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In Conversation About the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s New Mass Atrocity Prevention Training

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Judicature International (2024) | An online-only publication

PICTURED ABOVE: A cemetery in Rwanda where victims of the genocide are buried. This photo is featured in a case study on the Rwandan genocide where between 500,000 and 1 million Rwandans were massacred in 1994. (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Those who visit the permanent exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., will undoubtedly be moved by the depictions of genocide and mass violence that occurred during the Holocaust from 1933 to 1945. But, in addition to preserving the memory of the historical events of the Holocaust, the Museum is dedicated to preventing future mass atrocities.

As part of this effort, the Museum continues to develop educational resources that examine how the Holocaust became possible and conducts research on how to prevent genocide and other mass atrocities before they occur. The Museum recently launched “Lessons in Leadership: Criminal Justice Approaches for Preventing Mass Atrocities,” a free online course created with the Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Available in both French and English this course is tailored for criminal justice professionals — including law enforcement officials, attorneys, court staff, and judges — serving in mid- to senior-level leadership positions within their respective institutions.

For this edition of Judicature InternationalTatiana Varanko, a class of 2024 Duke Law graduate and fellow for the Bolch Judicial Institute of Duke Law, interviewed Ann O’Rourke, Manager for the Museum’s Initiative on the Holocaust and Professional Leadership, about the course and how it can be used to deliver trainings around the world. Their conversation has been edited for clarity, length, and style.


Tatiana Varanko: For years, the Museum has offered programs for U.S. federal judges. Can you provide a brief introduction to the museum and your work across the entire criminal justice system?

Ann O’Rourke: The Museum’s work with criminal justice professionals really started in 1999 when the chief of the D.C. police at the time, Charles Ramsey, toured the Museum’s main exhibition, “The Holocaust.” He was struck by the images of German law enforcement and the role that they had played in the Holocaust and asked us to create a program for law enforcement professionals.

He said, “These were officers who were operating in a democracy before the Nazis came to power. They took an oath to the German constitution, very similar to my own. So how did their role shift? What choices and pressures were they faced with under the Nazi regime? And how did they respond to those pressures?” That’s how we started our educational work with law enforcement.

We had another partner, Sheila Polk, who was a county prosecutor in Arizona, and she saw the work we were doing with law enforcement and really encouraged us to create a program for the courts. So, we launched our Law, Justice, and the Holocaust program for members of the judiciary and prosecutors in 2008 with the Arizona courts. From there, we went to the Conference of Chief Justices in 2009, and the program really took off and went national from there.

Since the 1990s, the Museum has served over 255,000 professionals responsible for, as we say, “protecting life and liberty,” — members of the military, law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, civil servants, etc. — through leadership programs that examine the role of these professions under the Nazi regime, and again, the motivations and pressures that influenced their participation in the Holocaust. The goal of these programs is really to encourage professionals to think critically about the Holocaust in ways that prompt reflection about their role in society and the larger responsibility they have to ensure the just use of authority and to safeguard human life and human dignity.

Varanko: Earlier this year, the Museum launched “Lessons in Leadership, Criminal Justice Approaches for Preventing Mass Atrocities.” Can you describe how this course came about?

O’Rourke: Similar to a lot of our other programs, a partner approached us with an idea. A representative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) observed a program that we were doing for the FBI, and the partner there was really struck by the Museum’s educational approach — the way that we create opportunities to examine the Holocaust in ways that prompt deeper conversations about the role of these professions. She was also impressed by the work of our Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide that focuses on equipping world leaders to prevent genocide and related crimes against humanity. She approached us and asked us to create a course for an international audience of criminal justice professionals that really draws from these areas of expertise — deep knowledge of the Holocaust, working with these professionals, and genocide prevention research — and looks at their role before, during, and after mass atrocities.

This was a recognition that criminal justice professionals are in a unique position, both to serve as potential mitigators of violence, but also as potential perpetrators. When people think of criminal justice and mass atrocities, they tend to think of the role of police, prosecutors, and judges in transitional justice efforts, but we found that there were really few to no resources for these professionals dedicated to the role they can play as leaders on the front end of atrocity prevention.

The project had an initial stocktaking phase. We brought together experts in rule of law, atrocity prevention, criminal justice, Holocaust education, and other related fields to offer feedback on the curriculum. Then, we piloted the curriculum twice as a five-day course through the U.S. State Department’s International Law Enforcement Academies (ILEA). Based on what we learned in these pilots, we then pared that curriculum down to nine modules. The modules can be run in full as a one to two-day course or individually. We produced five educational videos as part of that curriculum. We also created a programmatic guide for program implementers that provides the foundational knowledge that underpins the curriculum’s content. All of those materials are freely available on our website for anyone to use.

