Questions for John Heffernan

Learn more about my research In April, 2008, John Heffernan answered visitors questions about human rights.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Joe's picture
Joe says:

What inspired you to pursue the career you are in now?

posted on Fri, 04/25/2008 - 2:18pm
John Heffernan's picture

What has inspired me, more than anything else over the last 20 years, has been the desire to make a difference in the lives of people who, for whatever reason, have been marginalized and suffered as victims. As someone who is lucky enough to be in a position to help those who can not help themselves, I felt obligated to do whatever I can to improve the lives of those who have been victimized or those who could potentially be future victims. As a humanitarian relief worker, a human rights activist and as an educator - I have worked to this end in a variety of different capacities.

posted on Tue, 05/06/2008 - 11:32am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Hi
I just curious how did you come up with the idea of using Google Earth for your project? How did it help you? what can people learn from Google Earth?
Thank youfor your time

posted on Sun, 04/27/2008 - 11:19am
John Heffernan's picture

My colleagues here at the Holocaust Memorial Museum have been working to raise awareness about the ongoing genocide in Darfur for several years. The Museum declared the crisis in Darfur a genocide emergency in the summer of 2004. One of our primary goals is to build a community of conscience that cares about responding to threats to and ongoing genocides and related crimes against humanity. The Google Earth interface enables us to reach far more people than we would have ever imagined (to date 400 million people have downloaded Google Earth) and this is why we pursued a partnership with Google.

On April 10th, Crisis in Darfur the first effort of the Museum's Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative, was launched at a press conference, with our partner Google. The launch and the partnership with Google generated a tremendous media response; nearly 500 articles have been written in English worldwide, and dozens written in French, Spanish, German, Swedish and even Arabic. The BBC covered it extensively on both television and radio, as did NPR, ABC News, Fox News, and many more. There were more than a thousand blog entries across the web about Crisis in Darfur. The week following the launch over a million visitors came to the USHMM website (an all time record), with more than 60 percent of the visitors coming from outside of the U.S. USHMM website visitation level more than doubled in April after the launch, rising to 2.8 million visits. The website has since sustained a 50% increase.

In March there were 2,474 clicks on COC's "What Can I Do?" page on the website which encourages visitors to take action against the genocide in Darfur; post-launch, the number for April increased to 53,000. Since the April launch of the Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative, there has been a 700% increase in COC's e-newsletter subscribers.

A few weeks ago, the Museum launched it's second initiative with Google Earth called World is Witness which is a geoblog. The first entries are from a Museum visit to Rwanda and neighboring Congo.

From these Google Earth initiatives viewers are able to see what genocide and related crimes against humanity look like in a very visual and personal way. With this knowledge and increased understanding our hope is that people will become part of our Community of Conscience and take action to respond to these ongoing crises.

posted on Tue, 05/06/2008 - 11:34am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Hey John, what's something I can do? I feel sort of powerless being just a kid in America - this is horrible, but it is so far away - how can something I do make a difference?

posted on Thu, 05/01/2008 - 10:25pm
John Heffernan's picture

There are lots of things you can do and I refer you to our website for some very specific things that you can do and to see what others have done. Most importantly, I think is for you to share with others your knowledge of what is happening in Darfur and other places are around the world where people are being targeted based on their identity. I am convinced that the more people know about these places the more likely decision-makers around the world will take the necessary action to prevent and halt acts of genocide. We haven't reached that critical mass needed to affect the necessary change, but we need to be persistent in our efforts to reach that tipping point.

posted on Tue, 05/06/2008 - 11:35am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

John - is Darfur the only place where genocide is happening now?

posted on Thu, 05/01/2008 - 10:26pm
John Heffernan's picture

While there are places around the world where people continue to be targeted on the basis of their identity, because of substantial evidence that "acts of genocide or related crimes against humanity were occurring or immediately threatened," in 2004 the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum declared a Genocide Emergency for Darfur. The Khartoum-based government's use of ethnically and racially targeted violence in Darfur resembles similar actions in southern Sudan before a tenuous 2005 peace agreement ended conflict there. Government-sponsored actions in both regions have included:

