Tag Archives: STAND

Finding a Niche in Atrocity Prevention

25 Jun

*This post originally appeared on The Center for the Prevention of Genocide’s blog.

I got involved with STAND during my freshman year at Swarthmore. The experiences I had and the people I met through that organization have motivated me to work professionally on atrocity prevention. I graduated from Swarthmore last Sunday, and it seems appropriate to take a moment to reflect, not only on my time in STAND, but also on what my experiences mean for others who could follow a similar path.

I came into college vaguely knowing I wanted to do something with social justice and international issues. Growing up with stories of my family’s experience during the Holocaust had sensitized me to notions of human rights. Still, I ended up joining STAND, in part, because Swarthmore didn’t have an Amnesty International chapter, and at first I didn’t see my participation in the organization as potentially transformative.

A few months later, I went to my first of many national conferences in Washington, D.C.  That conference, and subsequent ones I attended, were important for a few reasons. National conferences, for me, were always times to meet new people and reconnect with old friends who shared my interests. There’s never much sleep involved, and while conferences are nominally about atrocity prevention, they were also the most intense social periods of my college experience. Although the social aspect is the most apparent in the moment, with the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see that it was not just the people but the opportunity to engage intellectually with new ideas that made conferences such landmark experiences. Before that first conference, I had never encountered so much in-depth information or such a myriad of opinions about atrocity prevention. That exposure prompted me to learn more about these issues so that I was better able to participate in debates on policy options and advocacy strategies.

The creation of a social network and the exposure to new ideas through conferences were the first steps in my involvement with STAND, but a few other developments led eventually to my membership in STAND’s national managing committee. First, I happened to develop social relationships with many of the students in STAND leadership roles and found that I often had a lot in common with them. So, in a way, becoming a part of STAND’s leadership was a social endeavor. Within this social network, I was also fortunate enough to find a few mentors, particularly former national director Daniel Solomon. These mentors not only steered my engagement with STAND; they also helped expose me to the broader intellectual and organizational landscapes of the atrocity prevention community. Finally, my Swarthmore education increasingly provided me with the ability and the interest to evaluate policy and advocacy-based arguments and come up with ones of my own.

During my junior year, I applied to be STAND’s student policy analyst and was, fortunately, accepted. In this role, I created my personal blog, The Widening Lens, for which I’m still writing today, and was compelled to create a Twitter account. These two platforms allowed me to formulate in-depth opinions and to communicate with a much wider audience than I had previously within STAND.

The summer before my senior year, I interned with the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention, which gave me my first real exposure to academic research on mass atrocities. I also served that year as STAND’s national policy coordinator. I learned quite a bit about the professional atrocity prevention world, how to manage a task force, and the challenges of creating long-term strategies for an advocacy organization.  Because of the interest I had cultivated (with the help of others) in atrocities prevention, I decided to write my thesis on civilian self-protection during mass atrocities. While the thesis itself is finished, I hope to continue working on this aspect of the issue in the future.

It would be easy to look back on my journey from a college freshman who enjoyed learning about international politics and human rights to someone intending to work professionally in atrocity prevention and see a path that was practically predetermined, but college could easily have had a different effect on me. Certainly, certain factors predisposed me to atrocity prevention work. I am from a highly educated family with a social science focus and went to an elite school. My family history gave me a personal connection to the issue of mass killing. And I had enough time between work and school to participate deeply in STAND.

Still, other things could have easily derailed this progression. Without conferences—and Swarthmore funding to get to them—I would not have had ready access to such a range of people and ideas. I also quickly ran up against a lack of realistic engagement opportunities in STAND. Organizing events on Swarthmore’s campus didn’t create change, and I could lobby members of Congress, usually unsuccessfully, only so often. Had mentors not provided an intellectual outlet for thinking about long-term atrocity prevention, I probably would have lost interest. Finally, if my involvement with STAND hadn’t put me in contact with individuals and organizations working professionally on atrocity prevention, I still would have enjoyed my time in STAND, but, like so many other things, I probably would have seen it as an activity that ended at graduation.

Lots of students are drawn to organizations focused on human rights or international affairs, but that interest doesn’t always lead them to pursue related careers. Many slip through the cracks. I sincerely believe this doesn’t have to be the case. I was fortunate enough to have people like Daniel Solomon in STAND and Shervin Malekzadeh at Swarthmore identify me as a dedicated individual and help foster my intellectual maturation. STAND is already shifting toward increased intentionality in moving students up the ladder of engagement. If professional organizations working in this field want a larger population of well-qualified potential employees, they should look to do the same.

As Swarthmore Gets to You, Articles Become Thoughts of the Day

16 Nov

Between organizing a conference, going to a lecture, working tonight, that physics problem set that I probably should have started, promising my girlfriend to see Skyfall with her tomorrow, the intramural soccer finals this weekend, and working on the Swarthmore SPJP divestment campaign, I’m a little bogged down.  Therefore, the piece on Syria, intervention, and R2P that I planned to finish today isn’t going to happen.  In lieu of a real piece, I want to quickly sketch out an idea that came into my head a few weeks ago.

