Acting Director, Simon-Skjodt Center for Prevention of Genocide, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Syrian Human Rights Activist
White House Reporter, Wall Street Journal
CFR hosts a screening of 82 Names: Syria, Please Don't Forget Us, a documentary film co-produced with the United Sates Holocaust Memorial Museum and Maziar Bahari, that traces the journey of Mansour Omari, a survivor of torture and imprisonment in Syria. As Omari seeks to rebuild his life in exile and visits sites in Germany that memorialize the victims of the Holocaust, he reflects on how to bring attention to the conflict in Syria he escaped--and counter extremist ideology in the future.
SAVITT: Thank you so much for coming today. My name is Jill Savitt. I’m the acting director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, which is a division of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Simon-Skjodt Center works to disrupt atrocity crimes at every stage in the atrocity cycle. We have an Early Warning Project that forecasts where mass-atrocity crimes might break out, a policy engagement and bearing witness program that tries to encourage a response when there are atrocities, and then a justice program that works with victims and survivors on securing justice for the crimes that they have suffered.
I stepped into this current role over the summer, but I’m here today wearing kind of two hats. I was a curator at the museum of our Wexner Center, which is where we put up exhibitions on current cases of atrocities around the world. And so I was the curator of the exhibition that will be featured in this film. You know, our goal with the exhibition space, which comes right after you walk out of our permanent exhibition on the Holocaust, is to make sure our visitors know that genocide didn’t end with the Holocaust, and that everyone has a role to play in preventing and responding to contemporary genocide and related crimes.
In the film you’re going to see, you will meet Mansour Omari, who is a human rights activist and journalist in Syria who was picked up by the Assad regime for his work documenting human rights abuses, and in particular disappearances. Because of this advocacy, his office was raided by Syrian security forces and he himself was disappeared. He was thrown into an underground prison, where he was detained for nearly a year. You would have met Mansour in person today, and I bring his sincere regrets. He had an emergency health issue this week which is largely due to the after effects of the beatings and torture that he experienced in prison, and so he is on a plane right now back to Europe. He deeply regrets not being here because his life’s work has become to tell the story of the people he was detained with and to call for justice in their cases.
As you will see, while Mansour was in prison he and his fellow detainees knew that their families had no idea what had happened to them. And so they hatched a plan to write all of their names using a chicken bone dipped in rust and blood on pieces of cloth from a T-shirt. Then these pieces of cloth were sewn into the cuffs and collars of one dress shirt, one of—and they hung that shirt on the wall of their cell, and they promised each other that the first person who was released would wear the shirt out and tell all the families of all the other detainees that they had been with them in prison and what their status was. And he recounted to us when we met him that when he put on the shirt, his fellow detainees came up to him, held him by the lapels, and one of the men said to him: Please don’t forget us. And so he has really made it his life’s mission to tell the story of disappearances and what’s happened in Syria, and to tell the international community that attention must be paid.
We met Mansour when he brought the cloths to the museum in telling his story, and we knew it was one we had to share with the world. We also had our conservation unit that we use for artifacts from the Holocaust preserve the cloths as evidence, and so he now has—and take photographs of them with a certain technique that can look through the layers of an artifact and pull up the ink that they made, which has started to fade. So he loaned us his cloths, and part of his trip here this week was he picked them up and he’s taking them away to be—to use in his advocacy.
Our exhibit—please don’t forget us—is still on at the museum, now without the cloths. But we have photographs of them, so you can still see them. It’ll be up for probably another month, and then we’ll take that exhibit down, and our next exhibit will be on the Rohingya community, so—in that contemporary space.
Really, thank you so much for being here. I’ll come up after the film and take any questions that you have. We really appreciate your care and concern about the Syrian community, so thanks very much. (Applause.)
(The film 82 Names: Syria, Please Don’t Forget Us is shown.)
SAVITT: I know that’s a lot to take in.
As we kind of settle with what we just saw, if there are any questions about the movie, about Mansour, about the museum and its work on these issues, I’d be glad to take them.
SAVITT: Hi. How did—how did Mansour get connected to the—(comes on mic)—oh, sorry.
