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Understanding the unthinkable

July 15, 2013
(Left to right) Ashley Palin, Lori Korth, Raquel Chavez, Lauren Nale, Karissa Kessen, and J.D. Bowers alongside one of Amsterdam's many canals.

(Left to right) Ashley Palin, Lori Korth, Raquel Chavez, Lauren Nale, Karissa Kessen and J.D. Bowers alongside one of Amsterdam’s many canals.

Led by History Professor J.D. Bowers, five NIU students traveled recently to The Hague, Netherlands, where they spent two weeks immersed in a lesson on a topic many would rather forget: genocide.

The NIU group visited international tribunals, government and non-government agencies and research institutes, while also taking in classes and guest lectures at The Hague University of Applied Sciences.

Students even attended the ongoing trials of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY).

“It was a powerful and surreal three hours,” said Raquel Chavez, a junior political science major. “Sitting just a few yards away from some of the world’s most vicious and reprehensible perpetrators is an extraordinary (experience), and one I’m not likely to forget.”

Senior Ashley Palin, an international relations major, said the experience was enlightening. “Some things you have to witness to fully understand,” she said.

The program was designed to expose the students to several different concepts and topics, including the genocide at Srebrenica in July 1995, post-genocide justice and the efficacy of international tribunals, specifically ICTY and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The NIU group in front of Peace Palace in the Netherlands.

The NIU group in front of Peace Palace in the Netherlands.

Each topic was explored through an historical understanding as well as through contemporary political terms.  While visiting the ICC, for example, students met with William Rosato, the lead U.N. investigator into accusations of genocide stemming from the recent violence in Libya, and Christoph Billen, an ICC prosecutorial analyst who led the students through a historical discussion of the court’s origins and cases.

The study-abroad program resulted from NIU’s Vision 2020 initiative, and students were given travel support from the Earl and Cindi Rachowicz Fund.

Trip leader Bowers, the associate vice provost for University Honors, has taught an undergraduate course on the history of genocide since 2005.

“Being able to take students to the courts and to talk with those who are attempting to achieve justice is an opportunity without compare,” Bowers said. “NIU is fortunate to have such support for this program.”

As a historian, Bowers knows the lessons of genocide must never be forgotten. His students agree.

“Genocide has happened or continues to happen on every major continent, and we have pledged as a world community to prevent it, or when that is not possible, to at least bring the perpetrators to justice,” said Karissa Kessen, a junior history and anthropology major.

“As a student interested in these issues, I needed to see that justice, although defined in vastly different terms the world over, is achievable and possible, even if the outcome is not perfect.”

Of course, Kessen and her fellow students recognize that there can never be full justice for millions of lives lost. Yet it was good to gain a breadth of understanding of the complex issues of justice.

“We had the opportunity to talk to people who are bringing perpetrators to justice and to government officials who were involved in policy decisions dealing with justice in the wake of genocides and understand the process from all viewpoints,” said Lori Korth, a senior history major who had previously taken Bowers’s course on genocide.

The Hague has long been known as the center for international efforts to secure peace around the world.  One of the most memorable visits for the students was the behind-the-scenes tour of the International Peace Palace, built with support from Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie and now celebrating its 100th anniversary.

While at the palace, home to both the International Court of Justice and the International Court of Arbitration, the students were able to tour the grounds, visit its library (holding more than 10 million volumes on international law) and look inside the building.

The palace is just one of many magnificent buildings in The Hague, which has been the Dutch capital since 1588.

“Den Haag was absolutely beautiful,” Palin said. “There is a pervading sense that important things are happening within the city. It really inspires you, and it was the perfect setting for the serious and important topic that our group had committed to study.”

As an added topic of study, the students explored the history of the Holocaust in Amsterdam and the Netherlands, learning how the genocide unfolded and how it influences the character and issues of the city and country today. They spent a weekend visiting the Anne Frank House, where Anne and her family went into hiding to escape the Nazis, as well as the Jewish Museum’s permanent exhibition on the history of Jews in the region and the Museum of Resistance, which shows the efforts of the Dutch people as they struggled against the Nazis.

Plans are already underway for next year’s study abroad program, open to students from any major.

“The program has elements that apply across all disciplines—from history to literature to government and sociology,” Bowers said. “Honors students are required to approach their studies in an interdisciplinary manner, so this course and its travel program are a perfect match for that.”

The scope and character of the two-week program was summed up by Lauren Nale, a senior pre-occupational therapy major and an Honors Summer Research Scholar.

“I found the trip culturally and academically stimulating,” she said. “It is a great experience for students in any discipline. The study abroad trip left me feeling well rounded and informed, and it also allowed me to gain insight to international issues that I want to tie into my future profession.”

She and the other students will all be working throughout the rest of the summer to turn in their final projects—and trying to figure out how and when they can return to The Hague.