Oxford Seminar 2015

Holocaust Resource Center

The Oxford Consortium for Human Rights Seminar
Oxford University, Oxford, England
March 21 - 26, 2015


Stockton University seminar participants (left to right): Ashlee Ciccone, Vincent Rodgers, Professor Carol Rittner, Laurie Garcia, Sarah Stout

The Oxford Consortium for Human Rights hold a yearly invitation-only seminar at Oxford University for undergraduate, graduate, and law school students interested in humanitarian law and conflict resolution. This year it was held from March 21 - 26, 2015. Throughout the week, participants focus on issues related to violent conflict in modern times, international humanitarian law and the regulation of war, humanitarian aid and action during conflict, and peace building during and after conflict. In addition to having faculty from Oxford University teach them, seminar participants meet with representatives from various human rights and humanitarian organizations including OXFAM, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF). Each year, the consortium selects a current conflict to focus on and the participants discuss and analyze the situation by incorporating all of the issues highlighted throughout the week. This year, the conflict in focus was Syria.

The seminar is led by Dr. Hugo Slim, Associate Director and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict, and Dr. Cheyney Ryan, Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict, and Professor of Philosophy and Law and the University of Oregon (USA).

 Four  students in the MA Program in Holocaust & Genocide Studies (MAHG) were selected to participate in Oxford Seminar: Ashlee Ciccone, Laurie Garcia, Vincent Rodgers, and Sarah Stout. Dr. Carol Rittner, Distinguished Professor of Holocaust & Genocide Studies and the Dr. Marsha Raticoff Grossman Professor of Holocaust Studies at Stockton University, prepared the MAHG students for the seminar and accompanied them to Oxford University. 

The students, as well as Professor Rittner, stayed at Hertford College, Oxford University, while the seminar itself was held at Merton College, among whose distinguished alumni are counted T. S. Eliot and J. R. R. Tolkein. 

What follows are the comments collectively written by Ashlee, Laurie, Vinny, and Sarah after each day's seminar sessions and meetings with various guests who lectured to the Oxford Consortium on Human Rights participants. 

Oxford University, Oxford, England

Hertford College, Oxford University 

Merton College, Oxford University - Site of the Oxford Consortium for Human Rights Seminar

Saturday and Sunday, March 21 - 22, 2015
(Ashlee Ciccone, Laurie Garcia, Vincent Rodgers, and Sarah Stout)

Our first night in Oxford consisted of a reception welcoming participants to the consortium. We were able to meet with students from a variety of disciplines. They came from institutions as varied as the University of Southern California, University of Oregon, University of Utah, Mercer University, University of Arkansas, University of Houston, and Quinnipiac University, among others, as well as Stockton University. It was great getting to know the students we will be working with throughout the week and the professors guiding the consortium. Later that evening we were able to explore the historic area of Oxford, had dinner with Dr. Rittner at a local English pub, and interacted with the locals of the area. All the locals we spoke to became very interested in our field of study. Some had never even heard of the term genocide and wanted to learn more about it. Others who were familiar with the concept of genocide were eager to learn more about our program at Stockton University.

Dr. Hugo Slim facilitated our first lecture/discussion session on violent conflict in the world today. We examined arenas of conflict, levels of political conflict, different types of conflict styles, and the multiple strategies of conflict resolution. The concept of "conflict transformation" was incredibly powerful and insightful for those interested in conflict resolution and genocide prevention. Although conflict settlement and conflict management put an end to hostilities, these strategies are ultimately ineffective because they do not solve the root causes of the conflict. Since these root causes are not dealt with and solved, violence, ethnic cleansing, and genocide are more likely to erupt again in the future. We need to instead strive for "conflict transformation." It is a "root causes approach" that endeavors to transform the context and actors involved in the conflict, transform the way the issues are discussed, and structurally transform society to achieve lasting peace. 

The second session focused on conflict trends and the civilian experience during war. One of the readings caused quite a stir among the participants. Although the article provided great insights into the ways conflict trends have changed over the past few decades, many students disagreed with the author's findings. The discussion among the students was very lively and thought provoking.

Dr. Johanna Luttrell from the University of Houston led the third session on fragile states and urban violence. Contrary to popular opinion, more people are dying each year as a result of urban violence than they are in war zones. Several factors contribute to the rise of urban violence. People are moving to cities in unprecedented numbers leading to limited access to education, jobs, services, and security. There is a general sense of exclusion among the population, which can give rise to conflict, and one continues to see the rise in social norms that condone violence. 

