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The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

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FILM REVIEW: Watchers of the Sky

By Zahava Moerdler

Raphael Lemkin among the representatives of four states who ratified the Genocide Convention (standing row, first from the right)

Raphael Lemkin among the representatives of four states who ratified the Genocide Convention (standing row, first from the right)

In a scene reminiscent of high school films, Ben Ferencz, former Nuremberg prosecutor and peace and rule of law advocate, prepares a bag of Hershey’s kisses for ambassadors at the United Nations (U.N.) to encourage them to sign his petition calling for crimes of aggression to be included as a human rights violation. “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar…or something like that,” Ferencz says. Ferencz doesn’t just astound you with his vast knowledge of law, but also with his incredible optimism. After witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust concentration camps as a liberator and Nuremberg prosecutor of the Einsatzgruppen (the group of SS who traveled into Easter Europe to systematically shoot and murder villages of Jews), he still has a passion for making the world a better place and hopes that his efforts will be successful—either through his own work or by building a foundation for those who come after him. This passion and hope permeate the powerful documentary “Watchers of the Sky,” as it traces the past and present history of genocide.

The film weaves together numerous narratives throughout the documentary as it describes both past and present genocides. The dominant narrative in the film follows the story of Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide” and worked tirelessly for the adoption of the Genocide Convention at the U.N. As a young man he studied instances of mass violence and murder, and after the Armenian genocide, Lemkin switched his field of study in university from linguistics to law because he wanted to find a way to stop future acts of violence. During the Second World War, Lemkin becomes a refugee and lost most of his family in the Holocaust. Lemkin spent the rest of his life searching for a word to describe the complete destruction of a people, believing whole-hardheartedly that the creation of a word to describe the event would lead the world to take notice and prevent future atrocities.

The Sundance award-winning film, inspired by Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Problem From Hell, traces Lemkin’s story and legacy as it weaves in the struggles and narratives of four individuals currently fighting to prevent genocide including: Ben Ferencz; Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the UN; Moreno Ocampo, the first Prosecutor of the ICC; and Rwandan Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a UN Refugee Agency Field Director in Chad. Each of these individuals narrate Lemkin’s story while also describing their own experiences with genocide and genocide prevention. One of the most successful aspects of the film is its ability to incorporate so many disparate narrators and narratives while creating a cohesive story.

The film seemingly jumps between Lemkin’s story and the genocides in Armenia, Darfur and Bosnia. In doing so, the filmmakers use Lemkin’s story as the lens to both frame and educate the viewer about past genocides and current efforts concerning the genocide in Darfur. For example, former ICC prosecutor Ocampo acts as both a narrator for Lemkin’s story and as a focal point for efforts to prosecute President Al-Bashir of Sudan. As the film poignantly quotes from Raphael Lemkin’s notebooks, “The function of memory is not only to register past events, but also to stimulate human conscious.”

Another incredible device in the film is its use of Raphael Lemkin’s private papers and journals. I attended a conference last summer about Holocaust education, where two of the film’s producers showed a few clips from the film. During this, they also talked about the hours of work spent combing through Lemkin’s personal journals and correspondences. Instead of merely narrating sections of his writing, the film sometimes switches to an animation sequence in which images and words are displayed as someone narrates in the background. In one section of the film, the screen fills with words to recreate Lemkin’s manic obsession as he searched for the word genocide. In doing so, the viewer not only hears about Lemkin’s experience, but also witnesses it as the words from his personal papers dance to life on the screen, as if being written before the viewer’s eyes.

Despite these incredible strengths, the film has two flaws. First, the film uses a lot of photographs from Bosnia, Darfur, the Holocaust and Rwanda. Many of those pictures are iconic: barbed wire, men grasping a fence, piles of machetes and mass graves. These iconic images focus viewers on the most publicized aspects of the mass violence. In fact, most of the iconic images are based on photographs taken in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. Their constant reproduction makes them “popular” and difficult to see. But in focusing on these expected images, many of the narratives at the fringe or outside the mainstream memory of that genocide are left out. I have made this point before, and so I will keep this short: we must do all we can to encourage the inclusion of all narratives so that no survivor feels marginalized.

Second, you do not learn the meaning behind the title, “Watchers of the Sky,” until the very last sequence in the film. Although I am sure this was done for dramatic effect, there is a disconnect for almost two hours as you watch the film and don’t fully grasp the meaning of the title. I won’t give anything away in this paragraph because the meaning behind the title is incredibly powerful and uplifting, and I highly recommend watching the film in its entirety. In fact, concluding by explaining the title allows the film to end on a hopeful note—which is much needed after an hour and 45 minutes.

