Genocide is preventable. With that guiding principle, scholars at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, seek to do in the present what cannot be changed about the past: instill in the world an awareness of the early signs of genocide, in order to prevent the next one.
So as the world marks Thursday’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the museum is turning its attention toward the year ahead, focusing on the ongoing plight of threatened ethnic and religious populations like the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Uyghur in China. Most recently, it has also raised the alarm about the threat of genocide in the Tigray region in Ethiopia. The museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide – after issuing reports about Northwest and Southwest Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sri Lanka, South Sudan, Mali, Iraq, Syria and Bangladesh – hopes policymakers follow its lead by investigating these cases and prioritizing prevention prevention in 2022.
“Leaders of both parties in the United States have declared that preventing genocide and mass atrocities is a core national security interest,” says Lawrence Woocher, research director at the Center and overseer of the Early Warning Project, a project at the museum that works to detect early signs of mass killing.
The Daily Lives of China’s Uighurs
“It would be great to see more investment in prevention,” he adds. “That means identifying some of these cases where there are risks – but before large-scale violence is occurring – and trying to seize on these moments of opportunity to get out ahead of the potential crisis.”
The museum itself reflects the forward-looking mission in temporary exhibits. As visitors walk through its documentation of the Holocaust, they end their journey in an exhibit highlighting Rohingya stories of persecution and survival following a bloody 2017 military operation that the United Nations described as a form of genocide against the Muslim minority in Myanmar. Large portraits of refugees share stories of generations of persecution that culminated in organized attacks in 2017, during which Doctors Without Borders reports at least 9,400 Rohingya died in the first month of violence.
The museum reports that over 700,000 Rohingya have fled the country since 2017 and warns that those remaining face the risk of renewed violence after a military coup in February 2021. In 2022, the Rohingya hope to receive international recognition of the genocide, including from the US government.
“In the context of the Rohingya today, we feel that it is really important for the US government to make a finding that genocide was perpetrated against them,” says Naomi Kikoler, director of Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “It’s important because it helps to set a historical record, it can help deter future perpetrators from committing crimes, it helps to affirm the dignity of the survivors from the perspective of the survivors.”
As the museum works with survivors from the Rohingya genocide warning, the center tracks early signs elsewhere. In a report released in November, titled “To Make Us Slowly Disappear,” the center expresses its concern that genocide is currently being carried out against Uyghur Muslims in China. It cites evidence of forced sterilization, sexual violence, enslavement, torture, forcible transfer, persecution and imprisonment as driving its concern.
Another essay from the Center focuses on similar early signs of genocide in the Tigray region in Ethiopia. Following the onset of a civil war in November 2021, reports have emerged of massacres and other targeted killings of Tigrayan civilians, dehumanization and hate speech encouraging violence against members of the group, mass arrests and arbitrary detention, and possible collective punishment.
“We feel that it’s important to focus on the early warning signs so that ideally we can have preventive action taken before there is loss of life – before there are the images of bodies piling up,” Kikoler explains. “Or tragically, in situations like the Uyghur, where it is not mass killing that we’re most concerned about, it’s attacks on women’s reproductive capacity, instances where we have accounts of mass detention and the kind of segregation of these communities on the basis of their religious and ethnic identity.”
In addition to case studies, the center partners with Dartmouth College on The Early Warnings Project, which focuses exclusively on predicting mass killings. The project ranks 162 countries on their likelihood to see a mass killing, which they define as deliberate attacks on and killing of over 1,000 noncombatants due to membership in a certain group. When drawing on extensive databases, the project says it excludes inconsistent or biased data. It says these accounts for countries not included or fatalities not present – such as those incurred throughout Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, where it says conflicting categorizations of the conflict account for its absence. A related project at the center, The Ferencz International Justice Initiative, uses coalition building to push for justice for victims and survivors of genocide and crimes against humanity.
“At a bare minimum, one of the things that we would hope at this particular kind of moment when we think about international Holocaust Remembrance Day is that Americans across the country take some time – even five minutes – to Google one of these communities,” Kikoler says.
“We’re going to have the Olympics, which for two weeks will be focused on sports in China, a country where we have very, very grave risks,” she adds “If we could have five minutes set aside where people put Uyghur into their Google search, to learn about this particular community, I think that would be an important step.”