The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

Two Resolutions for Genocide Prevention Month

This post was written by Danny Hirschel-Burns and Baylen Campbell.  Danny Hirschel-Burns is the STAND National Policy Coordinator. He’s a senior at Swarthmore College majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies and minoring in History.  Baylen Campbell is STAND’s Regional Specialist on Sudan/South Sudan and a Senior at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. Being an International Affairs major, he focuses on the relations between natural resources and development within the region.

To learn more about the resolutions discussed in this blog and find out how you can take action visit here.

April is Genocide Prevention and Awareness Month, and two resolutions have recently been proposed, one in the House and one in the Senate, that could improve the American ability to prevent further atrocities.

A House Resolution regarding the Republic of South Sudan was put forth by Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) who sits on the Subcommittee for Africa, Global Health, Human Rights, and International Organizations. The resolution, House Resolution (H. Res.) 503, discusses the overall need to provide the world’s newest state with assistance in order to bring about social, political, and economic stability. In the Senate, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), who has a long history of engaging on African issues, proposed Senate Resolution (S. Res.) 375. The resolution condemns recent violence, encourages good governance, and proposes future international cooperation to aid civilians and reduce violence in the Central African Republic (CAR).

Since gaining its independence in July of 2011, South Sudan has faced numerous challenges in bringing about stability for its people after a long history of civil war. In this period, the government of South Sudan has struggled to combat long-standing ethnic divisions that have directly impacted South Sudanese politics. In December 2013 conflict broke out as tensions erupted between parties aligned with the President Salva Kiir and the former Vice-President Riek Machar. The initial spark of violence, which government officials claimed to be a failed coup attempt, resulted in the arrest of political opposition leaders and the displacement of over 800,000 people. It is this type of political environment that continues to overshadow large-scale ongoing humanitarian relief efforts within the country.

Representative Smith’s resolution represents an all-encompassing plan to assist the government of South Sudan in combating conflict within the country. Firstly, the resolution would reinforce the ceasefire signed on January 23rd, 2013 as well as the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of combatants. The resolution also includes multiple clauses allowing the US to provide support in creating good governance within the country and strengthening its regional ties within Central and West Africa. Lastly the resolution proposes that the US provide financial and technical assistance in grassroots reconciliation and development efforts with a focus on capacity building in order to support long-term stability.

CAR had long had a weak central government that was unable, and generally unwilling, to effectively deliver services to large portions of its population. In December of 2012, Seleka, a majority-Muslim political and military alliance from CAR’s northeast, began a rebellion against the government of President Bozize with the help of mercenaries from Chad and Sudan. Four months later, they succeeded in overthrowing Bozize and Seleka leader Michel Djotodia was installed as President. However, he quickly proved unable to control or disband Seleka troops, who began to abuse civilians en masse. In response, majority-Christian “anti-balaka” militias formed to protect their communities, but they quickly became just as abusive and the conflict took on an increasing sectarian tone. Djotodia was eventually replaced by Catherine Samba Panza in January 2014, and anti-Muslim persecution has caused the majority of CAR’s Muslim population to flee to Chad. Roughly half of CAR’s population, or 2.2 million people, currently need humanitarian assistance.

S. Res. 375 firstly condemns the violence in the CAR and welcomes attempts to decrease religious tensions in the country. Next, it commends various actors, from the African Union to France to the Economic Community of Central African States, for their previous mitigation efforts. Third, the resolution calls for a short-term multilateral approach to CAR. Finally, the resolution calls on President Obama to develop a long-term approach to CAR that would provide funds, work with international partners, and return a diplomatic presence to the country in order to help achieve peace.

Overall, the passing of H. Res. 503 and S. Res. 375 would mark as a huge success for the consolidated support of atrocity prevention within US foreign policy. Resolutions such as these present a positive approach to bring about long-term stability within states struggling with violent conflict and mass atrocities.