Alright, I have one major spoiler and it pertains to the title: A “Watcher of the Sky” is an individual who recognizes the moral imperative of ending cycles of violence and works to improve the quality of life for forgotten populations. What I loved most about the film was its ability to teach me about the past, educate me about the present and inspire me to act in the future. The film draws the viewer and before you know it (almost two hours later…) you can’t help but wonder, what can I do?

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: culturaldiplomacy/Creative Commons

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Genocide memory and commemoration in Rwanda and Cambodia: combating government sanctioned and silenced memory (part 2 of 2)

By Zahava Moerdler 

Collective memory is critical to the way society shapes its perceptions of the world and the way it enforces certain value systems. However, according to Katherine Conway, a scholar on transitional justice, “The government and social institutions control much of the collective memory, limiting discussions of ethnicity and events that took place outside of the specific time frame considered in the official memory.” When governments construct and control collective memory, they may simultaneously hinder the process of healing. As seen in the trajectory of Holocaust memory, the suppression of certain narratives will only allow dominant narratives space in public discourse and in the process of reconciliation. Governments must play active roles in embracing all narratives of survival in order to facilitate the healing process in post-conflict regions. Stifling forms of memory will not only inhibit justice and reconciliation, but it may also serve alternative governmental goals. What tools are available to survivors of the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia to shift the focus of their respective memory narratives?


Modern day Rwanda represents a complicated memory narrative. On the one hand, since the genocide, a Tutsi-controlled government has been in power and has worked to create perceived forms of reconciliation. On the other hand, Rwanda “experienced failed memory through the experience of chosen amnesia, whereby not only was the society encouraged by the government to forget but forgetting was also employed by the general population as a strategy to cope with their daily lives,” writes scholar Tamara Hinan in an article on collective memory and reconciliation. The government has both promoted a narrative of forgetting ethnic differences in an effort to unite a fragmented country and deemphasized ethnicity in order to legitimize Tutsi minority control. Thus, the government has actively engaged in memory work in order to promote certain narratives over others.

As a result of this, communities within Rwanda are suspicious of efforts to recreate or highlight new collective narratives and restore social balance. Even with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the gacaca court system, efforts to expand narratives have been met with limited success. Restorative justice is essential for societies to move past the events of conflict and towards peace. However, justice initiatives must be domestic if they are to be successful because the population will more likely accept bottom-up changes rather than top-down impositions. In the aftermath of the genocide, the Rwandan judicial system was in shambles, with only 20 judges in the entire country (previously, there were 785 judges). In 2001, a new initiative called gacaca began. Gacaca (meaning grass) was a court system at the local community level that allowed perpetrators and victims to present their cases in court before the entire community. Despite being hailed as a success, the system had significant problems including: fear of judicial bias, fear of coerced apologies by perpetrators and hesitancy by the victims to tell their narratives in front of the entire community.

Although there have been a variety of legal frameworks working to promote justice and reconciliation in Rwanda, a number of concerns remain, especially since the gacaca courts ended in 2012 and the ICTR is coming to a close: (1) local communities should take more active roles in promoting healing and openness; (2) the government must move past the narrative of deemphasizing ethnicity and embrace all narratives; and (3) each of these levels must work together, or at least simultaneously.


One issue Cambodia faces today concerning healing and reconciliation stems from the nature of cultural memory itself. Cambodian culture focuses much less on interrogating and memorializing the past than Western culture does. As such, Cambodians living abroad in Western countries like the United States and Canada play a large and prominent role in memory narrative construction along with their counterparts inside Cambodia. While many push for memorialization of the genocide by the Khmer Rouge, some forces in Cambodia continue to attempt to suppress the memory. According to Prime Minister Hun Sen, “Cambodia must dig a hole and bury the past.” The Prime Minister is a Khmer Rouge defector and has both personal as well as political reasons for hoping the past can be buried.

