Irina Tsukerman
Irina Tsukerman

The Lemkin Summit: Shifting the Conversation on Addressing Genocide and Mass Atrocities

I had the honor of spending this weekend in DC where I participated in  The Lemkin Summit focused on preventing genocide and mass atrocities in DRC, Sudan, and South Sudan. The Summit was organized by the Jewish World Watch, which was started by a rabbi in reaction to the repeated threat of genocides, and which partners with local communities on the ground in developing responses – and by the Enough Project, which was developed by a group of Hollywood celebrities, including George Clooney. One of the Enough Project’s coolest features is a program called The Sentry, which gathers professional dossiers on corrupt government officials in these three countries, and presents them to banks, for voluntary exclusion of networks of corrupt atrocity perpetrators from benefiting from the international financial system.

The Summit is named after Raphael Lemkin, of Polish-Jewish descent, who coined the word “genocide” and initiated the Genocide Convention. Last held together two years ago, thanks to the dedication of the participants, it pushed Congress towards voting two proposed bills into law. This year, it brought hundreds of passionate individuals from all over the country and from various countries in Africa, to continue building on the momentum. The conference was a fast-paced marathon of focused panels, heartwrenching personal stories and testimonies, break out sessions, lobby trainings, and artistic/cultural/entertainment presentations, including poetry, and songs. The focus of the weekend was shifting the conversation from responding to genocides and atrocities to preventing them. Experience of recent years shows that once it gets to a certain point in a conflict or massacre, there is very little the international community can do to reverse the level of violence; rather than wasting humanitarian aid on dictators who appropriate it or have to deal with prolonged aftermath and reconstruction, it is best to invest early into effective prevention mechanisms.

The common denominator that these organizations have identified in all three cases have been corruption.  The dictators of these three states either engaged in protracted conflicts for corrupt reasons, or benefited from arms deals and other practices that contributed to the escalation, which in some cases has lasted for many years.  Along with networks of facilitators, and various criminal groups and terrorists, these old school despots have relied on the international banks to funnel cash out of their countries, which made these failed or failing states even more dependent on external financial aid, which, of course, is of little use during an ongoing conflict.

As a result of these wars, 65 million people have been displaced. DRC went from being one of the wealthiest countries in the world to being one of the poorest. DRC is best known for the 3Ts (minerals that are used in cell phones and laptops) and gold; the idea of utilizing conflict free gold was to avoid contributing to the unjust enrichment from the conflict, where the impoverished nation is unable to negotiate fair prices for their minerals, and instead are exploited by their own government.  The conflict bred gangs of ruthless criminals and terrorists, for whom excessive and unnecessary cruelty is just part of the daily life. Politics of sexual terror against women is likewise a well known factor in all of these conflicts, as well as the fueling of ethnic and religious tensions.

The “Save Darfur” movement at one point attracted a lot of attention to the campaign to assist, but eventually died down due to ineffectiveness. Since then, activists dedicated to the cause have learned lessons from the experience, and have come together to share best practices and avoid past mistakes. One of the major lessons learned was to borrow effective strategies from other fields, such as counterterrorism. Indeed, the idea of using financial networks to “follow the money”, and then turn this information into sanctions that would restrict the dictators and their cronies from gathering the fruit of the poisonous tree stems from security disciplines. The other important strategy is partnering with other groups such as wildlife conservationists and environmentalists, already active in those countries and having the ear of the appropriate government officials, as well as business people who seek to minimize business risk stemming from investing in or partnering with entities tainted by their associations with war criminals and human rights violators.

What was left unsaid, but what I personally observed from just being there is that there has been a visible shift in the strategy from mass rallies, benefit concerns, and social media campaigns to a low key focused campaign of a core group of activists with legislative missions and consistent follow ups. These activists, be they well-meaning students with some extra time on their hands, or professionals from immigration communities, human rights lawyers, and educators or others are passionate and dedicated, serious, and have or are willing to acquire the skill sets to to take up the relevant and meaningful tasks. I was very encouraged and energized to see so many college and grad students, who were there, who were involved, who asked intelligent questions, had interesting conversations and were looking to move forward in specific, constructive, and mature way.