How then does one create peace? As Dr. Luttrell and some of the other students pointed out, it is important to build social trust between the police and the people they are supposed to protect; to create strong communities and institutes; to address the fundamental issues which give rise to conflict; to rehabilitate gang members and child soldiers back into society; and to foster empathy and humanization. 

During our tea breaks and over meals, we were able to interact with students from other institutions who were very interested in our program and area of study. They asked us questions about what our program had to offer, what we would like to do with our degrees, and how they can become involved in genocide prevention. 

We ended the night with a film called Pray the Devil Back to Hell. The film focused on a grassroots movement composed of the women of Liberia who demanded an end to the conflict in the region. The film was incredibly powerful because it highlighted how civilians - women specifically - are not just victims of war - they are agents of survival and agents of change and peace. 

View of Oxford University

Monday, March 23, 2015
(Ashlee Ciccone, Laurie Garcia, Vincent Rodgers, and Sarah Stout)

On the second day of the Oxford Consortium, students focused on the international regulation of armed conflict and international humanitarian law. In groups, we read through portions of the United Nations (UN) Charter, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva Conventions. We also examined the principles of international humanitarian law. The articles outlined in these charters, declarations, and conventions upheld the dignity, worth, and preciousness of human life and called upon all signatories and the global community to respect and defend the rights and liberities of all humankind. Although these laws are commendable for their veneration of human life, many students argued that the laws presented in these documents were lofty ideals that oftentimes do not translate into reality. The language of the law can be ambiguous and abstract and, furthermore, there are no mechanisms in place to ensure their implementation. Taking these issues into consideration, there was general consensus among the students that international humanitarian law should be revised to improve its effectiveness and that instruments should be developed to move these ideas from paper to action. 

Ms. Mona Sadek from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was our special guest speaker for the evening. She explained to us the mission of the ICRC, their "cross-line" approach to humanitarian aid, and the importance of maintaining their neutrality and impartiality during conflict. She described the ICRC's approach to the deliverance and distribution of humanitarian aid as one in which political stances, opinions, and affiliations are set aside for the common humanity of all parties involved.

The ICRC helps all individuals in need, no matter which side of the conflict they may be on. They try to work with all parties involved - they do not favor one side above the other nor do they take a political stance in the conflict. She acknowledged, however, that there are ethical dilemmas that arise from policies of neutrality and impartiality. Although there are oftentimes no clear lines of demarcation between the "good guys" and the "bad guys," the organization and its aid workers must put aside their feelings and/or opinions for the greater good of all involved. The organization must remain neutral throughout a conflict to maintain its credibility. If their credibility or reputation is tarnished, they will not be able to reach and effectively help individuals on the ground. After concluding her presentation, Ms. Sadek participated in a lively question and answer session and met with students interested in humanitarian aid work. Our MAHG graduate students spoke with Ms. Sadek and even got a picture with her! 

Overall, it was an incredible day. We learned so much from our lecturers, our guest speaker, and from other students. We were able to see international humanitarian law and humanitarian aid from a different perspective and look at these issues in nuanced ways. 

MAHG student semniar participants  having coffee during a break (left to right) - Vincent Rodgers, Laurie Garcia, Sarah Stout, Ashlee Ciccone

Tuesday, March 24, 2015
(Laurie Garcia)

On the third day of the Oxford Consortium for Human Rights Education: Human Rights and Violent Conflict, students focused on the values and ethics of humanitarian action during conflict. Humanitarian organizations provide assistance to civilians in areas such as education, health care, nutrition, emergency shelter, water and sanitation, and food security and strive to uphold the protection of civilians by visiting prisons to ensure they are being treated humanely, engaging in confidence dialogue with all parties involved in the conflict, and providing legal support for the implementation of international humanitarian law and international human rights laws. 