• Inflaming ethnic conflict
• Impeding international humanitarian access, resulting in deadly conditions of life for displaced civilians
• Bombing civilians from aircraft
• Murdering and raping civilians

posted on Tue, 05/06/2008 - 11:37am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Is what is happening in China to the people from Tibet genocide?

posted on Thu, 05/01/2008 - 10:27pm
John Heffernan's picture

While I am not in the position to really answer this question, please note that the term "genocide" did not exist before 1944. It is a very specific term, referring to violent crimes committed against groups with the intent to destroy the existence of the group.

In 1944, a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin sought to describe Nazi policies of systematic murder, including the destruction of the European Jews. He formed the word "genocide" by combining geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with -cide, from the Latin word for killing. In proposing this new term, Lemkin had in mind "a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves." The next year, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg charged top Nazis with "crimes against humanity." The word "genocide" was included in the indictment, but as a descriptive, not legal, term.

On December 9, 1948, in the shadow of the Holocaust and in no small part due to the tireless efforts of Lemkin himself, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention establishes "genocide" as an international crime, which signatory nations "undertake to prevent and punish." It defines genocide as:

[G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

• Killing members of the group
• Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
• Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
• Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
• Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

While many cases of group-targeted violence have occurred throughout history and even since the Convention came into effect, the legal and international development of the term is concentrated into two distinct historical periods: the time from the coining of the term until its acceptance as international law and the time of its activation with the establishment of international criminal tribunals to prosecute the crime of genocide 1991-1998. Preventing genocide, the other major obligation of the convention, remains a challenge that nations and individuals continue to face. You should also note that beyond the legal definition of genocide academics who study the field of genocide have also defined genocide in a variety of ways.

posted on Wed, 05/07/2008 - 9:22am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

How long have you been working in this present career? Do you like it? It would seem to be a hard job not to take home with you.

posted on Sat, 05/03/2008 - 8:02pm
John Heffernan's picture

I have been working in this field for over 20 years, at the United Nations, as a humanitarian relief worker in Sudan and the former Yugoslavia, as a human rights activist in Washington DC and as an educator. While, admittedly, there are hard days, knowing that there are people out there who can't speak for themselves inspires me to do what I do.

posted on Wed, 05/07/2008 - 9:23am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Don't our ideas of human rights change over time by our societies advances?

posted on Mon, 05/05/2008 - 12:17pm
John Heffernan's picture

I wish that this were the case, but regrettably I believe there will always be a need to protect the basic human rights codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

posted on Wed, 05/21/2008 - 4:56pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

why are they killing people in western sudan...what is the reason?

posted on Thu, 05/15/2008 - 2:44pm
John Heffernan's picture

There are a number of reasons why people are dying in Darfur, Sudan. Since, 2003 Sudanese government soldiers and their proxy militia, known as the Janjaweed, have fought rebel groups. Initially the government strategy largely involved systematic assaults against civilians from the same ethnic group as the rebels forces. The targeted victims have been mostly from the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masaalit ethnic groups. Although large-scale attacks against by the government against civilians has declined since 2005, millions remain at risk. Most of the of the displaced are not returning home for fear that their villages will be attacked again. The Sudanese government still bears primary responsibility for the danger to civilians, but the increasing fragmentation of the rebel groups and their use of violence have contributed to the high level of insecurity. Khartoum’s use of ethnically and racially targeted violence has been a primary reason for deaths. And economic and land rights issues also exacerbate the ethnically motivated actions.

posted on Wed, 05/21/2008 - 4:57pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What's the difference between holocaust and genocide?

posted on Tue, 05/20/2008 - 11:34am
John Heffernan's picture

The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. "Holocaust" is a word of Greek origin meaning "sacrifice by fire." The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were "racially superior" and that the Jews, deemed "inferior," were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.

