Only jointly can justice and education successfully prevent atrocities

21 October 2021

Invited by UNESCO to discuss the role of education in the prevention of atrocity crimes, GAAMAC Chair Judge Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi focused on the nexus between justice and  education.

Mass atrocities, including genocides, are the culmination of a long process that begins with words. Words matter and can be powerful weapons to incite, spread, condone or encourage the escalation of violence. This is why GAAMAC embodies the commitment to early prevention as a permanent endeavour, and not as an ex post response.

In this effort, accountability of the perpetrators is crucial. Because a strong justice system does not only serve to punish past acts, but also to deter future crimes. Violent acts, and the hateful discourse that ignite them, feed on impunity. Judicial decisions also act as a rampart against denial, distortion or revisionist narratives. Therefore, there is no opposition between justice and atrocity prevention: they are the continuation of the same effort to curb permissive contexts and reaffirm the rule of law.

Progress in the courts fails to resonate beyond them

The last three decades have seen impressive developments in accountability efforts for atrocity crimes. Hybrid and national tribunals were established, the first permanent International Criminal Court was created and many key decisions were reached. Some of these decisions even deal specifically with hate speech and incitement.

And yet, justice today is falling short of acting as a deterrent. Why? Because its progress remains widely unknown beyond specialist circles and justice activists. By and large, the general public is neither aware of international and national efforts to deal with atrocities. Perhaps even more tragically, ignorance prevails even among the communities specifically concerned by those crimes.

What can be done?

There is an urgent need to improve education about justice efforts. This means more education about the importance of accountability in general, and better information around specific legal proceedings and decisions.

Doing so will require a coordinated effort, involving both the education and the justice systems: teaching about justice efforts must be reinforced; and justice systems must improve their capacity to explain their own work through appropriate communication and outreach initiatives.

Until the significant advancements of justice are not given more visibility, their ability to deter violence will remain limited, and atrocities will keep occurring.

GAAMAC is grateful for the continued informal partnership with UNESCO. The Forum on education and hate speech was the second UNESCO event to which GAAMAC was invited in 2021. In April 2021, Judge Fernandez also discussed the lessons from the Rwandan genocide.

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