Ask of the Week 3/5/14

This is STAND’s “Ask of the Week”, a short, relevant ask that you can participate individually or with your chapter!  Contact our Policy Coordinator, Danny Hirschel-Burns at with any questions.

Our friends at Burma Task Force USA are working to push through HR 418, which urges the Burmese government to stop persecution of Rohingya, and they need your help. In light of the recent expulsion of Doctors without Borders from the Rakhine state in Burma because of their aiding of the Rohingya, H.R. 418 takes on even more urgency.

The bill needs more co-sponsors, so please contact your representative and urge them to sign on. You can find more information about the bill and who has signed on here. If you’d like to tweet, you can use this sample tweet:

.@[insert Rep’s name], I urge you to cosponsor HR 418 and protect Rohingya from an oppressive government in #Burma @standnow

On “The Act of Killing”

Danny Hirschel-Burns is STAND’s Policy Coordinator. He is currently a senior at Swarthmore College studying Peace and Conflict Studies and spent the past summer interning for The Sentinel Project. To learn more about The Act of Killing visit here. You can contact Danny at

I saw Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing over this last summer. The documentary follows several men that participated in the Indonesian mass killings of suspected communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals following an attempted coup in 1965. Like Jean Hetzfeld’s Machete Season, Oppenheimer’s film provides an intimate portrait of mass killers. Slate’s Dana Stevens describes the result:

The Act of Killing is among the most profound, formally complex, and emotionally overpowering documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s also, by turns and sometimes at once, luridly seductive and darkly comic and physically revolting—a movie that makes you want to laugh and cry and retch and run out of the theater, both to escape the awful things the film is showing you and to tell everyone you know that they need to see it, too.

Unlike many other portrayals of mass killing, the film does not show any footage of the massacres or speak to victims. Rather it allows the perpetrators to act out the atrocities 45 years later in whatever film genre they wish, creating a disturbing yet meaningful detachment from the actual atrocities. The killers, instead of bloodthirsty monsters, are often immature and pathetic. Sure, they praise and rationalize their own actions, but they are not beyond showing unease at the past. Instead of reviewing the film, I’d like to focus on a couple of key issues that are relevant for studying violence and politics.

Oppenheimer’s documentary does little to provide context, and everything has to be gleaned from prior viewer knowledge or tangential remarks by the film’s subjects and therefore there are some truly puzzling parts of the killers’ stories. The three main characters, Anwar, Herman, and Adi were once petty gangsters that made their livings scalping movie tickets. However, communists banned American films, seriously reducing their income. This seems to have been the first step on the path to becoming mass killers. Interpersonal conflicts also seem to have played a role. Adi, for example, tells Anwar how he stabbed his girlfriend’s hated father because he was Chinese.

Beyond these petty economic and personal motivations, a fairly basic ideology also is used by the killers to rationalize their actions. All of the characters share an aversion to communists (and ethnic Chinese to a lesser degree), but it’s unclear why. No one ever gets past the surface-level “Communists were a threat to the nation.” Why were they a threat to the nation? It’s doubtful the subjects could answer the question. In fact, a character begins to describe the communists’ actions, but is interrupted by another for painting Communists in too good a light. There’s no “well, think about all the terrible things the Communists did” or “well, the Communists wanted to kill us.” It’s simply left at describing the Communists positively is wrong. In the context of the movie, the most convincing explanation would seem to be the subjects’ desire to demonstrate their masculinity and power.

Because the film doesn’t examine the structural factors involved in initiating the mass killings, it’s impossible to draw a firm conclusion on the killers’ motivations from the movie alone. Deeper societal cleavages likely played a role in elevating the subjects into the role of mass murderers, and so personal grievances, a flimsy ideology, and psychological essentialization don’t explain the events in full. Even without a complete understanding, mass atrocity scholars (including myself; I’m trying to answer this question in my undergraduate thesis) can draw an important, if anecdotal, lesson from The Act of Killing. As Christopher Browning concluded in Ordinary Men, in violent and chaotic settings, ordinary individuals experiencing fairly weak influences pulling them toward violence can in fact commit genocide.