The term "genocide" did not exist before 1944. It is a very specific term, referring to violent crimes committed against groups with the intent to destroy the existence of the group. Human rights, as laid out in the U.S. Bill of Rights or the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concern the rights of individuals.

In 1944, a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) sought to describe Nazi policies of systematic murder, including the destruction of the European Jews. He formed the word "genocide" by combining geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with -cide, from the Latin word for killing. In proposing this new term, Lemkin had in mind "a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves." The next year, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg charged top Nazis with "crimes against humanity." The word “genocide” was included in the indictment, but as a descriptive, not legal, term.

On December 9, 1948, in the shadow of the Holocaust and in no small part due to the tireless efforts of Lemkin himself, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention establishes "genocide” as an international crime, which signatory nations “undertake to prevent and punish.” It defines genocide as:

[G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

a. Killing members of the group;

b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

While many cases of group-targeted violence have occurred throughout history and even since the Convention came into effect, the legal and international development of the term is concentrated into two distinct historical periods: the time from the coining of the term until its acceptance as international law (1944–1948) and the time of its activation with the establishment of international criminal tribunals to prosecute the crime of genocide (1991–1998). Preventing genocide, the other major obligation of the convention, remains a challenge that nations and individuals continue to face.

posted on Wed, 05/21/2008 - 4:59pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Are there rules about what basic human rights are?

posted on Tue, 05/20/2008 - 11:36am
John Heffernan's picture

Check out human rights, as laid out in the U.S. Bill of Rights or the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concern the rights of individuals.

posted on Wed, 05/21/2008 - 4:59pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

How current are the images on Google Earth?

posted on Tue, 05/20/2008 - 11:37am
John Heffernan's picture

Between 2 and 4 years. Also, please check out World is Witness our latest initiative with Google Earth.

posted on Wed, 05/21/2008 - 5:01pm
Susan Schwartz's picture
Susan Schwartz says:

Can genocide like that being perpetrated in Darfur, Tibet and previously in Kosovo and Serbia ever be ended without the intervention of "first-world" countries?

posted on Mon, 06/02/2008 - 9:44am
John Heffernan's picture

I think that there is a general recognition that the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities requires support from the international community writ large. At the Holocaust Museum we have established the Genocide Prevention Task Force, jointly convened by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the American Academy of Diplomacy, and the United States Institute of Peace. The Task Force will generate practical recommendations to enhance the U.S. government's capacity to respond to emerging threats of genocide and mass atrocities. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen are the co-chairs of this endeavor and Task Force members include:

Senator John Danforth, Senator Tom Daschle, Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, Mr. Michael Gerson, Secretary Dan Glickman, Secretary Jack Kemp, Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, Ambassador Tom Pickering, Mr. Vin Weber and General Anthony Zinni.

While the Task Force aims to present recommendations aimed at the U.S. government, it also realizes that there is a need to work with the international community, which include countries that would not be traditionally considered “first world” countries.

posted on Fri, 06/06/2008 - 1:20pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I was driving down through Frogtown (in St. Paul) on Saturday and saw a rally to stop the Hmong genocide. What's that all about?

posted on Mon, 06/02/2008 - 11:29am
John Heffernan's picture

It may refer to the Hmong ethnic minority in Laos, but not having seen it I am not sure. Please note that the term "genocide" did not exist before 1944. It is a very specific term, referring to violent crimes committed against groups with the intent to destroy the existence of the group. Human rights, as laid out in the U.S. Bill of Rights or the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concern the rights of individuals.

On December 9, 1948, in the shadow of the Holocaust and in no small part due to the tireless efforts of Lemkin himself, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention establishes "genocide” as an international crime, which signatory nations “undertake to prevent and punish.” It defines genocide as:

[G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

a. Killing members of the group;

b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Beyond the legal definition of genocide, there are also generic definitions of genocide postured by various academics and genocide scholars.

posted on Fri, 06/06/2008 - 1:21pm