Tempering Academics with Personal Stories
The academic conference hosted by USC Shoah Foundation last week was an excellent opportunity for me to hear the personal stories of survivors alongside academic analysis of modern-day events and future challenges. I attended the keynote panel discussion and the final discussion on the future of testimony and genocide study.
The keynote panel, a discussion hosted by the Institute’s Executive Director Stephen D. Smith brought together the governmental expertise of Minister of Parliament Viviane Teitelbaum of Brussels and the reporting and public outreach experience of documentary filmmaker Carla Garapedian for key insights, but the true fire and passion in the evening came from survivors Celina Biniaz and Yannick Tona.
Biniaz, who survived the Holocaust, and Tona, who survived the Rwandan Genocide Against the Tutsi, brought personal experience into the discussion. Both told stories of their time as children escaping genocidal killers. Normally, I prefer a more academic and analytical framework to the discussions I host on Platforum, because I find that personal experiences tend not to add much to a conversation.
Not true with this panel. Biniaz and Tona made me think back to the work at the Institute, as well as work in the international community advocating human rights.
One of fundamental debates in any international relations situation is national interest versus human rights. During the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda, for example, American national interests of not putting our soldiers in harms way to stop the violence won out over the human interest of saving lives. American policymakers thought the risk of deploying peacekeepers was too great, and that there would be no reward for saving the people of Rwanda because America had no national interests in the country.
Frankly, that’s a callous way to look at these conflicts. While cost-benefit analyses work well for most questions of national and international policy, they utterly fail when it comes to genocide. How can you put a price on human life, especially human life snuffed out as part of a plan to exterminate an entire people?
Biniaz and Tona put a human face on the violence and tragedy. Together, they gave new perspective and lent urgency to the mission of stopping violent hatred. They spoke to the human element of our work.
It’s good to temper academic dissertations or political calculations in these discussions and return to the core of our mission.