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Commentary: Genocide: "Why Does 'Never Again' Happen Again?"

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 2, 2010 - On Feb. 19-20, 24 high school students from 11 area high schools gathered in an attempt to find a cohesive resolution to genocide. The conference, "Why Does Never Again Happen Again," was sponsored by Active Citizen360. Students submitted the articles below to The Beacon.

The Discussion

By Katharine Joiner

While students had no problem talking about genocide, the core issues of the discussion were how to define genocide and how to intervene in the event of genocide. Some students felt superpowers such as the United States and Europe have a responsibility to stop genocide, while others said a country's sovereignty is undeniable.

"Once a country allows millions of people to be killed, to me, their sovereignty is irrelevant. Someone has to be held accountable," said Maria DiPaola, a senior at Lindbergh High school.

In keeping with the spirit of the United Nations, several students made the point that a country's right to resist external power is irrevocable. One basis for discussion came from proposed anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda, which include a clause stating those found to be gay can receive the death penalty.

"Uganda's laws against homosexuality may seem wrong to us, but 96 percent of [Uganda] agrees with the proposed laws. We can't enforce our own beliefs on a country, especially when the U.S. isn't completely accepting of gays," said Margaux Bavlsik, a junior at Lindbergh.

Trying to establish the definition of genocide proved to be another obstacle. Some felt genocide doesn't exist until people are killed while others said genocide can be as simple as a difference in treatment of two groups of people.

Other students noted that determining when to intervene was made more difficult because of the problems with even defining genocide.

"Anti-homosexuality laws are a start [that could lead to killing a class of people]. But how do we know it's going to result in genocide? How do we prevent [genocide] if we don't know the start?" said Neda Hazemi, a junior at Parkway West High school.

"Genocide can be degrading people, not just physically killing them," said Elizabeth Sullivan, a junior at Eureka High School. "Not only looking at people like they're nothing, but making them feel like nothing."

In trying to agree on a definition, several students said bullying could be the root of genocide and should be addressed as a preventative measure to future generations.

"I can see the relation between the two. When you make people feel like they're nothing, you can take advantage. It's the beginning of dehumanization on a smaller scale," said DiPaola

"Genocide and bullying can't be in the same category because bullying is inevitable. People are insecure so it's human nature to bully. People don't have to wipe each other out. It takes mature nation to know not to kill," said Micha LeNeave, a junior at Webster Groves High school.

One student felt concentrating on semantics is the source disconnect between nations.

"By trying to define genocide, we're only going to create more problems," said Morgan Burke, a home schooled student.

The conference reflected a realistic United Nations summit: In trying to address or resolve one issue, a floodgate of new problems and dilemmas surfaced. When frustration became apparent among the students, the adult facilitators of the discussion offered encouragement.

"If anyone feels like we aren't getting anywhere, we are," said Gloria Bilchik, a member of Active Citizen 360. From the difficulty of trying to find a resolution sprung the idea of breaking the students into smaller groups with a defined focus on core issues that included intervention, healing for survivors and perpetrators and educating others about genocide.

Some students brought the factor of human nature into the discussion.

"It's time for countries to set aside thoughts of self and help other countries regardless of what it will do for them and I think other nations will follow," said Johanna Klein, a junior at Fox High school.

The students created a plan of action with a five-step process of goals, actions, resources, commitment and accountability, which became the Coalition for Coexistence. The coalition is headed by several students from the conference and will have its first meeting March 6.

"We didn't come to a definite conclusion. We always came back to the issue of how much to involve ourselves and when to intervene," said Sullivan.


By Jenny Starrs

One of the smaller committees was devoted to discussing intervention in cases of genocide.

Global accountability is one of the main concepts that students felt needed to be incorporated into our world to promote swift and just genocide intervention. They felt that if the many different cultures and societies of the world were united to each other, and felt empathy for those in painful situations, even if they were halfway across the world, more people would feel compelled to act.

Another idea was quite revolutionary, and one that many students disagreed upon: Would acting not for our best interests change the world for the better, or the worse? By placing people's wellbeing and what is morally right over countries' -- specifically superpowers' -- economic interests, we would be turning the world upside down.

That brought up the question of whether the world needs to be turned upside for intervention against international genocide to be possible. Neither the students in the committee, nor in the whole conference, could come up with a consensus answer for this dilemma.

The main idea was that serious changes are needed in the United Nations for any real progress to be made in stopping genocides worldwide. The U.N. needs to be made more effective, students agreed, and have power in times of turmoil as well as peace.

