Interview with Kyle Matthews, Senior Deputy Director of MIGS

12 June 2016

The Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) is a partner of GAAMAC. Its Deputy Director Kyle Matthews discusses its mandate and priorities. 

Could you describe main goals of your organization, MIGS?

MIGS stands for the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies. We are a university-based research and advocacy center at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. We are the only center in Canada that has full-time staff working mass atrocity prevention, not just from studying it from a historical perspective but working on it to advance policies at the national and the international levels. We use education as a tool in which we brief Canadian Members of Parliament and Senators, and we often provide specialized briefings to staff in the Departments of Foreign Affairs and National Defense, as well as to other associated departments in government that have a role in atrocity prevention. We also bring together NGOs, civil society groups, and scholars and act as their unifying voice. As such, we at MIGS act as a hub for all discussions related to genocide prevention, mass atrocity prevention, and the Responsibility to Protect.

When did MIGS start activities on educating mass atrocity prevention?

MIGS was founded by two academics at Concordia University who were relatives of Holocaust survivors. It initially came about as a research center focusing on the lessons of the Holocaust.

In 2007, Romeo Dallaire was named a distinguished senior fellow at our Institute. At that time we launched an initiative called “The Will to Intervene Project.” The aim was to understand why the US and Canada did not really do much to stop the genocide in Rwanda – when Romeo Dallaire was the head of the peacekeeping force there – and why just a few years later we saw the complete opposite approach over Kosovo.

So basically our work, and particularly working at the national level, started in 2007. And it was based on Romeo Dallaire’s belief that in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide, it was not simply the United Nations that let him down; it was actually the member states (national governments). He became very captured by the idea advanced in the Responsibility to Protect, the initial report published in 2001 (by ICISS, or the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty) because it argued that before you mobilize international political will to stop genocide, you must first mobilize domestic political will. That framed our focus, really, on working at the national level.

Your recent education initiatives are particularly intriguing. What were those initiatives and how were they organized? Could you share any lessons learned from organizing those activities?

First, which might be the most important, is that we are the institutional partner of the Canadian All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity. The Group was set up by Romeo Dallaire when he was named a Senator. We help pay for administrative staff to work with the Group. We help members of Parliament organize events. We provide specialized briefings on country specific situations, and we also use that as a venue to introduce to Canadian politicians and members of Parliament about what other national governments are doing and share best practices.

When we saw the Obama administration launch the Atrocity Prevention Board, for example, we provided a venue in Canada where we were able to do outreach with elected officials compare and discuss how other countries were implementing atrocity prevention policies and structures. This is one of our biggest roles – working with parliamentarians – because in the end they can hold the executive branch of government to account; they can ask why the Department of Foreign Affairs does not have an R2P focal point; they can put pressure on our Minister of International Development to actually create initiatives for atrocity prevention in our international development assistance programs.

The second major activity is our professional training program. We realized a couple of years ago that there was a huge interest in genocide prevention among a whole swath of people inside and outside of government. Then, we decided that we had to create a venue where we could get people to come together, meet each other, and create a network that is going to grow and expand and help the atrocity prevention community collaborate more effectively in the years ahead. So what we did three years ago was to establish the “Professional Training Program on the Prevention of Mass Atrocities.”

This program is open to upwards of sixty professionals a year. Most of the participants come from the Canadian government, Canadian civil society groups and the United Nations, though we have also had American and Turkish diplomats’ participate. The training program has cemented our ability to build the network for these individuals. Too often people in and outside the government dealing with atrocity issues are working in silos. They do not know who to contact in what department, and by creating this, we are giving people better knowledge and expert advice that they will take on through their professional careers to address atrocity prevention. And we believe that just being able to connect these people through the network has led to further collaboration and better formulation of national and international policies.

On the first point you mentioned, would you share any stories when you submitted special briefings to Canadian parliamentarians? How were they received and followed up?

Well, being the institutional partner to parliamentarians has allowed us to present some of our work directly to them. We issued a policy report with twelve specific guidelines on what the Canadian government could do. By doing these policy briefings, meeting different politicians, bringing them all together in one room, we have been able to share with them in a private way – not a public manner – to let them know what can be done to uphold the responsibility to protect. We have been able to bridge different political parties through these collaborations.

It has also allowed us to have a platform where we can bring in state officials, as well as diplomats, military officers, aid practitioners who work for the government, to come and speak to our parliamentarians directly. This has opened up channels of communication and advanced knowledge mobilization.

But it is not to say that it has not had its own problems. We have had a government in the past that just did not want to really mention the Responsibility to Protect or take action on this. For this, we were able to organize meetings with the Group in such a way that we let the Minister of Foreign Affairs know about why this is important. We also connected people in other governments with our Canadian experts to show that there is some growing consensus on doing more for the prevention of mass atrocities.

Another example was that we have brought in people with expertise on hate speech, trying to tell the Canadian government on what can be done to fight hate speech by monitoring domestic radio and other forms of media where the demonization of a group is taking place. This is how we have been able to get such discussions and ideas to our parliamentarians. And now we have people actually starting to work on such programs in government and in civil society.

One thing to note about working with parliamentarians, elected officials or the legislature is that they have considerable political power that civil servants do not have. They can question political leaders. They can question policy decisions. They can vote to give more funding to certain branches of government on these issues. We believe that we have had a success in working with the Group in advancing atrocity prevention as a policy priority.

This facilitating role that you provided to parliamentarians would be of particular interest to GAAMAC.

