David Hamburg

Can genocide be prevented?

VTR Date: January 12, 2009

Dr. David Hamburg outlines an approach to preventing genocide years before it happens.


GUEST: Dr. David Hamburg
VTR: 01/12/09

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And as so many times over the past generation, my guest today is once again the distinguished author, physician, psychiatrist, educator, Dr. David Hamburg, who for a decade and a half presided over one of our nation’s most prestigious philanthropic institutions, Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Now Dr. Hamburg has spoken here before about his twin interests in the healthy development of our children and in the development of world peace. In both areas he has emphasized prevention as the means of avoiding what he calls “rotten outcomes.”

Indeed, along with the late Cyrus Vance, one-time U.S. Secretary of State, my guest co-chaired the distinguished Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, then wrote his own personal approach to the Commission’s work, evocatively titled No More Killing Fields.

But that was some years ago, and we know that in our new century there have been still more and more “killing fields” — more and more genocide — which makes my guest’s new Paradigm Publishers volume more compelling and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel’s foreword to this important analysis even more to the point as Wiesel writes in Preventing Genocide that “One of the most troubling, if not disconcerting, aspects of the debate on genocide is that in almost every case, it could have been prevented … it is undeniable that a well-planned international intervention could [in many examples, like Rwanda] have stopped the deaths and saved numberless victims already condemned. It was not done, and more than one political leader bears responsibility for this.”

My guest, too, makes the case for the potential of prevention in writing that “Recent research has documented that all the genocides of the 20th century were clearly visible years in advance, but largely dismissed, even denied, by the international community until mass killing was underway”.

So that to begin today, I want to ask David Hamburg just what practical steps in the 20th century could have been taken and, more important, could now be taken toward early detection of and effective action against genocide. Is there a possibility, David, in reality?

HAMBURG: I think there is and it’s very important to consider, as you say, what we have now that we didn’t have then. Although I do believe that earlier genocides could have been prevented to a considerable extent. But their armamentarium was much more limited.

I’m reminded of what our family doctor said to me … I was admitted, happily, to medical school in 1944 … some ancient time … he said, “Don’t let it go to your head. All we have in medicine is aspirin, prayer and morphine.”

And it is in a way true, that’s about right. And it is … what was available in medicine at that time was pitiful compared to what we have now.

What is done now let’s say in the Cornell Medical Center where I now make my home … almost nothing of that … hardly any of it existed when I was a medical student.

So we should ask, “What do we have now, or what could we have in the near future?” … an important part of my book, what would we have in the near future that would make it much more feasible to prevent genocide?

Now, as you say, I make the case from recent research that … that the warning time was ample. You know you heard political leaders up until recent years, saying … “Oh, I would have loved to have stopped this, but I couldn’t because I couldn’t know ‘til the last minute.” And at the last minute, the only thing that will work is a big military intervention … and nobody can do that or will do it. So it’s like a tsunami, you know, it just comes and hits you and all you can do is try to pick up the pieces afterwards.

That isn’t so. Not so at all. The measuring time is not days, it’s not weeks, it’s always at least months, usually years and very often decades.

HEFFNER: How so? How so? How … what are the signs?

HAMBURG: The signs are a growth in hate speech. The selection of a vulnerable group or a scapegoat group. The growth of a little bit of violence, and then moderate violence and then more violence.

If you take the Armenians … the text books say well, it was 1915, 1917. Yeah, the climax was then. But the beginnings were well back in the 1890s. In 1894 there was a Grand Sultan’s massacre with many thousands killed, including the grandfather of a good friend of mine who’s mentioned in this book.

And, and so it went. You find this build up of hatred and violence visible. You didn’t have to have satellites, you didn’t have to have covert operators on the ground. Many prominent people … our Ambassador Morgenthau to Turkey was sending back poignant messages abut what was happening to the Armenians. And many people took him seriously, but we couldn’t mobilize the, the effort to … why not? Part of it was a lack of international cooperation.

The same with Hitler. He was making hideous speeches around 1920, ’21 … widely publicized … then Mien Kampf in 1924. And it was known what he had in mind and many serious people, not just Winston Churchill, took him seriously.

But on the whole the thing is so awful that nobody wants to believe it and decides there are special interests who don’t want to interfere with their business relationships. There are all kinds of reasons why we haven’t done it.

But, but what has been lacking has not been the warning, one very serious thing lacking has been the knowledge about what to do.