The remembrance and celebration of violence is a central theme in the film, but it comes across as quite foreign to Western audiences. In the US, we celebrate violence regularly. Soldiers are presented as national heroes for undergoing hardship and danger to protect the rest of the nation. The killing itself escapes the public lens. Drone operators, for example, aren’t heroes to the American public because they themselves were never in danger. The film’s portrayal of Indonesia paints a very different picture. Anwar and his fellow executioners are indeed public heroes. When interviewed on public television, the host praises Anwar and Herman for developing more humane way to eliminate Communists. Anwar and his cronies weren’t in danger themselves, but they nonetheless are the subjects of public adoration without having to hide the exact nature of their past actions.

On a similar theme, the film reflects very poorly on the current state of Indonesian politics. Politicians are both publicly and privately supportive of mass murderers and their ideological inheritors, in this case the paramilitary organization Pancasila. The film includes a speech by Indonesian Vice President Yusuf Kalla at a Pancasila rally in which he says the country needs more “gangsters” (which is consistently and bizarrely translated proudly as “free men” by Anwar and the other executioners) to “get things done.” The film also includes numerous examples of political corruption. Herman runs for office, but rather than examine how he’ll do the job, he ponders how much money he can make through bribery and threats. Along the campaign trail, citizens care little about his platform and instead ask if he comes bearing “gifts”. The film also portrays some good-ol’ extortion of Chinese businessman by the former mass murderers. Oppenheimer implies that these actions are taken with the full knowledge and cooperation of big time politicians. All of these examples point to the existence of a mafia state in Indonesia, where murderers, gangsters, and other unsavory characters collude with the highest levels of power to enrich themselves without worrying about public accountability.

The film is an unsettling masterpiece with veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog saying, “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade… it is unprecedented in the history of cinema.” Along the way, it presents several insights on the nature of mass atrocities, and I highly recommend The Act of Killing.


The Evolution of the Sudan Peace, Security and Accountability Act

This piece was written by STAND’s Policy Coordinator, Danny Hirschel-Burns in regards to our STAND for Sudan Campaign. You can contact Danny at

The Sudan Peace, Security and Accountability Act of 2013 (H.R. 1692) promises to provide a new approach to Sudan. The bill would allow the US to more effectively promote human rights and conflict resolution in Sudan. H.R. 1692 focuses primarily on creating a comprehensive strategy that would require various government agencies to coordinate heavily. Second, the bill outlines how the US can support a democratic transition and replace Omar al-Bashir. Third, H.R 1692 details how to improve the delivery of humanitarian aid and ensure that aid continues to flow. Fourth, if the bill were to pass, new sanctions targeted at Sudanese officials would be implemented and old sanctions would be improved. Fifth, H.R. 1692 also encourages coordination among U.S. allies on the enforcement of these sanctions. Finally, the bill strengthens existing mechanisms for ensuring accountability for human rights violations committed by members of the Sudanese government.


H.R. 1692 is not the first iteration of the Sudan Peace, Security, and Accountability Act. A2012 version was introduced, but unfortunately died in committee. Lawmakers have written in several important changes in the most recent version:
The bill stresses that while a comprehensive solution to conflict in Sudan should work in tandem with negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan, North-South diplomacy should not impede or condition the other set of talks.
This new bill is especially focused on working with other allies to coordinate policy and actions on Sudan, which is undeniably important.


Like the past version, H.R. 1692 asks the United Nations Security Council to implement a Sudan-wide peacekeeping mission. However, a change in wording stipulates that this mission would have a human rights monitoring component.
This bill focuses much more on the inclusiveness of the democratic process than last year’s version. The bill has a fairly expansive definition of who should be taken into account in a future democratic transition,

“…including those institutions and organizations that can represent and articulate the demands of marginalized constituencies, such as the peripheries, youth, women, nomads, and urban and rural poor…”

This bill is the first to introduce sanctions against a government because it is failing to execute an ICC arrest warrant, in this case, against any Sudanese government official.