Humanitarian organizations abide by four core humanitarian principles as a way to increase their effectiveness on the ground and mainain access to civilians in need. The first of these core principles is humanity - they seek to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. The purpose is to protect the life and health of ciivilians and ensure respect for the human being. Humanity is the affirmation of one's dignity and the flourishing of life for all. The second core principle is impartiality - they make no discrimination as to nationality, race, religious beliefs, class, or political opinions when it comes to the distribution of aid. They endeavor to relieve suffering by giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress. They firmly believe in the radical equality of all persons and only make distinctions based on need. The third core principle is neutrality - in order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, they may not take sides in hostilities nor engage at any time in controversies of political, racial, religious, or ideological nature. They are very pragmatic in their approach. They temporarily suspend their own political or religious beliefs because they do not want to lose access to those civilians in need. The fourth core principle is independence - they must always maintain their autonomy so that they may at all times act in accordance with humanitarian principles. Humanitarian organizations also abide by the principles of dignity, sustainability, and stewardship. They have a high respect and regard for culture and custom and will involve local citizens in the management of relief. They firmly believe that inclusion and involvement on the local level is of the utmost importance. They also recognize individuals not as victims but as dignified human beings who are agents of survival. They also believe that aid must not only address current need but must also reduce future vulnerabilities/risks. Futhermore, they seek to hold themselves accountable to those they seek to help and those from whom they accept resources. They will work with the beneficiaries of aid and those they accept resources from with openness and transparency. 

There are of course ethical dilmmas that arise in humanitarian work as our guest speaker, Rachel Hastie from OXFAM, explained during her presentation. The issue of respect for a group's culture and customs can be problematic. In certain cultures, boys and men are fed before girls and women. Oftentimes boys and men are fed more than girls and women, which leaves them malnourished and inhibits their ability to thrive. Futhermore, in certain cultures, girls and women are denied the opportunity of an education and access to jobs. Humanitarian organizations do not strive to up end a group's culture and systems of beliefs yet they do not want to contribute to cycles of opression. What is one to do in situations such as these? Thus, there is a tension between the belief in the radical equality of all and the belief that one must respect a group's culture and custom. Additionally, while humanitarian organizations strive to maintain the letter of the law, the reality of the political situation on the ground oftentimes constrains their ability to provide assistance to civilians in need.

In order to illustrate the complexities of humanitarian aid in a conflict setting, Ms. Hastie divided the class into eight groups, gave each group a different humanitarian scenario, and asked each group to decide what they would do in that given situation. One of the scenarioes posed to the students at Stockton University was this: "You are taking a convoy of urgently needed medical supplies for a civilian population in an enclave where they are under regular shellfire. It has taken months to get government permission to go into opposition held areas. You are stopped by soldiers from a rebel group who will only let you continue if you give them half of your supplies. What would you do?" To further  complicate matters, Ms. Hastie added the following caveat: "The rebel group is notorious for its brutal attacks on civilians including rape, torture, and executions. They actively prevent civilians leaving the areas they control. The US government considers them a terrorist organization." The deliberations between the students in our group and in other groups were incredibly intense and generated heated debates. Ultimately, this exercise, which was drawn from actual situations OXFAM had encountered during various conflicts, helped highlight the intricacies involved in humanitarian aid work and underscored the fact that humanitarian aid work is not as simple as it may seem. 

The evening ended with a second guest speaker from Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) named Darryl Stellmach.  Mr. Stellmach gave students an in-depth look into the real life work of humanitarian workers on the ground. One of the most powerful insights Mr. Stellmach shared with students was the problematic tendency one has in classfying humanitarian workers as "white knights" swooping in to save the helpless. As Mr. Stellmach explained, when we elevate humanitarian workers and humanitarianism on a heroic level, we deprive the local population of their sense of agency. Civilians are powerful agents of change - we need to recognize their resiliency and strength in the midst of catastrophe and work alongside them as they rebuild their communities. Instead of imposing aid onto these communities, we need to ask them what they need and involve them in the process. 

MAHG student Vincent Rodgers working with other student participants at the seminar

Vincent Rodgers presenting research regarding the conflict in Syria 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015
(Ashlee Ciccone)

The fourth day of the consortium focused on peace-making. For the first session of the day, Dr. Cheyney Ryan discussed pacifism and non-violence in modern times. Pacifism, which literally means "make peace," is the idea that conflict may be resolved by using non-violent means and was originally introduced by major figures such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Dr. Ryan provided the group with many statistics which indicated that war may not be the most effective tool in resolving conflict. As he pointed out, the 20th century has in fact been the most destructive century in history. During this session, many points were made that caused the group to rethink the effectiveness and costly nature of war. 