If you had said to Woodrow Wilson “here’s what we can do”. There were some things said and he did some things. But, by and large, there was no strong repository of knowledge, skill and best practices.

Here’s all the knowledge in the world in principle about genocide and steps that could be taken on the path … at an early stage in the path toward genocide … in a period of what you might call “early genocide prone behavior”. They didn’t have that.

We do have a lot of it now. It’s by no means perfect. It’s something I’ve been working on for some years, especially intensively since 19 … since 2003 … to the present … getting together what we know. Stimulating research all over the world, pulling it together.

We’ve done two major things that are unprecedented. A center in the United Nations and a center in the European Union.

I’m very privileged to have been able to chair a committee advising first Kofi Anan and then Ban Ki-moon at the UN and Javier Solana who is, in effect, the Foreign Minister of the European Union. And they have established centers where you have a repository of knowledge. Now, it’s early … it’s just a few years. But at least you have a repository of knowledge that can, at a minimum, inform the whole UN system on the one hand. And all the EU system on the other. And the EU, by the way, is almost a global organization as they reach out to help Africa and Asia and so on.

So that’s something. You can say to leaders now … “Here are some useful things you can do if you’re serious about preventing the genocide, and that’s …

HEFFNER: Yes, but David … the big word there … “if you are serious about …

HAMBURG: Yeah, yeah.

HEFFNER: … preventing genocide.” There seems to be … you’ll forgive me, because you know how much I love you and, and admire what you’ve done and are doing.

The answer to the question because preventing suicide … genocide … maybe that’s a Freudian slip … preventing genocide … to me there’s a question mark … not in your book … but there’s a question mark there. How do you prevent it? And perhaps being overly cynical, the answer is “create mankind all over again.”

You … there’s a contradiction, it seems to me, in what you say. You note that there were those who had word of what was going on. You note that Morgenthau was reporting back to what was happening in that part of the world. Why wasn’t … why isn’t your interpretation that it was “will”, a “willingness”, rather than the absence of mechanisms.

HAMBURG: Well, everybody speaks about political will in this field and say “it’s lacking” and that’s the fundamental cause. It is lacking, but it’s not the fundamental cause.

In order to have political will, in my judgment, you must have a constituency for prevention.

Very few political leaders have the vision and courage to get out ahead when there’s no backing. If you can get … if you can build a constituency for prevention and have it out front, then a lot of political leaders will run around to get, get ahead of it and say, “Yes, I’m prepared to do this.”

But, well what do they? Let’s talk about that for a moment. What do they do? Because some world leaders have said to me just that question. Now, there are people … I give you examples of people who have the political will and have tried and taken a lot of flack for it. Kofi Anan is one. Ban Ki-moon now is another. Javier Solana is another. They’re the ones I’m emphasizing in the UN, European Union.

There are some leaders of the major democracies who have show a certain degree of political will. That is commitment if they can to use what knowledge there is to head off genocide or other mass violence.

But they really do need a constituency. But let’s come to the moment, very briefly, to what they can do.

I have in the book six pillars of prevention. You can have five or eight, but six … because they’re all consequential.

The first one is what I call “proactive help to countries in trouble”. Including especially preventive diplomacy. Now the, the vivid example of preventive diplomacy … this year … when Kofi Anan jumped … a couple of weeks after the outbreak of violence, post election in Kenya … went there, got the blessing of the African Union to make it legitimate. Got leading, highly respected African leaders like Graca Machel, the wife of Mandela and some others to put together a team and let me say briefly … what do they do in this preventive diplomacy. At the moment they were on the way to a dreadful civil war. Which probably would have been followed by a genocide … the winning side would have probably done a genocide on the losing side.

HEFFNER: Whichever one won.

HAMBURG: Yeah. So he made vivid to them in a kind of tough love way … in effect … let me simplify … you’ve got two paths. You can go down that path … hatred and violence and destroy yourself. Your Freudian slip, Dick, was right. It’s suicide. They always end up with catastrophe. They may take 50 million along with them as Hitler did … but they virtually always … the initiators of the genocide almost always end up in catastrophe for themselves and their families and their, their allies.

But, be that as it may. He said you’ve got these two paths. You go one way and you have a great future for Kenya, it’s been a bright hope of Africa.

You go the other way and you have civil war and genocide. Now which do you really want? I know you’re very angry with each other and I know you want power and I know you don’t want to share, but look what the other path gives you.