US legislation on Sudan is sorely outdated, and H.R. 1692 would provide a much-need update. The current framing piece of Sudan legislation is the Sudan Peace Act from 2002. This long predates the Comprehensive Peace Agreement from 2005 and South Sudan’s independence in 2011. The Sudan Peace Act is too focused on events in Darfur, and H.R. 1692 would support a more comprehensive look at conflicts across Sudan. Nicholas Kristof is right that the bill will not solve Sudan’s problems. However, H.R. 1692 would be a huge step forward for U.S. policy on Sudan.

Burma and the US: Where are we now?

This post is written by Danny Hirschel-Burns, STAND Policy Coordinator. It is the first post in a series on Burma, which we are featuring as part of our Burma: Preventing the Next Mass Atrocity campaign. This post provides an overview of United States-Burma relations, while others will delve more in-depth into issues affecting Burma today.

Myanmar and the United States have not always had the friendliest bilateral relations, but just in the last two years, that is beginning to change.  Following ongoing, partial democratic reforms that began in 2011, the United States has gradually moved toward restoring a functioning relationship, sometimes called normalizing relations.  However, the United States should be cautious in its approach: there are still serious issues that the democratic reforms have not addressed.

The current cycle of relations between the United States and Myanmar (Myanmar commonly refers to the government, and Burma to the country) began in 1988, when the recently-installed military government brutally cracked down on the nascent pro-democracy movement.  Two years later, Myanmar refused to honor the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in national elections, placing her under house arrest instead.  In protest of the coup and the fraudulent elections, the United States removed its ambassador to the country.  The crackdown on the 2007 Saffron Revolution led to the further deterioration of relations.

In 2011, Prime Minister Thein Sein was elected as President of Myanmar.  Though he had previously served in the military and his political party has connections to the military, he is the first civilian president in forty-nine years. His administration has slightly rolled back military control of government, freed some political prisoners, and opened up Burma’s commercial and media sectors.  In response to these changes, Hillary Clinton, then-Secretary of State, visited Burma in 2011, and in early 2012, announced that a United States ambassador would return to Burma.  The United States has also cancelled some economic sanctions on the country, allowing for US dollars to enter the country.  The prospect ofresuming military collaboration has been discussed, but so far there hasn’t been any concrete action.

While there has been some thawing of recent relations, some impediments to normalization remain in place.  American businesses are allowed to invest in the state oil company, but this is contingent on notifying the State Department.  Similar restrictions apply to businesses with large investments in the country.  President Obama has also issued an executive order that has strengthened sanctions against individuals that work to prevent democratic reform.  Finally, the United States still does not provide Myanmar with military aid due to the presence of child soldiers within the Myanmar army.  Unlike Yemen and the DRC, it has not received a waiver to continue aid on the basis of American national security.

The United States should be wary of further normalization because of three main problems that remain in Burma.  First, the democratic reforms that began two years ago are largelysuperficial.  The military has a mandated 25% of seats in Parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from running for President because of an obscure constitutional clause designed specifically to target her, and the government continues to imprison prisoners of conscience.  Second, the military continues to violate ceasefires with ethnic minority groups and commit human rights abuses in those areas.  These grievances were highlighted in a recent open lettersigned by 133 ethnic minority organizations.  Third, the government has failed to stop violence against Muslim (primarily Rohingya) residents of Burma, and in many cases the government is complicit in the attacks.


Filling in the Gaps: Advancing DRC Peacebuilding and Advocacy

This piece was put together by STAND’s Democratic Republic of the Congo Working Group, with contributions by Sean Langberg, Katy Lindquist, and Danny Hirschel-Burns.  