Students also agreed that, currently, international interference is coming too late to protect the people in the middle of a genocide, and that the U.N. needs to intervene before a genocide gets to the point of total destruction. While rebuilding and reconciling after a genocide is important, it is just as important to try to end the conflict sooner. Among the ideas for reconstructing the U.N., were opening the Security Council to other, smaller nations to give them more power, and molding the U.N. into more of a regional-international organization, so that combined international and domestic influence can be placed on violent conflicts like genocide, and so that more on-the-ground action can be taken.

For peace to be possible, action must be taken, and soon. Every day that world leaders waste condemning conflicts, but never acting on their condemnations, is another opportunity for thousands more to be killed.


By Lucy Short

The conference on genocide was eye-opening, inspiring and draining.

After having much discussion as a group, we split into committees. I chose to join the Healing Committee. As the smallest group of only four, we decided that healing was not only necessary for victims -- or survivors, as we chose to call them -- but the perpetrators as well.

Time and time again, we came back to the issue of letting go. It's a vital step of the healing process. But how exactly does one forgive another for killing his or her family? When is it time to move on? Is affirmative action necessary? How should the perpetrators go about apologizing?

Honestly, we four teenagers had no idea. But we spent our Friday night and Saturday morning trying to make sense of it all.

As a middle-class white girl, I was kind of afraid to bring up the topic of affirmative action. I didn't want to appear insensitive or self-centered. Knowing that the weekend was all about pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones, I forced myself to address the issue.

I questioned the efficacy of affirmative action in the 21st century. I wondered if it made minority children think less of themselves. I attested to the fact that my white peers were angered by the advantage minority students have when applying to college. I've said all of this before and upset classmates and family members, but I needed to put it out there. I was relieved that someone who wasn't white agreed with me.

Katharine Joiner, a senior at Lindbergh High School, described affirmative action as a "crutch." She admitted that, at times, it was helpful, but most of the time some minority students use it as an excuse not to try. In addition, Abigail Henderson, a senior at Fox High School suggested affirmative action based on socio-economic class, as opposed to race. We couldn't help but notice the hypocrisy involved with telling a nation not to judge a person based on his or her race and proceeding to set expectations for its citizens based on their race.

America is more than white and black. With our complex lineage, it's hard to tell whose ancestors have or have not suffered. Modern disadvantages have a lot to do with wealth, or lack thereof. For the sake of future generations and a chance at equality, it's time, we decided, to move on.

As a group, we came to the conclusion that it is nearly impossible to forget the horrible acts of genocide. Having said that, it is impossible for a country to be healthy if its citizens cannot forgive one another.

In the United States, an apology would not be meaningful at this point. We decided that if a genocide is far enough back in a country's history, it becomes too messy to require the nation's apology. The nation should, however, issue a public acknowledgement. It needs to admit its wrongdoings and address a plan to avoid such catastrophes in the future (a mission statement, if you will.)

So where do we begin? We decided to develop a student-run student awareness group. We're calling it the Coalition for Coexistence. Initially, we plan to visit classrooms in the St. Louis area and talk to kids about tolerance, or rather how intolerance leads to violence, specifically genocide. Eventually, our goal is to become a worldwide movement for coexistence. In the meantime, we're trying to get noticed.

It's time for change. It's time to move on.


By Martha Orlet

As the discussion continued into Saturday, one resolution stood out among the rest: Education will lead to prevention.

The idea of educating the public on the origin and significance of genocide had existed throughout the meeting, an idea that was discussed in one of the three small break out groups. Targeting the roots of genocide through awareness became more apparent as the discussion moved into the final part of the meeting -- students wanted to explore ways of raising awareness in their communities and in state politics.

An idea was proposed that an organization of teenagers could teach the history and importance of genocide to grade school students as a way of educating the community. Soon, every student attending the meeting had volunteered to be part of this new organization deemed the "Coalition for Coexistence."

First priority: stepping into the classroom. The coalition's main goal would be to replace apathy with empathy; as other goals for the newly formed committee were brainstormed and discussed, students agreed that the coalition should start in the local schools. A huge aspect of extinguishing apathy came from getting people, particularly younger students, involved in understanding and stopping genocide.

If the coalition's main purpose should be to lead the community in genocide awareness, students thought that the way to harness their ability to impact others as high school students was to talk to those that would value their opinion as youth of St. Louis. Students could be teaching students about simple issues like bullying in the classroom, and bringing into light how this small meanness fits into the greater spectrum of genocide.

The Coalition for Coexistence has only begun. As involvement spreads and ideas grow, students hope to bring state legislators into the program to expand its influence. Although the group is small, the ambition is growing.

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