Rutgers University Launches New Research Program on Genocide and Atrocity Prevention

By Lillian Hussong, Contributor


Syrian civilians in Damascus suffered a government-perpetrated chemical attack during the week of April 7, 2018, killing seventy and injuring hundreds.  Delegates from the United Nations Security Council travelled to Bangladesh during the week of April 29 to meet with Rohingyan refugees fleeing Myanmar, where they continually suffer persecution for their collective membership as an ethnic, Muslim, and forcibly-stateless group.  In Yemen, death by starvation persists in a complicated civil war and proxy war that the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said was the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

These three crises have become the foci of a new project at Rutgers University – Newark.  The Genocide & Atrocity Prevention (GAP) Program was founded in December 2017 by Professors Alexander Hinton and Nela Navarro, graduate students Lillian Hussong (PhD candidate, Global Affairs), Willa-Rae Witherow Culpepper (PhD student, Global Affairs), and Rosalia Gambino (MA candidate, English), as well as undergraduate student Veenit Singh (junior, Sociology) and recent alumna Zala Jalili.  The mission of the Genocide & Atrocity Prevention Program is “to help prevent genocide and atrocity crimes—to this end, GAP monitors and provides factual and scholarly information about emerging and ongoing situations in which genocide and atrocity crimes are taking place.”

Several questions have been addressed since GAP’s founding, including what cases to focus on, which definition(s) of genocide and/or atrocity-related crimes to use, and what audiences to consider.  The program contemplates the scholarship of Professor Alexander Hinton, whose development of critical genocide studies has deepened the debates and approaches that comprise the interdisciplinary field of genocide studies.  Dr. Hinton writes: “It is, in other words, a call for critical thinking about the field of genocide studies itself, exploring our presuppositions, decentering our biases, and throwing light on blind spots in further enriching this dynamic field.”

GAP chose three cases—Yemen, Syria, and the Rohingya Muslims—as the first set of cases to explore under the umbrella of critical genocide studies. None of these cases have been explicitly referred to as genocide by the United Nations. In Yemen, the conflict is viewed as a civil war between the government and Houthi rebels, with proxy support from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other countries. Syria is a site of both civil war and a violent campaign waged by the unrecognized, proto-governmental terrorist group Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS). The Rohingya are rendered stateless by the Burmese government, prompting the violent campaign there and subsequent flight to be labeled a refugee crisis. Yet each of these cases contain the key elements that constitute the crime of genocide. This does not necessarily mean that they are genocidal; it does suggest, however, that systematic, intentional violence occurs in each case.

There are currently 17 million people who are suffering from deliberate famine in Yemen, which has been perpetuated by Saudi Arabian involvement. Yemen is dependent on maritime imports for more than 80 percent of its food supply; however, Port Hodeidah, a key center for food and aid distribution, has been bombed and closed numerous times by Saudi officials. There have been hundreds of additional air raids on farms, markets, and food storage sites, as well as attacks by warships and helicopters on fishing vessels. World Food Programme Director David Beasley has stated that Saudi Arabia’s tactics indicate that “food is being used as a weapon of war and it’s disgraceful” as part of a larger systematic campaign.

The Syrian Civil War has entered its seventh year of conflict.  A New York Times article notes that monitoring organizations have largely stopped counting the death toll because of the complexities of the ground. The United Nations, for example, last estimated in 2016 that 400,000 people had been killed; however, the death toll was issued using 2014 data, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights ceased counting that year. To date, the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, has razed Aleppo and numerous other towns in a violent campaign including air raids and the use of barrel bombs, artillery fire, mass killings of opposition groups, torture, rape, forced disappearances, and chemical attacks.

There are approximately 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State in Myanmar who have been subjected to a violent campaign of ethnic cleansing since 2015. Evidence exists of a systematic campaign perpetrated by the Burmese military and Arakhanese Buddhists to eradicate the Rohingya including the use of rape as a weapon of sexual violence, infanticide, forced labor, and widespread destruction of villages by arson, including attacks on schools, hospitals, and mosques. Although there are no precise statistics as to how many Rohingya have been murdered, Médecins Sans Frontières notes that 9,000 Rohingya were murdered between August 25 to September 24, 2017.  Additionally, 600,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh where they live in refugee camps.

Hussong, Culpepper, and Gambino have worked on these three cases since December, largely following the legal definition provided by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide as they consider their potential audience, including UN officials, journalists, and casual readers. They have also considered the in-depth indicators found in the UN “Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes,” as well as Genocide Watch’s “10 Stages of Genocide” and Barbara Harff’s “Risk Assessment of Genocide and Politicide,” although none of the cases explicitly refer to the conflict as genocide, as that implies a legal accusation.

In preparation for the GAP website launch, designed by Singh and Jalili, the students have presented their work at the Stockton University Master of Arts in Holocaust & Genocide Studies graduate conference as well as the Rutgers University Division of Global Affairs annual conference. GAP also visited the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect in New York in March 2018, where they met with three UN officials to discuss GAP’s future and potential collaborative efforts such as lectures or workshops.

GAP expects to launch its website by summer 2018. For more information, please visit the website of the Rutgers Center for the Study of Genocide & Human Rights.


About Author: Lillian Hussong is a PhD candidate at the Rutgers Division of Global Affairs.  She holds The Simon Reich Fellowship for Research in Global Governance and serves as a Teaching Assistant.  Hussong previously earned a Master of Arts in Holocaust & Genocide Studies from Stockton University, where she taught courses on Holocaust history.  She is also an editor for H-Genocide.

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