In the Face of Ongoing and Unacknowledged Genocides, What Does This April Mean?

April is Genocide Awareness Month

UC Davis Students Commemorate the Armenian Genocide
UC Davis Students Commemorate the Armenian Genocide in April 2018. (Courtesy photo)

Quick Summary

It’s a tough juxtaposition.

April has been set aside by survivor communities, scholars and state legislatures, including California’s, as the month when we remember past genocides and recommit to preventing genocide in the future. It is a time for remembering and a time to consider what ongoing genocides in China and Burma mean for us now. It is a time of reckoning as the as-yet fully recognized genocides against the native peoples of North America demand our continued attention.

Days of remembrance

This year, the first of these was the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Rwandan Genocide (April 7.) In Rwanda, it is also called, Kwibuka, the day to “remember,” and is followed by a period of official mourning. The day recalls the aftermath of the assassination of Rwanda’s president in 1994, which set in motion a pre-planned effort by radicalized members of the Hutu majority to destroy the Tutsi minoritized ethnic group. Over the next 100 days, nearly a million Rwandans would be murdered and half a million women subjected to rape.

The second is Yom HaShoah (April 9 or 27 Nishan in the Hebrew calendar.) In part, the day recalls the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (April 19, 1943), when Polish Jews fought back against Nazi efforts to transport them to concentration camps. It was the most significant act of Jewish resistance during World War II. “We fought simply not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and place of our deaths,” Mark Edelman (1919-2009), one of the few surviving leaders of the uprising recalled. In Israel the day is marked by a two-minute moment of silence and the later in the evening, the recitation of the mourners Kaddish to remember the six million murdered.

The third is Armenian Genocide Memorial Day (April 24.) The day remembers the night when the Ottoman Empire, rounded up and to borrow a word from the history of Human Rights in Latin America, “disappeared” over 250 Armenian journalists, lawyers, politicians, priests, and poets.  It was an act calculated to destroy the Armenian community’s leadership and making the deportations and mass slaughter that would follow easier. By 1922, 1.5 million Armenians had been killed and those who had survived were living in refugee camps or dispersed across the globe. On that day, Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia comes to a halt, and its people solemnly proceed to a memorial called Tsitsernakaberd atop a nearby hill to place flowers within. Armenians around the world attend church services and gather with family.

UC Davis and genocide scholarship

UC Davis is home to several leading scholars of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, including (but certainly not limited to), David Biale, Susan Miller, Diane Wolf, Sven Erik-Rose, Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh and myself.  Heghnar Watenpaugh’s most recent book The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice (2019) has won several prizes and has pioneered the study of the role of the destruction of art and culture during genocide. My own work in the multiple-award-winning, Bread from Stone: The Middle East and Making of Modern Humanitarianism examines the origins of modern humanitarianism in the international humanitarian response to the Armenian Genocide.

UC Davis is also committed to excellence in undergraduate teaching and learning about genocide. Several hundred students a year study the Holocaust in courses offered by History, Sociology, German and Jewish Studies.  Most students minoring in Human Rights Studies take “Genocide,” a course I teach, and at over 100 students a year, it is the largest genocide course in California.

I began to teach that ("Genocide") course about 20 years ago and in the aftermath of what I thought would be the last genocides, those in Bosnia and Rwanda.  It was a time of great optimism. Those who had committed genocide were being brought to justice at the International Criminal Court, and the United States, which had refused to ratify the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, had finally done so. 

I was wrong: the genocides in Darfur, and of the Rohingya, the Neur, ChristiansYazidis and Kurds in Iraq and Syria, and Muslim Uyghurs followed. — Keith Watenpaugh

Yet there has been important changes in scholarship on genocide over that time. In the last two decades, sexual and gender-based violence became an element of study of genocide, both as a historical phenomenon and a basis for criminal prosecutions — a major contribution to which was made by UC Davis Law Professor Lisa Pruitt,  Equally, the destruction of indigenous communities by European colonialism, especially in settler colonial states like the United States,  Canada, New Zealand and Australia has come into focus as genocide and not the benign after effects of disease or "virgin soil." I find that my students increasingly want to learn more about genocide in California.

Genocide as a challenge in the now

The U.S. Department of State has found that genocide is occurring in China, and is directed against an ethnic and religious minority people the Uyghurs.

It's the fact of Genocide in China that poses a question for us at UC Davis. In the past, the UC regents have agreed to divest from companies doing business in states, like Sudan, found to be committing genocide by the U.S. Department of State.

How is this different? How can we leverage our engagement with China, as both a host to 1000s of Chinese students and possessed of broad and important academic and agricultural links to that country, and make it clear that continued genocide is wrong?

What kinds of sacrifices are we prepared to make in the face of that certainty?

This blog is taken from Watenpaugh’s full article here.

Note: On June 3, UC Davis Human Rights Studies will host the first annual Dr. Shant and Robin Garabedian Lecture on Genocide and Mass Atrocity featuring noted writer and journalist Mark Arax.


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