In Bec Hamilton’s book, Fighting for Darfur, the author outlines how advocates were able to use the Olympics as a way to pressure China to stop supporting the Sudanese government in Khartoum.  While China is generally oblivious to human rights criticisms from the West, the Olympics were its one moment of weakness.  China hoped to present itself as a modern nation that respected basic human rights, and its dealings in Sudan contradicted that carefully cultivated image.   Sustained pressure directed toward Steven Spielberg, the director of the opening ceremonies, eventually caused his resignation.  This sustained media campaign that highlighted Chinese support of abuses in Darfur eventually slightly shifted China’s position concerning Sudan in the UN.

Fortunately, dumb luck has presented civilian protection advocates with an almost identical opportunity.  The 2014 Olympics will be hosted in Sochi, Russia.  And I’m sure almost everyone’s made the link by this point in the article, but Russia is Syria’s main supporter in the UN.  Similarly, Russia tends to be immune to criticism regarding its human rights records, but the Olympics are a legitimizing experience for any government, and no country wants the collective memory of its games to be dominated by negative associations.  It may be hard to find as clear a target as Steven Spielberg, but once advocates do find an entry point, they should jump on it.  Pressuring Russia over the Olympics won’t end the violence in Syria, and advocates should continue to use other strategies.  However, it could affect Russia’s policy for the better, so why not give it a go?

Why We Need Dissension in the Anti-Genocide Movement

29 Oct

The people that make up the anti-genocide constituency are a diverse group with a wide array of opinions on the best ways to prevent mass atrocities.  While this amazing wealth of knowledge could be used to create new, innovative strategies, dogmatic, top-down policy making blunts its potential.  While approaches differ from organization to organization, the anti-genocide movement as a whole generally doesn’t value dissent as a form of self-improvement and it is both a huge loss for the movement and for those that stand to benefit from robust anti-genocide policies.  As a member of STAND that has always been outside of the official leadership structure but still interested in policy, I have been frustrated with the lack of formal opportunities to engage with policy, and hope that we can do better together in the future.

While top-down policy making models are more efficient in quickly developing a coherent policy, it leaves the organizations members uninvolved and uniformed.  Especially for student groups, the opportunity to participate in policy making is crucial.  As it stands, however, non-MC members (I can’t speak for the MC) spend very little time at conferences actually discussing policy options, and it even feels awkward to bring up certain topics.  STAND has the smartest and most dedicated members I know, and they need a space to critically engage with the issues.  (However, STAND is still better at including members in policy discussions than many other similar organizations.)  If STAND, or anti-genocide groups as a whole, does not provide members with this space, members lose interest in policy and approach the issues from a more uninformed perspective.

I have a personal example of the problems that result from a lack of policy discussions.  I’m quite skeptical that CFCI is the right way to approach the DRC because I see the country’s problems as having their roots in poor governance, weak civil society, and a lack of institutions.  Resource exploitation is certainly a part of the conflict, but from my understanding, illegal extraction and exportation is a symptom, not a cause.  However, in the two years I have been in STAND, I have not had the opportunity to participate in a formal, honest discussion on CFCI’s pros and cons, nor have I heard a single voice promoted by STAND that is critical of the approach.  This deficiency of debate has prevented me from gaining a better understanding of CFCI, and it is an issue I still do not fully understand.

Dissent is a critical part of any decision making process.  Without opposing opinions, individuals and groups are not forced to improve their ideas to overcome conflicting arguments.  Advocacy organization, unfortunately, often forget this.  Human rights organization in particular are fond of advocacy toolkits, in which a small set of items supposedly provides individuals with everything they need to help a certain region of the world.  This top-down model, in which regular members have no chance to participate, fails to take advantage of the array of knowledge of the group’s constituency.  This, inevitably, leads to bad policy.  Anti-genocide organizations have a history of short-sighted, bad policy, partially due to the relative youth of the movement.  Containing policy decisions to a small group of experts or leaders, no matter their ability, will not create good policy.  We need to put our trust in our bright and numerous members, who have the ability to engage and debate these issues if they are given the chance.  Undoubtedly more debate will lead to a smaller capacity to react quickly to changes on the ground, but since working toward mass atrocities prevention is a long-term struggle, we have to adopt a model that expands and improves our organizations.

The top-down policy making that both STAND and other anti-genocide organizations are guilty of leads to a destructive cycle.  Members have no space to engage, lose interest in policy, bad policy is created, and members have no way to change the policy, bringing it full circle.  For the health of anti-genocide advocacy as a movement, we must improve our inclusion of members in policy making decisions.  Otherwise, we will keep making the same mistakes and create a smaller pool of future leaders.