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MIGS hosts talk on role of media in genocide prevention

Ryan Reisert

With the advent of digital media and its role in events such as the “Arab Spring,” experts around the world recognize the need to harness and manage new tools, and use them to prevent, rather than react, to mass atrocities. Concordia University’s Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) hosted a conference to address this issue on Oct. 20 and 21 titled, “The Promise of the Media in Halting Mass Atrocities: A Conference to Mark the 10th Anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect,” featuring 16 panelists of varied backgrounds.

The keynote speaker of the conference was Canada’s 21st Prime Minister, Paul Martin, who is credited with bringing together all 192 UN members during his tenure to sign the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm, a document which empowers the UN Security Council to intervene in any situation where a country does not take action to prevent mass atrocities within its borders. Martin addressed ways to mitigate current challenges in implementing R2P, such as decreasing foreign aid budgets and reducing military resources.

“In my experience, overseas development assistance budgets and emergency funding for R2P is not part of protective programs, and is therefore very vulnerable [in times of economic crisis],” Martin said. “In my opinion, this represents if not the greatest obstacle to the responsibility to protect, the greatest threat to responsibility to prevent.”

When asked by an audience member how the news media could more effectively bring attention to mass atrocities and influence policy decisions, the former prime minister noted the importance of in-depth analysis of decisions.

“To be honest, I don’t think that media coverage makes a political leader, in terms of foreign policy, do something,” Martin said. “What I really do believe is that political leaders take their decision based on their analyses of the facts as they seem. Where media becomes incredibly important is the quality of the media in analyzing the decisions that happen. The media needs to have the experts in foreign affairs, not to simply react in a populous way but to analyze the issue.”

Senator and Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire noted several scenarios in which the media has significantly influenced policy decisions in the past, but added that the volatility of such interactions poses challenges for both the media and politicians.

“We need to look at how mass atrocities are being covered … Unless journalists acquire some of the softer sciences of anthropology, sociology and philosophy, unless they are provided with more depth to what they can understand, let alone report on and analyze, they are out of their league in this era,” Dallaire said. “We are in an era of enormous complexity and ambiguity, in which we will find ethical, moral and legal dilemmas abound, but also we will find ourselves in scenarios that don’t fit any sort of pattern, that don’t fit the old military solutions or the old diplomatic solutions. If you want to influence … you need a whole new set of capabilities.”

Other panelists focused on discussing how new technologies can prevent mass atrocities.

Jonathan Hutson is director of communications for the Enough Project,  which aims to end genocide and crimes against humanity.

Hutson acquainted the audience with the Satellite Sentinel Project, which uses near-daily satellite imagery analysis and field reports to deter war between North and South Sudan by capturing possible threats to civilians [and] detecting bombed villages and other evidence of violence.

“If you want to change the world, never ask ‘What can we do?’ because then you start weighing on a reasonable level and you can do nearly nothing—it costs too much, no one will cooperate, no one has ever done this, maybe we’ll fail… Always ask ‘what needs to be done?’ and then do that, even if it’s impossible,” Hutson encouraged the audience.

Shireen Soofi, a U3 arts student and a current intern at MIGS,  found that the diversity of panelists and speakers greatly enhanced the discussion of R2P.

 “I agreed with some and disagreed with others but if you want democracy, you have to understand all the sides,” Soofi said.  

Many audience members found that they could apply what they learned to their jobs.  This was the case for Dechen Wangmo, a broadcast journalist currently in Montreal as a Sauvé Scholar working on projects to develop the emerging journalism industry and media literacy in her native Bhutan.

“[Paul Martin] really highlighted how important it is for the media to do in-depth analysis of the events,” Wangmo said. “Media in Bhutan is very young … it’s very difficult for Bhutanese [journalists] to provide in-depth analysis and that’s what I want to learn and implement as part of my Sauvé project during my co-op here in Canada. This is a gathering of very well-known people with so much expertise; it’s a great learning experience for me.”

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