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A group of people stand around a hole in the ground where one person squats with a bowl.
People gather around a hole being dug in search of water in Darfur, Sudan, in 2004. AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Can mass atrocities be prevented? This course attempts to answer the question

Text saying: Uncommon Courses, from The Conversation

Uncommon Courses is an occasional series from The Conversation U.S. highlighting unconventional approaches to teaching.

Title of course:

“Introduction to Genocide Studies”

What prompted the idea for the course?

Many genocide classes take a historical view, spending a lot of time on the Holocaust or Cambodia’s Killing Fields. As a scholar-practitioner in the field of atrocities prevention and human rights, I wanted something that would make clear to students that mass atrocities – genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing – are not just in the past, but are very much happening in the present.

By exploring recent and ongoing mass atrocities in places such as Syria, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Yemen, students are able to better connect to the material once they realize that these issues have happened during their lifetimes, not decades or centuries ago.

Between exploring recent mass atrocities and focusing on U.S. foreign policy, I try to keep the course grounded in a way that makes some of these abstract concepts much more tangible.

What does the course explore?

The course starts off by exploring the definitions of mass atrocities and the associated crimes, how their definitions are similar and different from one another, and constraints within international law.

We review several case studies of mass atrocities. Students also learn about successes and failures of different intervention tactics, everything from peacekeeping to sanctions to military intervention. And we discuss efforts to seek justice, including international tribunals like the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, national court systems and the International Criminal Court.

A crowd gathers around a pile of sacks containing food.
Refugees from the Rwanda genocide in 1994 get food at a refugee camp in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, then known as Zaire. AP Photo/Javier Bauluz

We then explore the ethical principle called “responsibility to protect,” committed to in a United Nations agreement in 2015, including its first test with the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. Individual governments are responsible for preventing their citizens from experiencing genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. However, if a government is unable or unwilling to protect its people, then the international community must do so.

We also look at the modern-day global anti-genocide movement and efforts to prevent mass atrocities, including by sanctions – though there is little evidence to suggest they work – and military intervention, which is quite rare.

Then we discuss U.S. foreign policy efforts, including the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018, which made it the policy of the United States to “regard the prevention of atrocities as in its national interest.” We also discuss the development of a governmentwide strategy to prevent and respond to mass atrocities around the world.

I’ve found that students appreciate learning about what the U.S. government is and is not doing to confront mass atrocities.

The course culminates with a group presentation and individual research into an ongoing mass atrocity situation. After they complete their projects, students often make comments like “I had no idea this was happening” or “I can’t believe I never heard about this before.”

Why is this course relevant now?

Unfortunately, this course will likely be relevant for years to come as mass atrocities continue to occur in several places around the world. The ongoing atrocities in Ukraine and genocide against the Uyghurs in China show how intractable these issues are when a powerful nation is the one committing atrocities.

What’s a critical lesson from the course?

The United States has been accused of complicity in the commission of war crimes in Yemen through its continued support of violence committed by Saudi Arabia and allied forces. This provides an example of how the U.S. does not always play a positive role on the international stage.

What materials does the course feature?

  • The documentary “Watchers of the Sky” provides the students with a strong background on the topic of mass atrocities. It discusses the creation of the term “genocide” in 1944, and explores key examples, including the Nuremberg trials in the wake of World War II and more recent efforts by the International Criminal Court.

  • Chapters from Scott Straus’ “Fundamentals of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention” provide a great overview of some key topics.

  • David Moshman’s 2001 paper “Conceptual constraints on thinking about genocide,” which discusses how not all genocides will resemble the Holocaust. It is important to know that a situation may fit the definition of genocide – intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group – without employing death camps and gas chambers.

What will the course prepare students to do?

I believe the course provides my students with tangible ways they can get more involved in atrocities prevention advocacy and programs.

They also learn how to research U.S. legislation that is relevant to genocide, contact members of Congress, write op-eds and create fact sheets.

By giving assignments like this, in addition to more traditional papers, my students learn how to effectively engage in human rights advocacy, even in a small way.

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