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How to Teach About Genocide and Mass Atrocity

"Remember them well...they may die...like so many others, but let it not be anonymous, as if no one had died." These words, written by Poli Délano in his book about Pinochet's brutal takeover of Chile, sums up the reason why genocide, although an extremely difficult topic, must be taught in our classrooms—we must not forget. In observance of World Refugee Week, Apoorvaa Joshi, Executive Associate, Education at Asia Society, shares strategies and resources to teach this sensitive subject. Learn more and share your resources on #globaledchat on Twitter, Thursday, June 18 at 8pm ET/5pm PT.

By Apoorvaa Joshi

Teaching about genocide and mass atrocity is never easy.  The facts of historical events are often tangled up in emotions and complicated perspectives, and the repeated failure of global society to act definitively to end violence in the face of atrocity can be disheartening.  Regardless, understanding mass atrocity and genocide remains an important part of understanding the world, and teaching about these subjects is imperative for developing students' global competence.

There is no one way to tackle this difficult and sensitive topic in the classroom, yet the wealth of resources available online illustrate how educators have addressed it creatively, sensitively, and skillfully while still making it relevant to students.

Strategies and Resources
Here are a few guidelines, activity ideas, and resources that can help to teach in a way that relies on competency-based learning rather than the rote memorization of facts—which strips some of the gravity from the truth of genocide and atrocity. Most of these suggestions are developmentally appropriate for older students in high school.   

1) Allow students to understand and work through the intricacies of the term genocide by going through its definition versus its applications throughout modern history, up until today. 

First, establish the international legal definition of genocide and outline how this definition may or may not differ from social understandings of mass atrocity.  The Genocide Convention of 1948—the definitive legal document on the crime of genocide—defines genocide as "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group." This definition, however clear it may seem, has remained a double-edged sword when it comes to actually naming and shaming responsible parties when genocide is occurring or imminent. For example, in 1994, the United States kept from intervening in the Rwanda by hesitating to call what was happening a genocide, instead referring to what was happening as acts of genocide.

Studying this ambiguity between legal and social understandings of genocide allows students to recognize different perspectives and motives for action and inaction.  In order to better demonstrate these complex issues, pick a few examples of genocide that remain disputed today and have students reflect on why. For example, the mass killings and deportations of Armenian population living in Ottoman Turkey during WWI remains a disputed genocide to this day. Have your students read up on what happened, and reflect in discussion groups why debate persists today.

Here are resources to get started:

Armenian genocide resources:

2) Create a safe space to discuss controversial issues about culture and human rights, with the knowledge that students may come from different places of understanding about these events themselves.

While students need to understand that they are in a school environment and subject to rules about communicating respectfully and without disrupting the classroom, they need a space in which their views on these subjects may be challenged by other students or educators, in order to understand the nuances of how mass atrocity is perceived in the world. Facilitating discussions to address these differing perspectives will add richness to students' understanding and will allow them to communicate their views across different audiences. (Tips for dealing with controversial topics in the classroom.)

Have your students role play as the defense and prosecution for an accused perpetrator of genocide, and stage a mock trial of the International Criminal Court (ICC) where students will have to build a case against and for genocide.  Assign a team of impartial judges to rule on the case after each side has presented an argument.  After the ruling, have each student write a reflection on the process and how it has helped to consider perspectives on a controversial topic.  

Resources on the ICC—the only international judiciary body able to try and convict individuals of genocide:

3) Examine the cause and effect of genocide
Human rights experts agree that there are a number of precipitating factors for genocide that occur across cultural and historical contexts, including a process of systematically dehumanizing one group through an "us and them" mentality that slowly ramps up into violence against one group. 

Genocide is also part of a cycle of oppression begetting violence—a cycle that is aided when a society does not work on healing after mass atrocity. In the wake of genocide, society has to reflect on why it happened and how to prevent it from happening again. The lack of accountability in the aftermath of atrocity, even something that happened long ago, has led to tensions and outbursts of violence that persist today. 

Have students research the Nanjing Massacre. How has this event, and the lack of accountability for it, affected international relations in Northeast Asia?  

Resources on the causes and effects of genocide:

Colonialism as a cause of genocide:

Nanjing Massacre resources:

4) Emphasize that genocide and mass atrocity are not part of a bygone era—that these events occur frequently and recently and that there are many that students may not even be aware of. Similarly, emphasize aspects of mass atrocity that may not be apparent at first, such as the common instance of gender-based violence during atrocity.  

Your students may be familiar with the Holocaust and the importance that society placed in its wake on remembrance and saying "never again" to genocide—and yet, there are numerous instances of genocide and mass atrocity over the last several decades, some of which may be completely new to you and your students.  Though this can be disheartening, point out that we can change this fact as a global society and we can take action against genocide first by raising awareness.

Have students research a mass atrocity that they have not heard of before and ask them to make connections to other genocides that have, or are, happening around the world.  What commonalities can they find in the events? What differences?

Next, have your students look into mass atrocity happening right now. Genocide Watch is one resource to find alerts about situations of occurring or impending genocide around the world. Have your students plan a project to raise awareness about one of these situations, perhaps collecting signatures on a petition or a participating in a public demonstration.

A few examples of activities to raise awareness of mass atrocity are the Paperclip Project and the One Million Bones project. 

Resources listing instances of mass atrocity and genocide throughout history:

These resources include mass killings of political groups, as well:

Resources and information on gender and genocide (warning: some of these resources contain graphic or disturbing accounts of sexual violence):

5) Finally, allow time for students to reflect on how mass atrocity affects individual survivors or the relatives of victims. 

Part of the process of healing and preventing future atrocity is creating a culture of empathy. Learning about atrocity in a way that emphasizes the stories of individuals contributes to a growing culture of empathy that places value on victims' narratives and puts you in the shoes of a person with very different circumstances. Empathy, in turn, mobilizes people toward taking action to change their world. 

Have your students read victims' testimonies from international genocide tribunals, or other sources. These can often be graphic accounts of violence, and so it is important to keep in mind whether or not it would be appropriate for the grade level you are teaching.  Have your students analyze the narrative and reflect on how it presents the realities of atrocity in a different light than other accounts. For example, how do Anne Frank's own words affect a reader differently than a textbook description of the Holocaust? 

Resources on testimonies by survivors of mass atrocity and genocide:

Hopefully these resources and guidelines will help you to illuminate a dark chapter in human history for your students, and encourage them to develop the competencies to take action in the face of genocide and atrocity in their lifetimes. 

Some additional resources for educators on genocide and mass atrocity:

  • The global human rights organization Amnesty International has a wealth of resources on human rights education, all with the aim of empowering students "to develop the skills and attitudes that promote equality, dignity and respect in your community, society and worldwide."

  • The Choices Program at Brown University has developed detailed curriculum and materials to teach about genocide and atrocity.  

  • New Global Citizens has programs organized around major global issue areas, including armed conflict, which covers genocide.
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