and more of the warning signs-- all those kinds of issues. And there's some reporting requirements as well, to make sure that there's reporting back from the State Department and the intelligence community to Congress so that they're kept abreast of what's happening, and where things are in the world, and also what the United States is doing to improve our ability to effectively respond and prevent atrocities.
There are versions of the bill introduced in both the House and Senate. There is bipartisan support for both bills, but there's a long way off for us to actually get a vote on either of these bills I think. And definitely more citizen pressure to make sure that members of Congress know that this is an issue that their constituents care about is really important, so making sure that there is that engagement at all levels, that members of Congress know that this is a priority issue for their constituents.
How can young people, including Facing History students who have been studying historical genocides at school, make a difference?
First, we have to have awareness. I think it's real disservice what we're doing to our kids by teaching them only about history, because it presents this perception that genocide is a thing of the past. And I think the main lesson that students today need to learn is that these crimes are happening today and there are things that we can do to prevent future crimes from happening. People can’t care if they don’t know what’s happening. Years ago I was going to a Save Darfur rally and I had my Save Darfur shirt on, and somebody on the subway train asked me, who is Darfur? And when I explained, his mind was blown that this was going on. There's so many issues around the world, and education really is the first thing that we need to be doing. We need to be making sure that people are just aware.
Young people can also influence our political leaders. There's a common misconception that you need to be 18 and need to be a voting member of our society to be heard. There's plenty of times that I've gone to meetings with members of Congress and brought young people with me—younger than the voting age— and the members of Congress are more interested in hearing from them, honestly, than from hearing from me. For most members of Congress, it's more interesting to them to understand, “Why is a 15-year-old talking to me about what's happening in Congo? How do they know what's happening in Congo and why do they care?”
So young people do have a lot of power, even if they're not at a voting age. And I think the first thing is to start learning how you can be an advocate. You can raise awareness in your local community. There are things you can do with your members of Congress. In the August recess, there's members of Congress that are in their home district and you can set up a meeting with them. That's everybody's right as an American—to be able to meet with your member of Congress whether or not you vote for them. When you meet with your representative to talk about genocide prevention, you move the needle on awareness and show that there are members of their constituency who really care about the issue.
Explore how your students can raise their voices against genocide with our teaching idea, "Responding with Humanity." It will help you discuss genocide with your class, explore past and present instances of mass atrocities, and consider ways that individuals, communities, and governments can respond.
Photo Credit: Associated Press