Hi. Laura Kelly from The Washington Times.
How did Mansour get connected to the Holocaust Museum?
SAVITT: So we had—there’s another film about disappearances called The Disappeared, and Mansour’s also featured in that film, and we met that filmmaker. She came to the museum saying that she wanted to show it at the museum, and in talking with her and seeing it we saw Mansour. And then that filmmaker put him in touch with us about his cloths.
And then Maziar Bahari—I don’t know if folks will remember the book and movie Rosewater? Jon Stewart made a movie called Rosewater and it was about an Iranian dissident. That is the—the dissident, that Iranian dissident, is Maziar Bahari, the filmmaker. And Maziar had heard about Mansour, and Mansour had seen the movie Rosewater and knew about Maziar, so we were able to connect them, so.
Yes? There’s a microphone coming.
Q: What effort is being made to use the information to document, essentially, genocide, the violations of international law? And have they been presented to any international tribunal?
SAVITT: So I don’t know the ins and outs of all the legal cases, but Caesar’s photos that you saw, he also on a cellphone that we also have at the museum was able to take pictures of a lot of documents. And so that has all been turned over to a group of lawyers who are working on cases with Syria. Other Syria experts might know the status of cases. There’s one in Europe. But they are bringing together all the evidence they have in an attempt to hold the perpetrators to account.
As we all know, Syria is in the middle of a geopolitical food fight of the highest order, where there are all kinds of different client-state/proxy wars going on. And so it’s very hard to get anything to proceed, especially through international bodies where a whole bunch of protection goes on and tries to keep things at bay. But there are a group of international lawyers working on the case.
Q: Thank you. Amy Kaslow, independent journalist in Washington and former council member in the museum.
Could you—could you give us a broader understanding, first of all, the question what was his attraction to the museum? The mechanics you explained, but the broader context. And what does the museum expect, and what does—what do some of the folks who are drawn to the museum expect from that relationship?
SAVITT: So the program that I run, which is the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, we are a team of fifteen, and we work on current conflicts and also on prevention. Our goal is to be for victims and survivors today what the Jews didn’t have in the ’30s and ’40s, and so we put a huge focus on working with victims and survivors on a range of things.
It’s on one level bringing folks to Washington to do advocacy. We’re an independent federal agency, so we have a fair amount of access to the government, and we are able to bring in victims and survivors to speak in their own voice about what happened to them. So we do a range of policy work, especially on ongoing conflicts.
The other program that we run, though, is about justice, and it’s called the Ferencz Initiative for International Justice. And it’s founded in partnership with Ben Ferencz, who’s the last living Nuremberg prosecutor, who has helped build the international architecture that exists to try genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing.
And so through that project we run what we call justice advisory groups. And so we gather victims and survivors from a particular conflict, and we hook them up with international lawyers and other experts on the justice process, and we help them interact with that process to get justice for their crimes. We have—we work with Syrians. We work with a group of Yazidis, Rohingya, and South Sudanese. So we have four right now that we are actively working on. In many cases those victim and survivor groups don’t always know each other, and there’s a bunch of trust-building to do what them.
We’re publishing a handbook based on these meetings that we’ve had with them. In order to get it to more people, we’ve published a—we’re publishing a handbook that explains how you do media work, international diplomacy, what the justice process is, how the ICC works, how hybrid tribunals work, what are all the mechanisms of international justice that groups can do from, you know, truth and reconciliation through formal justice processes. And so that’s a huge focus of what we do.
You know, the museum is committed to—you know, we have a huge survivor program of Holocaust survivors. In some cases for these groups what we try and help them do is evidence collecting. We don’t collect it ourselves, but we have a lot of expertise on how you collect and preserve evidence. And then inevitably there’s also the memorial function. And so that’s what, in working with us, Mansour has sort of turned his mind toward, is how does he honor his fellow Syrians, and especially the people he was imprisoned with.
For this particular film, we also have a program on anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. And so through that work we—this partnership with Mansour, we’ve been taking this film to college campuses. It’s a huge part of what we’re doing with this, is—it was at the University of Pennsylvania last night. It’s a huge program of bringing it to college campuses and talking with young people about how they can engage with all kinds of—to confront hatred of all times, but also anti-Semitism and genocide prevention.
