Frank Chalk is honoured for 20 years of genocide studies

But he's not hopeful about stopping mass murder

by Frank Kuin

ChalkAs graduate students and faculty members of the History Department commemorated the 20th anniversary on Saturday of Concordia's groundbreaking comparative studies on genocide, Professor Frank Chalk could not help but have mixed feelings.

On one hand, Chalk, associate professor of History and veteran of the flagship course, the History and Sociology of Genocide, was visibly delighted to be honoured for his work. At the opening of the sixth annual History in the Making conference, he was presented with a commemorative plate for "20 years of very imaginative teaching," as Rector Frederick Lowy put it.

"I have a very strong feeling of fulfilment," Chalk told Concordia's Thursday Report. "We have made a substantial contribution to the creation of a new generation of genocide scholars. I feel very pleased to be able to inspire, stimulate and direct students who are very talented and committed to working on human rights and the prevention of genocide."

The genocide course, initiated by Sociology Professor Kurt Jonassohn, was the first of its kind in North America. As Jonassohn recalled, "genocide is something that has happened throughout history, but we discovered that nobody was teaching about it. So instead of copying what other people were doing, we found ourselves starting from scratch." Their efforts spawned a book, The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies, now considered a standard work in the field.

Despite these accomplishments, Chalk was somewhat pessimistic about the prospects of the lessons about genocide being heeded universally. In a lecture titled "Fighting Genocide in the 21st century: A strategy for building a better future," he pointed out that the international community has repeatedly failed to prevent or stop systematic mass murders, including recent occurrences in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Describing genocide as "probably the single-most lethal man-made murderer of human beings," he said that enforcement of the 1948 Genocide Convention of the UN has been largely neglected.

Chalk listed an ambitious 10-point program that should be adopted internationally if annihilations of ethnic groups are to be prevented from happening again. His recommendations included the creation of military rapid deployment units and the establishment of an International Criminal Court, as envisioned in the 1998 Statute of Rome. Also, early warning signs that indicate genocide is imminent, such as hate propaganda, the issuance of death lists and the training of special murder units, must be observed through intelligence.

Yet, asked how optimistic he was about his recommendations being realized, Chalk replied, "Not very." He compared the battle against genocide to fighting poverty or disease. "The odds are against it succeeding," he said, "but you try, because you know that it's right. I don't see any choice."

However, Payam Akhavan, legal advisor of the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, was of a different mood. "I'm much more optimistic than my friend Frank," said Akhavan, a guest speaker at the conference, citing the "profound and revolutionary" progress of the UN Tribunal for the Yugoslav and Rwandan conflicts.

In a few years, Akhavan explained, the Tribunal has evolved from a toothless and broke "mockery" to "a mainstay of international politics." Some high-ranking Yugoslav officials have been arrested under its aegis, such as the No. 2 Bosnian Serb army officer in the Srebrenica massacre and the commander in charge of the siege of Sarajevo. Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic were indicted, but are still at large.

The implications are sweeping, Akhavan said. "For the first time in the United Nations era, the message is being sent that crime does not pay. Never before has the idea of accountability for mass human rights violation been part of the equation." Now that it is, potential perpetrators of genocide will think twice before carrying out their plans.

Akhavan praised Chalk for the "sincerity in his commitment to this cause." Chalk will be on sabbatical next year; the History and Sociology of Genocide (HIST 359, 360) will be taught again in the fall of 2001.

Dr. Chalk said that during his sabbatical, his courses will be taught by two experts in the field. René Lemarchand is an authority on Rwanda and Burundi and a winner of the Melville Herskovits Award, given by the U.S. African Studies Association. He will teach Chalk's course on African history. Neal Caplan is the author of major books on the Middle East, and teaches a course on the Holocaust at Vanier College. He will teach Chalk's History of the Holocaust.

Photo: Kurt Jonassohn and Frank Chalk, originators of Concordia's innovative genocide studies program.

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