The seond session, led by Dr. Hugo Slim, focused on peace processes. Dr. Slim discussed the different stages of peace-making and mentioned that the general population has been less inclined to support the war in more recent times. He talked about ideas such as the "Great Disillusionment," the idea that people are no longer enchanted with war, and the "Great Defection," the idea that less people are willing to die for their country. Dr. Slim mentioned a shocking statistic that after the 9-11 attacks, military enlistment dropped dramatically around the world, thus showing that most people are not willing to enlist in the military when a war is actively happening. The group agreed that this may signify a turn toward pacification, although a world without war seems out of reach.

The third session of the day focused on the ideas and reflections of the students. During this session, a panel of five students spoke to the group about points that were important to them and the group was encouraged to ask questions and interact with the panel. Students brought up ideas such as starting a "movement of movements," the encouragment and need for locally sensitive communities, and that "words are the drivers of actions." The discussion during this session was very engaging as the students were the leaders.

In the last session of the day, Dr. Jim Astman, a psychiatrist, discussed Peace in Mind and the idea that encouraging peace must begin at a very young age. Dr. Astman made important points about the difficult nature of encouraging peace, and the even more difficult task of teaching peace to children. He says that teachers must be open to learning from their children while also teaching them to use peace to solve difficult conflicts. He also says that each individual teaching and learning experience is different, even if the same method is used. The group was very interested in this lecture and the question and answer session continued well after the alloted time. 

MAHG student Ashlee Ciccone presenting research related to the conflict in Syria 

(Left to Right) Dr. Hugo Slim, Ashlee Ciccone, Vincent Rodgers, Sarah Stout, Laurie Garcia, Professor Carol Rittner

Thursday, March 26, 2015
(Laurie Garcia)

The last day of the Oxford Consortium for Human Rights concluded with student presentations regarding the conflict in Syria. In their presentations, students analyzed several dimensions of the conflict, including: the warring parties in Syria, their allies, and their strategies of violence and politics; the impact of the war on civilians and the violation of international humanitarian law and human rights law; the United Nations and the Security Council's engagement with the Syrian conflict; the response of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN, NGOs, and local humanitarian organizations to the crisis in Syria; and the Arab League, UN, and Russian led peace processes. 

The conflict in Syria is incredibly complex and problematic. There are scores of local, regional, and international actors involved in the conflict and the number of armed rebel groups continues to grow each day as thousands pour into Syria to join the battle. To further complicate matters, militia groups fighting against the Assad regime are divided along sectarian and political lines. Internal strife stemming from ideologial, religious, or political beliefs splinters these groups into various factions and weakens alliances among these groups. Thus there are no clear lines of demarcation between one's allies and enemies - one may form an alliance with one group in a certain context yet will take up arms against this same group in another context. Enemy groups have also been known to work with one another in order to figh a common enemy. The situation on the ground is thus extremely complicated and tremendously difficult to manage. Although the Security Council has attempted to pass resolutions on the Syrian conflict, including their attempt to curb Assad's heavy weapons use, these resolutions have largely been ineffective. A major reason why the Security Council has failed to take decisive action in the conflict is because Russia and China - allies of the Assad government - continue to veto resolutions that will negatively impact the ability of Assad to wage war against his enemies. Tragically, 11 million civilians have been impacted by the violence in Syria - 3.5 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries to find refuge from the violence and 7 million more remain internally displaced.

One alarming development is the emergence of genocidal acts in Syria. Assad's government has perpetrated genocidal-like acts against civilians since the beginning of the conflict. Assad's government has detained thousands in the political opposition, massacred entire villages of Sunni Muslims, raped prisoners and political detainees, tortured and murdered women and children, and denied citizens access to medical care, supplies, and other resources essential to life. Genocide Watch, a human rights NGO, released the first genocide alert for Syria in July 2011. ISIS has also perpetrated genocidal acts against civilian populations. They have targeted, murdered, and enslaved hundereds of Christian, Yazidi, and Shiite civilians and continues to engage in genocidal acts every day with no end in sight.

The Oxford Consortium for Human Rights Seminar concluded with a formal dinner for the students and faculty who participated in the seminar. Students expressed their gratitude to the organizers and the faculty for their work on the consortium and thanked them for allowing them to be a part of such a wonderful program. 

Overall, the Oxford Consortium for Human Rights Seminar was an incredible experience. The lectures were fantastic and provided us with brand new insights and perspectives that we will apply to our studies and our program. We learned so much from our fellow participants and were able to forge lasting relationships with those we met. We highly encourage MAHG students  and other students from Stockton University to participate in similar seminars as they can enhance one's understanding of the world and encourage global citizenship.