World needs to get proactive on genocide, says museum executive

Posted: May 2, 2011 in Comment
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By Dan Pine Thursday, April 28, 2011

To Mike Abramowitz, the Shoah was one shoah too many. That’s why the former Washington Post reporter now heads the Committee on Conscience, established by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. His mission: alert the world to emerging crimes against humanity, wherever they may take place.

With the lessons of the Holocaust never far from his thoughts, on his radar today are places such as Darfur and the Congo, where atrocities continue unabated.

“If you wait until something is determined to be genocide, you’ve waited too long,” said Abramowitz, who recently wrapped a string of Bay Area speaking engagements, including the Walk Against Genocide. “One of the challenges is to focus on issues where you really think there is a risk of wholesale targeting of groups.”

The Committee on Conscience first raised the alarm over Darfur long before it became an international cause celebre. It partnered with Google Earth for a mapping initiative that allowed more than 200 million people to see evidence of genocide there, and also convened numerous conferences across the country to found the Save Darfur Coalition.

In 2007 the committee created the Genocide Prevention Task Force, co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, which created a blueprint for policymakers. And it opened a genocide exhibit, “From Memory to Action,” at the Holocaust Museum itself.

“The museum was very much ahead of the curve,” Abramowitz said, adding, “There’s been an enormous amount of humanitarian assistance and huge diplomatic efforts over the years to resolve the [Darfur] crisis. The U.S. was intensively involved in trying to broker a peace deal, and now makes sure the provisions of the deal are followed.”

The Committee of Conscience first met in 1995, though museum founders mandated a genocide watchdog arm long before, when the museum was in the planning stages in the early 1980s.

Abramowitz points out that Elie Wiesel, the museum’s first chairman, turned to President Bill Clinton at the museum’s opening to urge a swift response to the unfolding disaster in Bosnia.

The world missed a chance to prevent massive bloodshed there and in Rwanda in 1994, but Abramowitz believes things have changed since then.

“In the 1990s, there were real collective failures in the world,” he said. “Many leaders took those lessons to heart. Over the last 20 years there has been a significant effort in civil society, Jewish groups and governments to try to be better about ‘Never Again.’ ”

He contrasts the initial paralysis over the Rwandan civil war, in which nearly a million died in ethnic slaughter, with the reaction to the current Libyan conflict, which saw Western nations launch military strikes to prevent a slaughter.

“Here you have a situation where the United Nations decided they were worried about massive numbers of civilians dying, and they very quickly marshaled. That’s a sign that governments are more attuned to preventing genocide.”

Abramowitz notes that his committee, for which he has served as director for the last two years, has the ear of the Obama White House. For the first time, the National Security Administration now has a full-time staffer devoted to atrocities prevention.

While his committee brings with it the moral authority of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, there are limits to what can be done, however.

“We’re not lobbyists,” Abramowitz said. “We will never say, ‘You have to have a no-fly zone in southern Sudan.’ We feel our strength is educating [policymakers] to make them care about these issues and want to do something.”

Abramowitz wanted to do something about the issue of genocide even before his stint as Washington Post White House reporter during the George W. Bush presidency. He followed closely that administration’s Darfur policies.

He pointed out that most people don’t know that the former president cared very deeply about the slaughter in Sudan.

“It was an issue that consumed Bush a lot,” Abramowitz said, “and he was frustrated by his inability to affect positive change there.”

Abramowitz worked as a Post reporter for 24 years. He grew up in the D.C. area, the son of a diplomat father and a community-activist mother. He attributes much of his own activist impulses to the “osmosis” of his Jewish upbringing.

One region the committee does not focus on much is the Middle East. Though Israel is often accused of committing genocide against the Palestinians, Abramowitz says that is a “total misuse of the word.”

The committee does, however, have a goal of examining countries where anti-Jewish sentiment is overt and rampant in the highest levels of government.

“We want to ramp up our actions around state-sponsored anti-Semitism, which has the potential to lead to mass violence, and also Holocaust denial, which is a huge problem,” Abramowitz said.

That last issue brings the committee and the museum back to its original purpose: remembering the Holocaust that gave rise to the institution.

Said Abramowitz, “We believe we are honoring the victims and survivors of the Holocaust in many ways — by preserving memory, by educating, by strengthening research and by doing what we can to prevent these crimes from ever happening again.”


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