It is about opening up a space where people can meet with elected officials by providing specialized briefings. For instance, we did a special briefing session with Mali’s Ambassador to Canada in the lead up to the French intervention in Mali in 2013. That pushed and communicated to Canadian officials that Canada could do something important by providing heavy lift capacity to the French and the African Union. We brought in Mukesh Kapila to talk about his experience in Sudan and what he did to alert the international community to the genocide in Darfur. We have brought in the heads of leading NGOs such as Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders, to hear voices from the field as to what is taking place in countries such as Myanmar or the Central African Republic, that often might not be on the radar of our media companies or our TV screens, which often guide our elected officials’ attention.

Another thing that we have done, which is very interesting, is that through working with this Group, we have had a couple of members of Parliament move forward and got the entire Canadian Parliament to endorse April 23rd as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Mass Atrocities, which is now going into its fifth year. It started off with a motion that was adopted by all parties in our Parliament. Then partnerships were formed and events were held. Last year we managed to get 700 high school students in Canada’s capital to collaborate on putting together a large-scale event and bringing in expert speakers of international stature.

That is an impressive example for other states in GAAMAC.

Yes, that is really growing, and people may laugh – but you see, at first 200 high school students were involved, then 500 and now we have 800. It is expanding to other Canadian cities. The issue about preventing mass atrocities is that we have a lot more education to do. I think our Canadian politicians will act on atrocity prevention, but at the same time we need engaged citizens writing to them and saying that, “This is important to me. I want you to talk about this. I want you to ask our Foreign Minister why we’re not doing more.” This is a process of building up that political will, of building up a new generation of Canadians that see this as something that is worthwhile. So I’m very happy how we have seen this progress from an idea to a growing constituency for genocide prevention.

In your view, what does national ownership of prevention – for the government to own the atrocity prevention agenda – look like?

From my standpoint, ownership means more than simply signing the Genocide Convention; rather, it means building the structures within its own government that will allow the government to act and will not depend entirely on ad-hoc responses in the future. It took the United Nations more than five decades to create an office for the prevention of genocide. To have ownership at the national level is to have national governments recognize that they now have to build that kind of capacity from within, take responsibility for being a signatory of the Genocide Convention.

What we tell governments over and over again is that if they start building up teams, in government, that have full-time staff, they will be in a better position to work on the prevention angle, of looking for hate speech, using their diplomatic, bilateral relationships to use quiet diplomacy to engage states that might be undergoing a spiral of mass slaughter. That is really the first step. And then, from there, we build the knowledge, we build the resources, which in turn put us in a better position to make informed policy decisions.

We need to have “a whole-of-government approach” that brings together people with regional expertise, with military expertise, with legal expertise. I think right now we lack this in most countries around the world. We have the R2P focal points initiative which is an important step to institutionalize atrocity prevention at the national level. As we have outlined in our book –Mobilizing the Will to Intervene– there is a need to have people in government thinking ahead, looking at the world, and looking at all the data that informs decision-makers that some country might be going in a wrong direction.

Think about political risk analysis teams working for corporate companies that warn them of some imminent crisis and tell them they should be careful where they invest their money. We should have, in governments, teams that do the same, but for human rights, for the prevention of atrocities. That is how governments could take ownership. How can we deal with climate change unless we have a department of climate change or people in government with climate expertise working on this? The same applies to atrocity prevention. We need to build these national structures. The Genocide Prevention Taskforce report stated this for the US government.

Other countries need to follow suit. This has to be done at the national level first because member states have the legal responsibility to uphold the Genocide Convention

What are other important activities for your organization?

Another very important role we play is that we are also closely engaged with the media – in writing op-eds, making media appearances to explain to the Canadian public what can be done to protect civilians when we see genocidal regimes or non-state actors starting to grow in strength. We engage in the media to help build political will and also inform politicians, and I think that other civil society actors, be they NGOs, think tanks, or university-based centers, should do the same with the media. They need to be on the TV screens, to be in the press, in order to keep the prevention angle alive and educate the public on the Responsibility to Protect and our responsibilities.

The second thing is we are also very active on social media. I think many groups out there still do not realize, or underestimate, that social media – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, among others – are powerful tools that we can use to connect with our foreign ministers, with our elected officials, even with people that are in government who are working on this. Social media provides a vehicle to build up a wider network and connections that you need for this long struggle ahead.

Would you have any other suggestions or recommendations to GAAMAC as a platform of exchange?

One thing I would suggest – and we cannot emphasize more – is that governments have to think about atrocity prevention in a strategic manner. Yes, it’s a humanitarian issue; yes, it’s a human rights issue. But it is also a strategic issue. What kind of world do we want to live in if we allow mass atrocities to take place? It is particularly interesting to states that are multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious in their character. We are seeing the world as more interconnected than ever before. The crisis in Syria has created waves of refugees that are now flowing into Europe, destabilizing parts of Europe, and we must not forget that this is an outcome of not upholding the Responsibility to Protect. It is an outcome of our collective inaction on preventing atrocity crimes. A lesson we must realize is that mass atrocity crimes cannot be contained within the borders of the country where they are taking place. Syria is the perfect example. Many criticize the intervention in Libya with good reason, but Syria shows what happens when we do not act. Or when some actors act for other purposes that are not about protecting human rights, and we are seeing increased security vacuum where extremist groups like ISIS are able to control territory and plan out attacks against civilians there and overseas. We see the breakdown of public health systems, and we see an outflow of millions of refugees. And this is devastating for the world economy and for social cohesion in certain states.

States need to think strategically about the outcome of not acting on this. Even more importantly efforts must be concentrated on creating the structures and new capacities to address this global problem, lest we are going to see a lot more ugliness before it gets better. And we can stop that from happening. R2P is about improving global governance and ensuring stability.

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