Q: Adam Pearlman, a lawyer here in town, formerly with DOD and once upon a time DOJ, working with the Iraqi High Tribunal.
Are you seeing this as a genocide as such, or just crimes against humanity and you’re leveraging your experience with genocide survivors and using your—that’s the vehicle?
SAVITT: That’s a—our gallows humor is G-word gymnastics. You know, it’s—we don’t—a lot of people say just crimes against humanity, and that’s difficult because genocide is a very particular crime with a legal definition where you have to prove in a court that the perpetrators had the intention to kill, in whole or in part, a group of people based on their identity. So, in technical terms, Syria probably does not match that definition because political affiliation is not part of the genocide definition. It’s race, nationality, religion. So it doesn’t—in the—in the framing of the Genocide Convention, political affiliation was not included. So they are crimes against humanity that’s going on in Syria. We call them as such.
We are very—as an institution, we’re very concerned about the definitions and holding up the norms as they are. We don’t make it—you know, genocide is a unique kind of crime. Is it worse or better than war crimes, chemical—you know, war crimes that include chemical weapons attacks? So we don’t—we try not to compare crimes. But in Syria they are crimes against humanity, and we have said as much.
Q: If I had said just crimes against humanity, I didn’t mean—I didn’t mean to.
SAVITT: Yeah, it’s hard because they—because of the colloquial definition of genocide, it exists outside the legal definition of genocide. And people do think of it as the worst of the worst crime, and so among victims and survivors getting a genocide determination is very important to them because it recognizes their suffering. It names the crime in a particular way. And that’s, I think, something that we work through in our justice work of trying to combat, and that all of these crimes are heinous. There are different kinds of crimes. You know, it’s like homicide versus manslaughter. You know, there are different types of crimes, but they are bad and you have to hold the perpetrators to account for them, so.
Q: Shindiri Madas (ph) from the U.N. Foundation.
I’m curious just about his story. How did he get out? Did he get support from somebody? Or why was he the one who was able to get out?
SAVITT: He doesn’t know. He will tell you he was just lucky. Maran (sic; Mazen) Darwish, who you saw—Mazen Darwish, in the film, there was a huge international campaign run by Human Rights Watch and others because he had been a partner of theirs on the ground, and that was one of the reasons for his release. Mansour will tell you he doesn’t know. His family certainly went to bat for him and tried to organize others. In the exhibit he tells one story about his father, when his father and mother—his father is, you know, late 70s—went to go inquire about him, the guard pushed his father and he fell down, you know. So people did go to bat for him, but he will tell you he does not know why his name was called, and that he got to put on the shirt and smuggle out the names.
Q: (Off mic)—English.
SAVITT: He has learned English over time. He learned it when he was a younger man, and it’s one of the interesting parts of the story. And it’s gotten better since we have known him. He’s now practiced.
You know, one of the reasons I am so happy about this film is that we’ve done a lot of speaking and touring with Mansour, and you can imagine it re-traumatizes him to tell his story over and over. And so that this film now does it I feel takes a huge burden off of him.
But one of the things he did in prison was teach English to the other prisoners, and it was how the idea of writing came. They just wrote in the dirt with their finger. That was—but then they wrote—then they discovered that they could—if they took a T-shirt and they wrote with their finger on the T-shirt, they could see the imprint of the words. And that’s what gave them the idea to write the names with the chicken bone, with the ink. So teaching English to the other prisoners was—it was—he would describe it as almost an act of rebellion. It was resistance.
And we’ve heard that from Holocaust survivors and survivors of all atrocity crimes over time, that any time you can do something when you’re imprisoned and in that situation, it’s a huge relief. You feel like you’re defying your jailers, and it gives incredible momentum to stay alive. And so it was through the teaching of English that little groups would form, and that’s how they decided—they couldn’t publicize it widely to collect the names, but five of them collected the names of all eighty-two, who didn’t even know their names were being compiled because they didn’t want someone to be caught and get in trouble for doing it. So just five of them in these little English classes, that’s how they learned and memorized everybody’s name. So it’s a—your question allows me to tell that bit of commentary.
