Posted on July 1, 2019

The Treatment of Migrants Likely ‘Meets the Definition of a Mass Atrocity’

Kate Cronin-Furman, New York Times, June 29, 2019

The debate over whether “concentration camps” is the right term for migrant detention centers on the southern border has drawn long-overdue attention to the American government’s dehumanizing treatment of defenseless children. A pediatrician who visited in June said the centers could be compared to “torture facilities.” Having studied mass atrocities for over a decade, I agree.

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Those of us who want to stop what’s happening need to think about all the different individuals playing a role in the systematic mistreatment of migrant children and how we can get them to stop participating. We should focus most on those who have less of a personal commitment to the abusive policies that are being carried out.

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This lack of personal investment means that these participants in atrocities can be much more susceptible to pressure than national leaders. Specifically, they are sensitive to social pressure, which has been shown to have played a huge role in atrocity commission and desistance in the Holocaust, Rwanda and elsewhere. The campaign to stop the abuses at the border should exploit this sensitivity and put social pressure on those involved in enforcing the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

Here is what that might look like:

The identities of the individual Customs and Border Protection agents who are physically separating children from their families and staffing the detention centers are not undiscoverable. Immigration lawyers have agent names; journalists reporting at the border have names, photos and even videos. These agents’ actions should be publicized, particularly in their home communities.

This is not an argument for doxxing—it’s about exposure of their participation in atrocities to audiences whose opinion they care about. The knowledge, for instance, that when you go to church on Sunday, your entire congregation will have seen you on TV ripping a child out of her father’s arms is a serious social cost to bear. The desire to avoid this kind of social shame may be enough to persuade some agents to quit and may hinder the recruitment of replacements. For those who won’t (or can’t) quit, it may induce them to treat the vulnerable individuals under their control more humanely. {snip}

{snip} Similar to the way the American Medical Association has made it clear that its members must not participate in torture, the American Bar Association should signal that anyone who defends the border patrol’s mistreatment of children will not be considered a member in good standing of the legal profession. This will deter the participation of some, if only out of concern over their future career prospects.

The individuals running detention centers are arguably directly responsible for torture, which could trigger a number of consequences at the international level. Activists should partner with human rights organizations to bring these abuses before international bodies like the United Nations Human Rights Council. They should lobby for human rights investigations, for other governments to deny entry visas to those involved in the abuses, or even for the initiation of torture prosecutions in foreign courts. {snip}

When those directly involved in atrocities can’t be swayed, their enablers are often more responsive. For-profit companies are supplying food and other material goods to the detention centers. Boycotts against them and their parent entities may persuade them to stop doing so. {snip}

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