Luckily, there are also forces within Cambodia who want to memorialize the past rather than forget. Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center of Cambodia said during an interview in 2010 with the Washington Post, “Confronting the past is just what Cambodia must do to move forward.” He continued, “Reconciliation in Khmer terms is reconnecting the broken pieces. It’s our obligation to put these broken pieces together so that we can understand.” The Documentation Center has taken an active role in promoting narratives and education about the genocide. Along with collecting documents, testimony and video of the genocide, the Center published a textbook in 2008 and has run the Genocide Education Project, a program preparing teachers to teach the genocide, since 2010. Thus, there is a narrative divide within Cambodia as to how to deal with memory of the past and how that relates to shaping the future.

Beyond this, there is a need for a more rights-protective culture as a means of justice in this post-conflict society. Dicklitch and Malik assert that a culture that secures “both civil and political rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights (as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)” is necessary for any legal process to be truly successful. According Scholar Renee Jeffrey, one of the provisions brought by victims to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (ECCOC) was for “social services, support for agriculture and ‘justice,’ vaguely define[d].” This provision is indicative of a general trend in Cambodia, where people desire more socioeconomic change rather than mere prosecution and punishment for the genocidal crimes.


Both Rwanda and Cambodia are post-conflict nations seeking to rebuild and unify a fragmented population. Both countries have endured the intrusion of foreign powers in the process of restoration and prosecution (Rwanda through the ICTR and Cambodia through the ECCOC). Both are poor countries working hard to revitalize their economies. Finally, both face similar problems concerning memory of the genocide. In Rwanda, the government both controls the narrative and refuses to address ethnicity. In Cambodia, the government wants to bury the past in order to move on. However, in Rwanda, despite the issues it faced, a local form of reconciliation that recently came to a close may have helped push society to embrace all narratives and remember the past. After all, one of the most successful aspects of the gacaca courts is that it forced acceptance of individualized guilt by perpetrators rather than mass generalized guilt amongst the Hutu population. By contrast, Cambodia is generally still enforcing a program of suppression. Cambodia requires a transition to a rights-based society before any form of reconciliation and true healing can begin. For both countries, it is clear that until a diverse memory narrative is accepted, healing will be limited.

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Trocaire/Creative Commons


Genocide memory and commemoration: remembering the Holocaust and the effects of the “hierarchy of suffering” 70 years later (part 1 of 2)

By Zahava Moerdler 

January 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day and marked 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz and other concentration camps. As in the past, world leaders and survivors gathered in Auschwitz for a commemorative ceremony. Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and a major contributor to the preservation of the Auschwitz museum, said, “Auschwitz is important because it was ground zero of what the Nazis did.” However, Auschwitz and the camps were merely one example of the many killing methods employed by the Nazis during World War II. Despite this, Auschwitz has come to reside at the epicenter of Holocaust memory and has consequently impacted the transitional justice and legal efforts that followed the liberation of the camps.

Raphael Lemkin invented the concept of “genocide” and pursued the creation of the Genocide Convention in the aftermath of the Holocaust. He hoped his efforts would prevent further genocide. Unfortunately, genocide persists today. Like Auschwitz for the Holocaust, certain memory narratives have become the central story for other genocides. This trend affects reconciliation, healing and even prosecution in the aftermath of genocide. Analyzing the role the concentration camps played in Holocaust memory may prove useful for formulating tools in order to help survivors of other genocides be heard.

The process of national memory formation is critical to the way certain narratives are popularized over others. For example, one of the key scenarios that transmit value systems and beliefs is the Protestant Ethic, which encourages the good Protestant to work hard and through his hard work to can gain access to heaven. This American narrative, which is prominent in everyday life, contains a moral lesson for society. Once contained in the collective memory, the culture then glorifies these values because they reinforce what is deemed important. A society will remember certain things selectively, partially or instrumentally because that culture decides what to commemorate based on a certain value system. These chosen values will then be conserved in sites of memory, which act as containers. To understand sites of memory one must understand the values of the society when these containers were created. These underlying conceptual frameworks create the basis for the way memory is shaped.