In his article The Price of Precious, which recently appeared in National Geographic’s October issue, Jeffrey Gettleman attempts to tell the story of how minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) make their way into our electronics.  Drawing on personal experience in DRC, Gettleman paints a vivid picture of what he perceives violence to look like on the ground, while simultaneously offering a history of Congo since King Leopold and an overview of conflict mineral legislation in the United States – all in less than 1000 words.

The article adopts an all too familiar “Western explorer in Africa” narrative.  As an intrepid outsider, Gettleman is shocked by the danger and chaos.  Based on the article, Congolese are mere stereotypes: helpless villagers, brainwashed child soldiers, or greedy opportunists.  However, Gettleman’s position as a Westerner allows him to (supposedly) see the reality hidden from the ignorant Congolese.

The first half of the article reads like an adventure story in order for the reader to fully appreciate the danger he faces.  He goes out of his way to describe the utter poverty and hopelessness of the situation.  Gettleman then extrapolates from his experiences with a few child soldiers and a corrupt mining official over the course of a day that minerals must be the most important cause of conflict in a homogenous eastern DRC.  The Price of Precious is just one link in a long chain of simplistic understandings of Africa.

Unlike Gettleman and many others who write about DRC, we take a different approach.  While so-called “conflict minerals” certainly play a role in the conflict and grassroots advocacy efforts are morally commendable, a broader strategy is needed.  For years, academics and other experts have rightly pushed a multiscale agenda that addresses primary, secondary, and tertiary conflict drivers under the umbrellas of governance, security, sovereignty, and justice.  Conceptually, there exists a dynamic and intersectional pyramid of violence.  At the local level, land conflicts and equitable access to resources must be prioritized alongside the expansion of mobile courts and local reconciliation projects to address injustices and sexual violence perpetrated within communities. At the regional level, the dozens of armed groups operating in eastern DRC must be addressed separately, attending to the specific grievances and histories of each group. Specifically, the M23 rebellion must be addressed through sustained diplomacy, economic pressure, and smart peacekeeping. At the national level, President Kabila and his administration must increase their accountability by facilitating free and fair elections and drastically reforming the security sector to improve the command and control of state soldiers and police. At the international level, immense pressure must be put on Rwanda to end its support of all armed groups in the Kivus, while also pressuring the Congolese government to cooperate with international courts and participate in good-faith regional negotiations.

Advocacy on the DRC has traditionally orbited between two primary entry points: conflict minerals and sexual violence.  Though minerals and sexual violence are parts of the equation in DRC, they by no means constitute a holistic picture.  We must ask ourselves then why these two narratives of the violence in DRC continue to persist?  There are of course many answers to consider, but perhaps the driving motivation for the prevalence of these narratives is their relatability to our daily lives.  The challenges of DRC advocacy in the future then becomes making the complex roots of violence relatable to advocates, and broadening the policy scope while focusing on targeted results. To be clear, there are numerous laudable advocacy organizations and initiatives that are already advancing an agenda that will benefit DRC and civilians targeted by violence.  Incorporating these initiatives into the mainstream, diversifying media coverage, and prioritizing expert voices are potential next steps.  There are no easy answers, but continuing to ignore deep forces at work in DRC in favor of simple narratives of violence will not only fail to improve the situation in eastern DRC, but risks making the realities on the ground worse.

Chemicals Weapons and Diplomacy

The opinions expressed in this blog are from STAND’s Policy Coordinator Danny Hirschel-Burns and STAND’s Education Coordinator Sean Langberg

On September 15th, John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed on a framework for the removal and decommission of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.  Fortunately, the deal prevented US airstrikes against Syria, which STAND advocated against based on their potential negative consequences for civilians.  While the deal offers some diplomatic progress, there are still many questions surrounding the actual effects of the deal on the course of the conflict.