Now on this path, I’m not just talking, he said, about exhortation, about good will, I’m talking about concrete steps. And he brought in … not only from the AU and the UN, but from various non-governmental organizations … he brought in various experts on building paths toward good governance … toward, in due course, toward good democratic governance.

He built in experts on working toward equitable and I emphasize equitable socio-economic development … not a huge disparity with 1% very rich and the rest suffering miserably from oppression … no, equitable socio-economic development.

He brought in experts on how you can use mechanisms of international justice to bring to justice terrible offenders who have, who have initiated or greatly exacerbated the path to, to genocide.

Furthermore, he brought in experts on education … what I call “education for survival”. And you know my wife, Betty and I … she’s a pediatrician and child psychiatrist, did a book a few years ago called Learning to Live Together, which is all about the research evidence and how you can bring up children from pre-school through graduate school. In fact religious education, political education … the education of political leaders … how you can do that on the basis of what we know from research, but that’s only been applied on a very small scale.

But education is a key part of it. Badly lacking. Fundamentally we’re talking about inter-group relations that are terrible. Where one group is “us” and the other group is “them”. One group is putatively superior and the other inferior.

And that is something that you can detect early and we have to find better ways … and certainly education is one … that, that is contributing. So that’s another pillar of prevention.

And the final one is the most poignant of all and that is constraints on weaponry. We have the world covered wall to wall with weaponry. Not only weapons of mass destruction, but so-called small arms, which are, in fact, very lethal and automatic and kill millions of people a year.

And we’ve done … there are a lot of good ideas about what to do, but very little implementation. Partly because governments and private firms make a lot of money on selling these. And partly because they are a wonderful implementation for that small fraction of almost any society who are deeply hateful.

But, but there have been some progresses. I had the privilege of participating in the origins of the so-called Non-Lugar Program, which was a cooperative threat reduction between us and the Soviets at the end of the Cold War.

And which continues to the present day. Which has just resulted in the dismantlement of half the nuclear weapons … not nearly enough … and also been an important vehicle for diplomacy during bad times. Because when discussing the nuclear problems, we can discuss other problems. We have a lot of bright people thinking about conflict resolution in general.

So that’s one example of at least a partial, but highly significant success in the weapons field.

Some of us are now on a push to take … pick up the Gorbachov/Reagan idea at Reykjavik 21 years ago to move toward zero nukes. That’s much more difficult now than it was then. I won’t go into detail about. All I’m saying at the sixth pillar is constraints on weaponry and sooner or later we’ll do that.

We may have to have a catastrophe, and Indian/Pakistani nuclear war … forgive me for mentioning it. I particularly have great regard for a long time for India, as the largest democracy in the world. But they could have a nuclear war. And maybe it would take some catastrophe like that to make us wake up … we’re all vulnerable.

It isn’t just us and the Soviets any more, although we still have the lion’s share of the nuclear weapons. There’s no group too small or too far away that it can’t inflict huge damage. And that’s what we’ve got to recognize, this is has got to be a worldwide cooperation.

But these are pillars of prevention. Some of them are very rapid like the preventative diplomacy of Kofi Anan in Kenya. And some of them are much slower like the constraints on the weapons of mass destruction. But …

HEFFNER: David, we’re speaking before the new Administration …


HEFFNER: … comes into Washington.


HEFFNER: By the time this conversation is seen and heard the new President will be in office.


HEFFNER: Do you think that will make a substantial difference in the development of the mechanisms that you feel alone, with the change in attitudes will make possible preventing genocide?

HAMBURG: I, I do. He has an enormously difficult. I have been fascinated since I was a kid with Franklin Roosevelt. My father was delegate to the convention in 1932 that first nominated him. And every since then I’ve read every thing there is to read about him and Eleanor, who was a great contributor.

We would not have the human rights movement today without Eleanor Roosevelt. But any way … I think that Obama has the most difficult task since Roosevelt in both domestic and international matters. It’s grotesquely difficult.

Nevertheless I think that he’s a remarkable person. He’s got remarkable people around him, he’s building a very strong team. He has an extraordinary degree of national backing. At the time we speak he has an 80% approval rating that will, of course, go down inevitably.

But he, he recognizes that he must get around him and listen and integrate information from all kinds of terrific people. And he must move as rapidly as he can.

First on the economic catastrophe because if there is a worldwide economic depression and President Bush today used the world … word “depression” … he used the “d” word which I don’t think even Obama has yet. And to his credit he used the “d” word.

