“Genocide: Pathways & Passages”: Reflections from the April 2014 Inaugural Conference

On April 3rd and 4th, 2014, Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights (CGHR) hosted its inaugural international conference, Genocide: Pathways and Passages. Over 30 participants and moderators from across Rutgers University as well as other organizations from around the world took part in the two day event. The conference’s theme coincided with CGHR's 2014 focal theme and the focus of its UNESCO Chair in Genocide Prevention. The emphasis was in keeping with the Center’s spotlight on critical genocide studies even as it openly engages issues like prevention and forms of mass violence that might normally fall outside the umbrella of genocide studies.

The theme of pathways and passages was intentionally inflected broadly to encompass the myriad of issues that encompass critical genocide studies. These topics include, for example, the historical and sociopolitical paths from which genocide emerges, the routes genocide takes once it has begun, and the post-conflict trajectories undertaken as individuals and societies seek a way forward in the aftermath.

The conference began on the evening of April 3rd with the two thematic discussions. The first, “Genocide, Narrative, and the Arts,” featured comments by Krzysztof Czyżewski, the Co-Founder and President of the Borderland Foundation in Poland. In 1990, called to action by the possibilities afforded by the collapse of Communism, Mr. Czyżewski founded the Borderland Foundation as an innovative institution devoted to memorializing, rebuilding, and sustaining the rich cultural diversity in Central and Eastern Europe that was nearly destroyed by two world wars.

The second part of the evening emphasized similarities between the genocide committed during the Ottoman Empire and the ongoing civilian-directed atrocities taking place in Syria. Ms. Thea Halo, President of the Sano Themia Halo Pontian Heritage Foundation, presented her work on “The Genocide of the Ottoman Greeks 1913-1923: Myths and Facts,” also the subject of her book, Not Even My Name. Next, following a presentation by Ms. Nela Navarro, the Assistant Director/Director of Education of CGHR, about the experiences of Syrian refugees living in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, attendees were treated to a performance of traditional Syrian music by the Aleppian Music Ensemble.

The conference on Friday, April 4th featured four panels, all covering a range of themes within critical genocide studies. The first panel entitled, “Time and Place,” featured discussions about the identification of precursors in World War I that led to the mass atrocities committed during the second world war (by Dr. Manus Midlarsky and Dr. Elizabeth Midlarksy); the shift over time in survivor perceptions of the genocides in both Rwanda and Burundi (by Dr. Bert Ingelaere); and the different ways the histories of North American indigenous populations are represented in four American museums (Ms. Amy Fagin).

The second panel focused on blockages and flows of genocidal memory and covered topics including the impact of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC)’s trials within survivor communities (by Dr. Laura McGrew); a literary deconstruction of the novel, Day, written by the political activist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel (by Dr. Thomas La Pointe); and the importance of conducting more research into phenomenon of mass atrocity—specifically why perpetrators of genocide do not merely kill their victims outright but consistently use torturous and inhuman methods to do so (by Dr. Edward Weisband).

Panel number three emphasized the myriad of “Shades of Grey” that accompany the legacy of genocide. Presentations were given on the “The Pathways of Accountability and the Rule of Law in Cambodia” (Dr. John Ciorciari and Ms. Anne Heindel); “Shades of Life and Death: Biopolitics and Liminality of Wartime Rape (Dr. Makiko Oku); and “A Railroad’s Pathway: A Question of Corporate Accountability in the Aftermath of Mass Violence” (Ms. Sarah Federman).

Students from Professor Hinton’s graduate class on Genocide: Laura Cohen, Lynette Sieger, Adassa Richardson, and Shannon Bilder (left to right)The conference’s final panel celebrated the life and work of Dr. Raphael Lemkin, creator of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the crime of GenocideMr. Thomas Lannon opened the discussion with his comments about the provenance of the Raphael Lemkin Archives as well as both their historical significance and scholarly importance to current and future scholars. Four students from Professor Alexander Hinton’s graduate class on Genocide in the Division of Global Affairs discussed the research they conducted in the Lemkin Archives held at the New York Public Library. Each of the students presented her case study in the unique pecha kucha format—using just 20 slides shown for 20 seconds each, for a total of six minutes and forty seconds.

Afterwards, Dr. Donna-Lee Frieze discussed the intricacies involved in Lemkin’s tireless efforts to lobby United Nations member state politicians to support the Genocide Convention, which was ultimately adopted on 10 December 1948, just a single day after passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The panel concluded with musings by the visual artist and sculptor, Ms. Nancy Steinson, who was one of Lemkin’s research assistants, followed by a brief clip of the forthcoming documentary film, Watchers of the Sky. The film, “interweaves four stories of remarkable courage, compassion, and determination, while setting out to uncover the forgotten life of Lemkin.”

Interspersed throughout the day were impromptu readings of cinquains, a distinctive style of poetry created by Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914). Crapsey’s poetry uses rhythm and meter innovatively in poems featuring five lines or 22 syllables. Using the didactic cinquain, a variation of Crapsey’s model, several students in Professor Hinton’s graduate course presented poems inspired by their research in the Lemkin Archives. These mini poetry readings took place spontaneously. The purpose was to destabilize the traditional setting of an academic conference by arousing the curiosity and concern of the attendees while also throwing the proceedings somewhat off-balance—a small yet symbolic representation of the sense of dislocation that genocide survivors face in their everyday lives.

By all means, the CGHR conference was a success, judging by the engaging question and answer sessions following each panel as well as the spirited discussions that took place throughout the day. Most importantly, the conference raised important questions and shed valuable insights  about how the legacy of genocide is not just about the numbers of people killed and why scholars, experts, and activists must continue to problematize and interrogate the vast repercussions left in its wake.

Podcasts from the event (forthcoming)

Division of Global Affairs
Rutgers Newark Alumni Association
Office of the Dean, FASN
Student Association of Global Affairs
Documentation Center of Cambodia
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Center for Peace, Justice and Reconciliation, Bergen Community College
CGHR UNESCO Chair in Genocide Prevention