October 12, 2008
Vermont Law School Hosts Annual ILSA Conference
For 32 months Juan Méndez served as the United Nations Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide at the request of former Secretary General Kofi Annan. During that time, Méndez gained a stronger understanding of the strategies the world must employ to prevent future acts of genocide from occurring.
“I have learned that effective prevention must rely on acting simultaneously and in a concerted way in four areas: physical protection of the population at risk; humanitarian relief; promoting peace talks to end the underlying conflict; and breaking the cycle of impunity for the crimes already committed,” Méndez told a crowd of students, faculty, and guests who sought to gain a better understanding of genocide during a recent three-day conference held at Vermont Law School.
Held October 2 through 4, Understanding Genocide, the annual conference of the International Law Students Association (ILSA), brought together legal scholars, professionals, and students to discuss aspects of genocide often overshadowed by broader discussions of atrocities. Panels and speakers addressed issues including gender and genocide, cultural genocide, and the relationship between ecological crisis, conflict and genocide. Méndez, the president of the International Center of Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and keynote speaker for the event, told the crowd on Saturday that breaking the cycle of impunity and strengthening accountability were two critical strategies needed to be employed in the fight against genocide.
“If perpetrators feel shielded from prosecution or investigation for the crimes they have already committed, they will have an incentive not only to commit them anew, but also to raise the stakes and perpetrate even more serious crimes,” Méndez said. “The failure to do justice to the victims usually leads to sentiments of revenge, and thus to the likelihood of more crimes.”
Before a standing-room-only crowd in VLS’s Yates Common Room, Méndez went on to explain that systems of early warning and early action are required to prevent future acts of genocide. However, Méndez said, even with such systems in place, the bottleneck is often “the political will to act that is almost never present from the start.” The U.N. position of Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, created in the aftermath of the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s, is intended to contribute and shape that political will, he said.
Of paramount importance is to bring to justice the leaders, those who bear the greatest responsibility in the commission of international crimes."
~ Juan Méndez
Panelists from law schools, universities, and organizations such as the International Institute for Restorative Practices, the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, and the University of Houston Law Center, spoke before sizable crowds packed into different venues on the VLS campus. Ashley Santner, co-chair of Vermont Law School’s International Law Society and conference organizer, estimated that each panel was attended by approximately 70 guests. She said she felt people would come away from the conference with a heightened sense of awareness and understanding for genocide.
“I was really impressed with students and the attendance we’ve drawn,” Santner said. “I feel like the quality of the panels was excellent and that the speakers really identified a course of action for the future.”
Katherine Nylund, a first-year student at Georgetown Law, made the trek from Washington to Vermont for the conference. Nylund said she’d heard about the event through her membership in Georgetown’s ILSA chapter. Speaking at the close of the conference, Nylund said the experience she’d had made the 500-mile journey worth it.
“I was really interested in the topic in general and I felt like the program covered a lot of ground for a very difficult topic,” Nylund said. “I was really impressed with the speakers they got and the range of topics they were able to cover.”
Nylund said the most critical piece of information she would take from the conference was a better understanding of the difficulties the world faces when attempting to execute laws across international boundaries in an attempt to stop these atrocities from occurring. She said she would be briefing her fellow students on the topic upon her return to Georgetown.
Méndez also touched on many of these difficulties in his speech, noting that even if the prosecution of international humanitarian crimes increases, the atrocities will likely continue. Domestic murders, he said, have been successfully prosecuted for centuries, yet they continue to occur around the globe. Nonetheless, Méndez said, it is of supreme importance that “international and hybrid jurisdictions” strive to pro-actively strengthen their legitimacy in affected regions and their relevance to the victims of these atrocities. More importantly, he said, no one should be considered exempt from justice in cases of genocide.
“Of paramount importance is to bring to justice the leaders, those who bear the greatest responsibility in the commission of international crimes,” Méndez said. “Even heads of states are not beyond the reach of the law…the official position of individuals does not relieve them of criminal responsibility.”