Varanko: Among the course materials is a Guide to Criminal Justice and Preventing Mass Atrocities. Can you describe its key components and how they address the roles of criminal justice system actors in atrocity prevention?

O’Rourke: First of all, I should give credit where credit’s due, and the credit for this really goes to our senior atrocity prevention advisor on the project, Katherine Southwick. She was the guide’s main author and was critical in providing expertise as we were crafting the curriculum, too.

The guide has four main chapters. Chapter One looks at what are mass atrocities — so the basic definitions of the four types of atrocities and how certain types of atrocities have been codified under the law.

Chapter Two looks at risk and resilience in the criminal justice system. It really examines the risk factors and how they intersect with criminal justice work, as well as potential sources of resilience. This content draws heavily on the framework in Scott Straus’s Fundamentals of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention. Scott Straus, an expert who’s worked very closely with the Museum over the years, was also interviewed for some of the videos in the curriculum.

Chapter Three looks at criminal justice tools particularly useful before, during, and after mass atrocities. This cross-references what’s known about risk factors and resilience with suggested prevention and mitigation measures for criminal justice professionals. Many of these are tools that criminal justice professionals might already be using in their jobs. For example, holding community dialogues to counteract the risk factor of exclusionary ideology, prosecuting past violence, supporting restorative justice efforts. But we hope that education and training for criminal justice professionals on atrocity prevention can increase their knowledge and commitment to these issues — that’s why we have a curriculum. We recognize that these before, during, and after categories can overlap. They can operate in a cyclical fashion, and that failure to address mass atrocities of the past can lead to an increased risk of atrocities in the future. The guide offers many examples of how these tools have been implemented in different countries and contexts.

Finally, the last chapter looks at leadership and change management skills. These are also relevant for mass atrocity prevention. The course is designed to encourage self-reflection, apply change management principles, and begin practical action planning.

Varanko: How will the guide’s complimentary course curriculum empower criminal justice leaders to understand their roles and related tools in preventing mass atrocities? How does this differ from the other educational programs available?

O’Rourke: When people think of the relationship between criminal justice professionals and genocide and other mass atrocities, they really tend to think very specifically of transitional justice efforts, which of course is part of it. This curriculum is unique because it approaches the conversation from a leadership angle throughout the cycle of violence.

We’re really trying to encourage police, prosecutors, judges, and other criminal justice professionals to be proactive and to think about their role on the front end as ethical leaders in prevention, not just the role they can play after the fact. More than just conveying the technical terms and the definitions, we really wanted criminal justice leaders to come away with the why of mass atrocity prevention — that by taking action early, they can save lives. We’re hoping that the curriculum will also resonate on a human level, so we featured case studies from the Holocaust as well as other subsequent genocides and mass atrocities and centered the voices of victims and affected communities. This curriculum also requires that participants confront the potential for members of their profession to be perpetrators or enablers of mass atrocities. We know that this was the case from various historical case studies.

We often talk at the Museum about what we call literacy, disequilibrium, and relevance, so trying to provide a basic foundation of knowledge of Holocaust history, of the role that these professions played during the Holocaust and during these other case studies, but also, as professionals, encourage that introspective examination. It’s a little unsettling and challenging when they face this moment of disequilibrium realizing, “Oh, those are very human motivations or pressures that I recognize from my own career.” That can lead them to this idea of relevance, thinking about how they then can apply what they’ve learned towards atrocity prevention in their own context. So, again, hoping that participants will see themselves in the history and then that will open them to these difficult conversations that they’re not always having.

Varanko: You’ve touched on this a bit already, but what is the significance of strengthening criminal justice practitioners’ understanding of their roles in preventing atrocities, and who are the specific stakeholders you are targeting with this new curriculum?

O’Rourke: We know that most criminal justice practitioners aren’t going to sit on international tribunals necessarily or even carry out investigations into mass atrocity crimes. And, we know that local actions matter. We wanted professionals to better understand how the work that they’re already doing connects to this bigger picture of atrocity prevention. All countries have some degree of risk factors and warning signs. Day-to-day actions by criminal justice professionals have the potential to increase or decrease risk for mass atrocities. In terms of stakeholders, we hope that anyone who’s involved in training or professional development for criminal justice professionals will pick up the materials and use them. The Museum has already run some programs for groups that are in D.C.

Varanko: What are some of the tools and strategies identified through research to avert mass atrocities, and how can criminal justice professionals use these effectively? How do you incorporate those into your curriculum?

O’Rourke: I encourage readers to take a look at the programmatic guide which identifies a range of tools that include building community relationships, conducting an early warning analysis, being alert to dangerous speech or addressing hate crimes, and prosecuting past violence.