The chemical weapons agreement, while representing a positive instance of multilateral cooperation, will do little to end the broader conflict.  It only focuses on chemical weapons, which have killed a small percentage of civilians.  Its implementation will happen over the course of a year and there is no guarantee that plan will be effective.  Assad may renege on the agreement or his government may be unable to release all the chemical weapons stockpiles to international monitors due to the intense nature of the conflict.  Finally, the chemical weapons deal could distract crucial diplomatic energy from a broader deal.  This deal is tenuous as is, and if Russia and the United States lose the desire to negotiate an end to the conflict, it may have few practical consequences for Syrian civilians.

While the deal could have negative consequences, there are also plenty of reasons to be hopeful.  First, the deal opens new diplomatic channels between Russia, the US, and Syria.  This warming of relations could potentially lead to a negotiated solution, the best possible endgame for Syrian civilians.  Second, days after the agreement, the Syrian deputy prime minister indicated that the regime would be open to a ceasefire, marking the first time the Assad government has openly signaled its willingness to pursue a negotiated solution.  Finally, in a speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Obama pledged an additional $339 million for humanitarian aid.  It will still not meet the total need of the enormous humanitarian crisis, but it is a big step forward.

There are still numerous challenges ahead for diplomatic progress in Syria.  Islamic extremists are unlikely to accept any deal, and their influence has grown with a recent merger of multiple groups.  Similarly, other opposition groups have made it clear that negotiations that involve Assad staying in power will not be feasible.  Despite the numerous barriers to an inclusive, diplomatic solution, STAND continues to support a negotiated solution, increased humanitarian aid, and a complete arms embargo.

Syria Policy Statement

This post is written by Policy Coordinator Danny Hirschel-Burns as a statement of STAND’s policy stance. 

STAND has kept a close watch on Syria from the first days of peaceful protests in 2011.  Since then, we have have been shocked and dismayed as cycles of violence have become further and further entrenched.  We have consistently urged the United States government, as well as other international actors, to create and implement strategies to mitigate violence against civilians.  However, we feel that the Obama administration’s proposed Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Syria is not one such strategy.  Therefore, STAND strongly urges Congress to reject the current plan of action, and in turn urge the Obama administration to pursue alternative strategies aimed, first and foremost, at protecting the lives of all Syrian civilians.

There are multiple reasons STAND does not feel it can support strikes.  First, relevant academic studies suggest that this intervention will likely kill more civilians than it will save.  Second, the limited timeframe and mandate of the intervention will likely not change the fundamental dynamics of violence in Syria.  The Assad regime will come out only marginally weakened and more motivated to exact revenge on civilians.  Third, STAND believes that a negotiated solution to the conflict would provide the best situation for civilians even despite the current unlikelihood of that happening.  An airstrike campaign will only decrease the already slim chances of bringing the various players, both Syrian and international, to the negotiating table.  Furthermore, a military intervention will divert crucial resources from other more productive avenues.

Instead, there are three strategies that STAND urges the United States government to adopt to facilitate civilian protection.  First, we urge a total weapons embargo of Syria.  The United States is certainly not the only player supplying arms, so it should put diplomatic pressure on Russia, Iran, the gulf countries, the EU and all other international players to cease providing weapons to various groups in Syria.  We believe stopping the flow of arms to all sides to be justified in the interest of civilian protection.  Second, we urge the United States to lead the international community in raising the $3.5 billion the UN has requested in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and IDP’s.  This is one of the most concrete ways the international community can aid the millions of Syrians in need in the midst of a crisis that is quickly consuming the region.  The United States should also pledge to allow Syrian refugees to seek asylum in the US.  Lastly, we urge that the United States continue to work with international actors to find a negotiated political solution to the conflict in Syria.  In the interest of civilian protection, the United States should do its absolute best to end this conflict as soon as possible.  It is neither in the United States’ national interest nor in the interest of Syrian civilians to pursue policies that will exacerbate the conflict while simultaneously closing off avenues to end it.