So if that’s what we have that impairs the spread of democracy, it impairs equitable development, it makes a lot of people think they’d better have weapons to protect themselves.

So … but let’s say that he makes headway on that … on these matters that we’re discussing …

HEFFNER: What indication do you have that he is concerned, as you are, with the mechanisms for preventing genocide?

HAMBURG: Well, I don’t know in detail … I know this. I know his Secretary of State very well … assuming she is confirmed. She has a lot of knowledge. She took a great interest on the Carnegie Mission on Preventing Deadly Conflict that I co-chaired with Cy Vance that you mentioned. She held the first forum at the White House. Unfortunately, her husband did not appear, though we were hoping he would.

HEFFNER: And he was the President.

HAMBURG: He was the President. But she was there and our people from all over the world on that Commission were blown away. She had read our draft, she understood it. She later made speeches about it. She grasps this stuff and cares about it. And will be getting people around her who can help her work on this. That’s one thing.

Now the President-Elect himself, when asked in debates two or three times … like about Darfur, what would you do? He said I would do everything in my power to prevent it. He didn’t say what he would do, I don’t’ think he’s read my book, I doubt it very much. But he has at least an orientation toward prevention.

I haven’t heard very many political leaders say that in their political campaigns. He would be vulnerable to tough minded critics who would say, “Oh, my goodness, he’s a wishful thinker. He’s a soft-head to talk about prevention. How can anybody prevent genocide, it’s an inherent part of the nastiness of human nature. Look at this softie talking about prevention.”

But he has the good sense to talk about prevention. I only can assume he’s going to learn more about what goes into prevention and to approach others. I have urged strongly that he approach the European Union where there’s a lot of knowledge about this and where cooperation between us and the European Union. They’re our natural allies. We share so many interests and values that if we cooperate on that, that all of us concerned “we” and “they” could learn a lot more about what to do.

HEFFNER: David, you’re … you’ve studied this problem for so long. Is there anything that you have seen that would indicate that the words you used before … “us” and “them” that that horrendous posturing of the others and the good guys …


HEFFNER: … that anything has diminished along those lines in the history of mankind?

HAMBURG: Well, I, I, I … I think we wouldn’t have elected the current President if that hadn’t been the case, although …

HEFFNER: Than what happened to us four years before?

HAMBURG: Yeah. Well … right. We go up and down. But on the whole, let me say, in my lifetime and I, I, I’m not a Utopian, I am not a pacifist, I’m not pollyannaish, but in my lifetime I have seen … somewhat to my surprise, the end of colonialism, for all practical purposes, the end of imperialism, the end of slavery in most of the world.

The implementation of civil rights here and a lot of other places. The growth of the human rights movement as arguably the most important or one of the most important ideological trends of the past century of so. I’ve seen the end of fascist and communist totalitarianism.

So, some remarkable things have happened and if those things could happen, it’s not inconceivable to me that the prevention of genocide or, or, or more broadly the prevention of mass violence could come a long way. I don’t say totally eliminate it, but could come a long way.

Now, let me briefly add, there is a chapter in the book on South Africa because I think South Africa has a special symbolic significance. That could have easily been a genocide. The, the apartheid regime was not only … to say the least a harsh regime … and they were meeting increasing violent opposition from the oppressed, but they also had weapons of mass destruction in hand.

And somehow or other, it’s an interesting story that I tried to describe … they came to move away from that. Now there are a few things that helped, that can help elsewhere. There was a determination on the part of a set of extraordinary leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and, of course, the great Nelson Mandela and others. They had depth on the bench of Black Africans about non-violent conflict resolution. About working toward democratic institutions. Not just for them but for Black and White and Brown altogether. And they worked on that and they took great risks and they evidentially convinced the apartheid regime that they were serious about that and they were not looking for revenge. So I say a commitment to non-violent conflict resolution spread broadly … they had, in time, in every community some kind of mediation unit. They worked at the process broadly through the population of non-violent conflict resolution toward democratic ends. And I, I think that gives us a basis of hope in what after all was one of the world’s worst situations.

HEFFNER: David, you know, I’ve thought for all the years we’ve known each other that you, as a psychiatrist, as a historian of an individual’s mind, as well as of our history … that your enthusiasm and your positive attitude toward this is probably what’s going to make it work. And I’m so glad that you’ve come here today on The Open Mind to discuss Preventing Genocide. And I always think of the business “from your lips to God’s ear”. And thank you for joining me again today.

HAMBURG: Thank you so much for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.