Conference organizer Rich Hitchens explained the goal of the conference was to raise awareness about the ongoing troubles in Darfur, and to present ways for people to get involved.
“We are hearing from a slew of outstanding scholars and a slew of activists on how you can put knowledge into action,” he said.
“This is something I knew very little about,” said first-year media, information and technoculture student Tawnia Rousseau. “Personal interest made me want to come to educate myself and see what I could do to help.”
Although the international community has said ‘never again’ to genocide after the Holocaust, governments’ inaction to stop the genocide in Darfur proves otherwise, said Alain Goldschlager, director of the Holocaust Literature Research Institute.
“‘Never again’ becomes a sentence for people who are inactive. ‘Never again’ becomes ‘I don’t care.’ We have no excuse for what’s happening in our world,” he said.
“There is an implication once a genocide is declared, nations have an obligation, if they can’t prevent, to punish,” said keynote speaker Dr. Gerald Caplan, a Canadian authority on genocide and genocide prevention.
When the United States declared the Darfur crisis a genocide, which was the first time they publicly recognized genocide while it was happening, it was thought the Americans would be obligated to intervene.
“It was as if the work genocide activists had done after Rwanda was completely useless. They thought it would mitigate vigorous action. You could say the most extreme thing about it and have no action,” Caplan said.
William Miles, professor of political science at Northeastern University, argued using the word ‘genocide’ does count. “Our sensitivity to the use of the word can galvanize public opinion and political will,” he said.
The use of the word triggers memory and consciousness of other genocides, helping to spur political will and public opinion, Miles said. He cited his study, which found increased usage of the word ‘genocide’ and increased interest in the number of people paying attention to the events in the media.
From the international perspective, Scott Strauss, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, believes we are far from both an effective military response and a coherent response on the international scale.
Strauss sees the Responsibility to Protect as the only policy framework that could lead to intervention.
Under the Responsibility to Protect, if a government is not protecting its citizens, it forfeits its right to do so, and the world has a moral obligation to intervene, said speaker Frank Chalk, professor at Concordia University, considered one of the pioneers of genocide study.
“State sovereignty is not a license to kill,” he said.
Peter Langille, political science professor at Western, believes the United Nations needs to provide incentives and disincentives to spur political will, although it does not have the financial capacity on its own. “Given the contentious nature of R2P, we could and should be doing something better.”
A January 2005 report also found the Sudan government responsible for serious actions against human rights, conducted in a widespread and systematic basis, he said.
“The government of Sudan is intent on sabotaging the African Union’s ability to protect its citizens,” Chalk said.
For example, the Sudanese government created an artificial shortage of Jet A1 fuel to curtail food drops during the famine season, he said.
The AU has sent 4,000-person peacekeeping force into Darfur, a total that Caplan said is not trivial but insufficient. The AU was prepared to send 7,000 troops but could not get any funding from the West.
The AU does not have the logistical, weapon, or resource capacity to stop the genocide, and can only function in the basis of Western aid, Caplan added.
Member of Parliament David Kilgour noted there is a lack of political will, an ignorance in the complexity of Africa, a fear of sending troops into the conflict, and blatant racism in the West preventing a meaningful response to the genocide.
The lecturers also offered solutions for individuals to spur government intervention.
Activist and speaker Dr. Norman Epstein, co-founder of Canadians Against Slavery and Torture in Sudan, believes it is important to raise public awareness and lobby the Canadian government to take international leadership to stop the suffering in Sudan.
“Canada has the capacity to be a moral superpower. If an MP receives five letters it becomes an issue.
“Believe you can make a difference. I’m just an ordinary person . . . but it gives meaning to your life,” Epstein said.
Caplan described how Tony Lake, U.S. international security advisor in the Clinton White House, said the Americans did not take action during the Rwandan genocide because the phones never rang. If the government thinks the public is apathetic, it will not intervene because it won’t risk losing votes.
“Our job is to make the phones ring,” Caplan said.