And there were plenty of mentors and guides there to help them through the process. The conference was well organized, with great flow, good discipline, and no incidents or fall outs of any kind. I thought that it was a fantastic model for getting young people involved in meaningful causes that will help them channel their energy into helping others in a way that is thoughtful, beneficial, and helps them grow.  There was not a minute of wasted energy or anyone being dehumanized or hated. Most of the energy was really positive and centered on the goal at hand, and people were very respectful to each other. We had plenty of time to mingle among ourselves, but also were broken up into small groups, mostly by state, that would later lobby members of House and Senate offices about the appropriate action relevant to the issues of sanctions imposition and enforcement.  People had very different backgrounds and reasons for getting involved, and yet it never got hostile or awkward – on the contrary, we were all interested in learning from one another. I got a chance to be the group lead, which was a very special and interesting experience.

There were several things that struck me during the course of the conference: every African participant had a great deal of dignity, and none of the passive victim mentality of people who had no control over their destiny. One lady from DRC had polio when she was two, which, she said, was considered to be shameful by her family. THen, later on, she wanted to go to school, but it was too far, and for a girl, it was rather unusual, but her mother, despite the effects of her illness, and all other factors, loved her so much that she would carry her to school on her back.  In another instance, a man who is now writing a book called ” From the Jungle to the White House”, told the story of having his village attacked, 47 members of his family killed without ever getting on the news, and he himself was scalped and was the only one to survive the attack. Now he uses his voice to meet the people in power and to draw attention to the massive ongoing violence. And yet in another heartbreaking story, there was a tough lesson learned when humanitarian aid dispensers would ask women, who were frequently left to be heads of the households, about the number of members of the household, and the women would give numbers higher than the actual observed children living with them. As it turns out, when asked how many people they had, the women were counting all the children that were actually born to them, rather than just the survivors.

There were several interesting key points that these grassroots activists raised that were well worth the travel to DC:

  • First, they acknowledged the difficulty of changing the system, where the corruption is entrenched, and where there is a line of power-hungry ambitious rivals waiting should the current dictators be taken out.  The violent tactics have become ingrained into the culture, while the social institutions have been controlled and subverted by the governments. Therefore, they said that the best thing to do is to empower microlocal grassroots activists groups who empower individuals and deal with smaller controllable issues, and who, with time, can influence bigger organizations, and much later get to the level of the African Union, which has been largely ineffective in dealing with internal issues.
  • Solutions to local problems cannot be imposed from outside. International organizations can come and partner, and support local efforts, but in the end, people with the stake in their communities, are the “experts” on their own problems, and will know better how to resolve them. They should be taking the initiative, whereas the international community should be there for encouragement, access to resources, and connections to leverages of power, who can assist through relevant laws.
  • There was a story of one woman who once sent in $10 as a contribution and years later, wrote a letter asking about what happened with her money. The local leader insisted on answering the letter personally and explained that although he could not account for that particular $10, over all, stipends of approximately $25 would sponsor a student, and other money would go towards classrooms where teachers had to rely on discarded cardboard from boxes with humanitarian aid to use as chalkboards, and other such basics. Not longer after his response, his organization was contacted by the woman’s lawyers, who told him that she was so moved that she insisted on sending them a check of $3000/year for as long as she lived.
  • Several African activists demonstrated how what gets no coverage or interest in the US news is actually central to the African geopolitical considerations. I asked a NSC Director of African Affairs what can be done about state actor facilitators of violence, such as China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar, who all do business in those countries, and engage in arms trade, arm militias, or do extremely corrupt deals that add to the internal issues. She suggested using the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act’s anti-corruption provisions to go after the relevant government officials of those states, as well as their networks. But the activists followed up by explaining how the African Union is failing to deal with these hegemons, who are either making mischief or altogether colonizing Africa through their practices leaving no chance to empowerment by the locals on any level. While there was no immediate answer to that effect, I am looking forward to exploring that issue in depth.

Overall, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience, and I am very happy and honored to have been able to participate. I recommend that in the future anyone interested in those countries, or the general lessons that can be learned in genocide prevention should consider applying and participating. It was thought-provoking, engaging and rewarding, and I was very inspired to be surrounded by so many different people, with courage, determination, and moral clarity to be doing something actionable and helpful to solve problems, instead of just complaining about them or otherwise pursuing a destructive course of action for the sake of good intentions.  By the way,, kudos to the Hollywood actors, who are actually doing something useful and important for a change and are in fact putting their money where their mouth is. I hope to see much more of this and much less of random moralizing on TV in the future. The best way to lead is by an example of actually helping people. Getting into fights with politicians won’t get the job done.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.