Appendix A of the guide offers an extensive chart that outlines various tools for criminal justice professionals and shows how they correspond to specific risk factors and warning signs. Research informed the creation of the chart which was then refined with input from the professionals who participated in our expert meetings and our pilot programs.

In terms of the curriculum, module four features an activity in which participants examine this chart and discuss which tools they’re already using, what they might add and what might be the most effective. Module five offers two different options. One focuses on community dialogues as a tool for resilience, and the other looks more in depth at dangerous speech as a risk factor. Module eight looks at the role criminal justice professionals can play in transitional justice efforts, and finally, module nine guides participants through an action planning exercise. That includes doing an early warning analysis, looking at the risk factors in their own context, and then identifying actions they can take to address that risk.

Varanko: Can you provide a few examples of how the program has been — or plans to be —implemented in different regions and what outcomes or impacts you hope for? Additionally, have you already observed any demonstrable changes?

O’Rourke: As part of the curriculum development, we piloted the course twice through the Department of State’s ILEA network. The first pilot was for Nigerian police officers. We ran this virtually due to the pandemic. The second pilot was in person at the ILEA site in Budapest for a mix of judges, prosecutors, police from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Republic of Congo.

We embedded a monitoring and evaluation component throughout the entire lifecycle of the project. One of the biggest findings was how much the case studies from the Holocaust resonated with participants, even those who had little to no prior knowledge of the subject. Participant interviews — both immediately after the course and then six months later — demonstrated that they continued to reflect on the Holocaust and the lessons they took away from it. They were inspired to take action because in many cases, they believed that the Holocaust occurred due to the inaction of well-intentioned individuals.

Four of the Nigerian police officers from the first pilot participated in a mentorship program as a course extension. Building on the tools studied during the course, they implemented projects in their own communities aimed toward atrocity prevention. These projects involved activities such as addressing violence through community dialogues that included police, youth, vigilante groups, traditional leaders, and others; conducting a risk assessment with various stakeholders from the community; training police and vigilante groups on atrocity prevention and human rights topics; and educating youth on conflict resolution to prevent violence.

In general, our evaluation found that course participants went back to their communities and shared the information they learned with their subordinates or supervisors or communities. For example, one course participant said he implemented a new rating system for his officers on how they were dealing with protesters, and the complaints against his unit went down dramatically — so, seemingly small actions that can have a tangible result.

The curriculum and guide are available in English and French. We recently translated the captions on the five videos for the curriculum into Spanish as well, so, again, we hope that criminal justice practitioners and trainers around the world will be able to pick up the materials and use them in whole or in part.

Varanko: How can the program’s approach to empowering practitioners around the world be adopted or scaled to enhance atrocity prevention efforts globally and what are the challenges you envision in this regard?

O’Rourke: We know that criminal justice professionals are on the front lines of responding to mass atrocities when they occur, but in many cases, they, unfortunately, also have the potential to become perpetrators. So, we think that even having an awareness of this vulnerability and having these discussions with colleagues about the tools and the options available to them can have a preventive effect. We know that practitioners in different countries will have different abilities to take these materials on, of course. The biggest challenge, I think, is really trying to encourage “upstream” prevention because once you’re in the midst of mass violence, the context becomes extremely complex and the options obviously are very narrow. While upstream action might not seem as urgent, it is important. This is why the leadership element in this course is so important. Ideally, practitioners will understand that all countries have some level of risk, and it becomes a matter of leadership to proactively think about their role in prevention before these risk factors and warning signs grow into something larger.

Varanko: How can judges specifically contribute to the prevention of mass atrocities? What specific role do they play?

O’Rourke: That’s a great question as there are several ways judges can contribute to mass atrocity prevention and the guide outlines many of them. Taking part in accountability efforts, addressing hate crimes within the bounds of the law where applicable, upholding basic rule of law principles, are a few examples. The guide notes that one of the most important ways judges can contribute is to center the voices of individuals and communities that are affected by mass atrocities and ensure that they’re heard and consulted as part of the justice process.

Varanko: Lastly, if interested, how can our readers, many of whom are judicial leaders in their respective countries, approach you to use this curriculum in their countries?

O’Rourke: The curriculum is freely available in English and French at ushmm.org/criminaljusticetools and includes everything trainers need to facilitate the sessions. Each module has a PowerPoint with videos embedded, a facilitator’s guide, and handouts.

I’m always more than happy to answer questions about the materials and, of course, to hear how people are using them. I encourage them to contact the Museum. We also developed the materials in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s INL Bureau so readers might also want to reach out to their local U.S. embassy or U.S. consulate for guidance or support.

Varanko: Thank you so much. I think this is a really important and interesting project, so I appreciate the chance to talk to you about it.

O’Rourke: Thank you so much for doing this interview. I really appreciate the chance to feature our work.