Q: Thank you. You talked about evidence collection and conserving/preserving the evidence. I know the museum has some interesting star power in the—in the jurisprudence field. What is the museum able to do as a federal institution—part government—to help the Syrians build a case for a war crimes tribunal, which is where most of us I think are thinking?
SAVITT: Yeah. We do not support direct litigation, but our power as a convener, let’s just say that we are able to attract big names and big thinkers on these issues, which we do. So we are able to convene people who are working on these issues, which we have, for private sessions and off-the-record conversations about how they would pursue a strategy. Someone who is quite involved in it is a fellow of ours, Ambassador Stephen Rapp, who is the former ambassador for war crimes at the State Department. So there is actually a very active effort to do all of that.
I wish I were more well-versed. If anyone else in the room is well-versed in that issue and can bring us up to speed, it’s not something I’ve tracked. But there is a—there is one case pending already in I think it’s the European Court of Human Rights. There are other lawsuits that have been filed by individuals. Their status—it takes a long time for these to wend their way through, so that process is ongoing. And I urge anyone interested in that—I wish I could tell you more. It’s slightly outside my area of expertise.
Q: I was struck in the film with the fact that his call to action is to focus on those that are still imprisoned and to try and get some justice, some release for them. And so while it’s terribly important to think about war crimes tribunal and memorializing, I wonder, where is the—where is the action? Or how is this film helping to galvanize any kind of support for—this is an ongoing tragedy. They’re not all gone yet. They’re still in prison. And I fear that, you know, it’s an interesting story, but you miss the fact that it’s a current story. And that’s what he’s, I think, really asking us to do something about. So what’ the way forward on that?
SAVITT: Right. That is—that’s a very sad question at this point because the numbers of people who are still alive are suspected to be much fewer than we had hoped. A few months ago the Assad regime released death certificates for a huge number of people who were killed in—who died, they said—who died in 2012-2013; a lot of 22-year-olds having heart attacks on the death certificate, another really trumped-up, bogus kinds of reasons that they died, these—a lot of young people. So there are, though—there are still—so they just released a whole tranche of death certificates, so we know that a lot of—the numbers, people say it’s as high as two hundred thousand, we go with the number of about a hundred thousand people were disappeared. And thousands and thousands of death certificates were just released, so that number has dwindled.
It is difficult to call on the Assad regime to do anything. We have raised the issue of disappearances as a result of—we were always working on it, but as a result of the exhibit we have been raising that issue at every possible forum that we can within our government, but especially at the United Nations. We held two briefings on it with a group of likeminded countries who had the power to do something. The main negotiator recently stepped down. There are a lot of U.N. officials who have agreed with us over time, like Prince Zeid, who was the former high commissioner for human rights, who have not been able to get very far in really pursuing dogged advocacy. So it is—especially at the United Nations and needing to get the approval of the Security Council, it is really hard. It’s really hard to get anything done. It doesn’t deter us from raising it constantly.
I think you also find that people get fatigued with certain stories, and so right now Syria has fallen a little bit below the radar. Those of you who don’t follow Syria regularly, there is one last—one last place where the regime is set to attack, where the rebels still are in control. There are about three million people at risk. It’s called Idlib. If you’ve not heard of it, I’d put it in my Google Alerts tonight if I were you and you want to follow it. And really, if you want to keep up with what’s going on, there’s a very tentative peace agreement there that’s been able to hold, but people don’t have a lot of faith that it’s going to hold. And so that’s three million more civilians who are potentially at risk.
So the Syria issue is a really hard one, and it’s not just this administration. It was also the Obama administration that—just the advocacy on it and the government, the politics involved with who is allied with whom has made it a really tough case.
Any others? I so appreciate all of you coming out on a cold Friday and spending your time taking in such really hard, difficult content. Our website has—is constantly being updated on what’s going on. I urge you to come see the exhibition. There are comment cards after it, and you can write on them, and sometimes I’ll just go in that room and read them because you really do have a sense of hope that people do care and people are good and don’t want this to happen. So I recommend that to you as well.
Thanks again, so much, for coming. (Applause.)