One of the main themes of Holocaust memory and commemoration is the concept of “the hierarchy of suffering.” This concept pushed testimony and stories that perpetuated the narratives of those who survived the camps to the forefront of Holocaust memory, thus making it difficult for individuals with alternative narratives to speak and be heard. Anthropologist Carol Kidron documents this idea while observing a ceremony commemorating victims of the Holocaust at a Holocaust-survivor center and museum in Israel. When a discussion with families of survivors opens, Tsipi, the founder of the center, talks about her mother who went into hiding during the war, “thereby positioning her parent and herself on the ‘hierarchy of suffering,’ known at the center as ‘Tsipi’s ladder of suffering’”:

“[…] Children of ‘hard core’ camp survivors heckled her story, screaming, ‘You think that’s suffering, that’s a vacation.’ Another participant introduced himself as a descendant of a ghetto survivor. Again, others screamed, ‘Ghetto, what’s a ghetto—it’s just the third grade [Heb. kita gimmel, G is for ghetto].’ The participant was allowed to recount his mother’s fragmented tale of fear and hunger, again adding his avowal of pride in her ability to start a new life. Another participant told of her parent’s experiences as a partisan. She could not get through her first sentence without being shouted down: ‘No, no, you’re not even on the ladder,’ at which point Tsipi added, ‘Yes, you don’t belong to the sheep.’”

Shortly after this encounter another member of the group circle recounts how his father survived Auschwitz, and suddenly the “mood in the room had shifted smoothly from laughter to serious attention.”

This is merely one story, from one support group, however it is indicative of a general trend. The “hierarchy of suffering” extends beyond the way national memory is created. Survivors who do not fit the collective memory mold are not heard. Those with more traumatic narratives, particularly those from the camps, take center stage. I believe this trend coincides with the way humans rank and compartmentalize trauma and suffering. When the child of an Auschwitz survivor wanted to speak the room immediately fell silent, however, when the child of a partisan wanted to recount her parent’s narrative, she could not even get past her first sentence. This is the problem with the hierarchy of suffering. It devalues personal traumatic events.

Memory is not just created by the prioritization of certain suffering, but also by how history has been chronicled. Oral testimonies from survivors and perpetrators and documents from the government and camps comprised the majority of evidentiary support available after the Holocaust. Additionally, the camps were liberated by Allied forces, whose soldiers bore witness to the effects of camps on survivors. Even before the end of the war, the Allies created commissions to locate and collect the vast of amounts of documents from camps like Dachau and Buchenwald. These documents were then used in the Nuremberg Trial of 1945 and were later stored in the Bad Arolsen archive in Germany. However, documents about the death camps, such as Sobibor, Treblinka and Belzec, were mostly destroyed before the end of the war and there are no documents available about the Einsatzgruppen murders in the former Soviet Union. The lopsided preservation of documentation helped push the concentration camps to the forefront of Holocaust memory.

National memory trends also affect efforts concerning restitution and reconciliation. From the immediate postwar period on, the hierarchy of suffering impacted monetary compensation. For example, most programs that compensated survivors provided for those in forced labor camps or who were deported, while only a few programs compensated for material losses, those who fled and those who were “hidden children.” For example, the Claims Conference has a highly specified approach and a tiered system, which provides a one time “Hardship Fund” for those who fled Nazism as opposed to a continuous pension service for survivors of the concentration and labor camps.

Beyond this, the Nuremberg Trials, and especially the International Military Tribunal, were focused predominantly on war crimes, not victims. Justice Jackson, the lead prosecutor for the Americans at Nuremberg, wanted aggressive war making to be considered the most heinous crime committed by the Nazi leadership. Consequently, the prosecution at Nuremberg emphasized the crimes committed by military leaders that led to a globalized war and marginalized crimes against humanity. The focus at Nuremberg contrasts strongly to the 1961 Eichmann Trial, where the focus moved from documentary evidence to witness testimony, marking a change in Holocaust memory as victim narratives became more accepted and prominent. The trial gave survivors legitimacy and a space where their stories would not be questioned but would rather be broadcasted around the world.

As survivors aged, and became better situated in their new homes, new forms of restitution arose. In the 1990s, vast movements of class action suits, involving survivors with different narratives, began against various governments and institutions like the German, Austrian and Swiss banks. While some of the litigation arose from survivors of forced labor camps, other claims, particularly looted art and bank account or insurance restitution claims, were brought by a more diverse group of survivors. Litigation can only give a measure of justice for the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators; however, the restitution projects coincided with increased awareness and memorialization of the Holocaust.

Recognition of all Holocaust narratives has allowed many survivors who were once silent to give testimony to projects like the Shoah Foundation and to open up to their children and grandchildren about their experiences. By telling their stories, survivors are able to heal. The inclusivity also marks a change in American culture in recent decades. The rise of “victimhood culture,” in the 1990s has bolstered support for an inclusive narrative from the core of the American value system.

In my next post, I will analyze how these narratives and trends can affect the way we understand memory of other genocides.

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit:  Jaime Pérez/Creative Commons