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Why April's the right month for genocide awareness

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Ellen J. Kennedy
Ellen J. Kennedy is executive director of World Without Genocide, based at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.
Photo Courtesy of Ellen J. Kennedy

By Ellen J. Kennedy

It was in April 1915 that the Ottoman government began rounding up and murdering leading Armenian politicians, businessmen and intellectuals, a step that led to the extermination of more than a million Armenians. 

In April 1933, the Nazis issued a decree paving the way for the "final solution," the annihilation of 6 million Jews of Europe.

In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered Cambodia's capital city and launched a four-year wave of violence, killing 2 million people. 

In April 1992, the siege of Sarajevo began in Bosnia. It was the longest siege in modern history, and more than 10,000 people perished, including 1,500 children.  

In April 1994, the plane carrying the president of Rwanda crashed and triggered the beginning of a genocide that killed more than 800,000 people in 100 days.

In April 2003, innocent civilians in Sudan's Darfur region were attacked; 400,000 have been killed and 2.5 million displaced in a genocide that continues today.

April is the cruelest month.

The world has witnessed nearly a century of genocides that all began in April. Millions of people perished; cultures were destroyed; communities and nations were ruined.

What can we do to pay tribute, to honor those who suffered unimaginable tragedy, and to prevent future atrocities?

This month, the Minnesota Legislature passed a remarkable resolution that designates April as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month.  The resolution was sponsored by DFLers and Republicans, men and women, legislators whose constituents include survivors and descendants of those who perished, and constituents whose families have lived peacefully in this country for generations.

More than 800 Minnesotans signed letters to their elected officials supporting this effort. What does it mean to have a month designated for genocide awareness and prevention?

Most people don't know much about genocide.  The word didn't even exist until it was coined in the 1940s by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who fled from the Holocaust. Although he found refuge in the United States, his entire extended family, 49 in all, perished at Auschwitz.

Lemkin believed there had to be a word to describe what happened in Europe and a law to prevent its recurrence. He wrote the Genocide Convention, an international treaty to prevent the extermination of people based on their race, religion, ethnicity or national origin. This treaty, passed in the United Nations in 1948, wasn't ratified by our country until 1988, fully 40 years later, and then only through heroic efforts by the late Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin.  Proxmire gave 3,211 speeches on the floor of the Senate, a speech a day for 19 years, urging passage of the Genocide Convention.

Even though we have the word to describe it, and the law to prevent and punish it, genocide continues.  Genocide has no boundaries in time, geography or target.  It has happened on every continent and to people of widely different backgrounds and identities. It can happen anywhere --  and everywhere.

In 2008, the United States Holocaust Museum, the American Academy of Diplomacy and the U.S. Institute for Peace convened a task force, headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, to outline strategies to prevent genocide. Their report included many recommendations, one of which is that education can help protect individual rights and promote a culture of lawfulness that will prevent future genocides.

We encourage organizations in faith, civic, educational and human rights communities to raise awareness about genocide. Show a film, host a speaker, meet with some of Minnesota's thousands of genocide survivors, or discuss a book such as "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,"  by Samantha Power.

These steps will increase awareness, the first part of this important state resolution. The second part is genocide prevention. Most people feel that preventing genocide is far beyond anything they can do as ordinary individuals. Yet it is exactly ordinary individuals who have the power to prevent genocide.

Former President Bill Clinton was in office during the tragedy in Rwanda. He said, after the genocide, that he probably could have saved a few hundred thousand lives. Imagine being able to say that you could have saved a few hundred thousand lives, or a few thousand, or a few hundred, or even one. Clinton said he did nothing because he didn't hear from a single one of our 100 senators in Washington, or a single one of the 435 representatives, asking him to take a stand. He didn't hear from them for a very simple reason: They didn't hear from us.

Each of us can create the political will to prevent genocide. Each of us can make sure that our elected officials know we want innocent people to be protected, wherever they are. Each of us can speak up. 

April is the cruelest month. We must ensure that the list of April's genocides grows no longer.  

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Ellen Kennedy is the executive director of World Without Genocide at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.