Scott Straus, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the winner of the 2018 Grawemeyer Award for Improving World Order. His 2015 book “Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa” earned him the honor.
Straus’ books and research focus on genocide, particularly in Rwanda, which he covered as a war reporter in the 1990s. “Making and Unmaking Nations” is a comparative book, which looks at understanding genocide in a broader sense.
His transition to academia was driven by a desire to better understand the issues and factors surrounding events that lead to genocide and political violence. Some of those factors include armed conflict, the rise of nationalist thinking and targeted violence that goes unpunished.
In addition to the Grawemeyer Award, Straus’ honors include being appointed to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council by President Barack Obama. I spoke with Straus about his work and passion for genocide prevention. Listen in the player above.
How did you become interested in issues of genocide and political violence, particularly in Africa?
“So I was a journalist in the mid- and late-1990s and I was based in Kenya, in Nairobi, Kenya. And I started covering the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda and the first war in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo…You know, the kind of question stuck with me over the years: how could this happen? How could violence of this level take place? How and why could people participate?”
How important is it for leaders to react quickly when they see warning signs?
“I think that we know that perpetrators of genocide usually are pretty committed, I mean they’re pretty serious about what they’re doing and they’re not often easily deterred. At the same time, I think we understand that they’re usually paying attention to how the world reacts and trying to understand what their room for maneuver is, what they can get away with, what’s going to cause a significant reaction so I do think the idea of there being strong international resolve on genocide prevention is hugely important.”
Is there any way to eradicate issues such as genocide or political violence?
“It’s clearly a vision of many people who work in this area and was clearly the vision after World War II with the promulgation of the genocide convention with the idea of ‘Never Again.’ I think whether that can ever be a reality, I think, you know I’m not sure…Right now, the question is, is there political energy behind genocide prevention? Do people care about this issue? Do ordinary citizens care enough to call their representatives? Do representatives and political leaders believe that it’s in their interests to focus attention on this issue? Right now I would say the answer is, I’m not seeing a huge wellspring of energy around genocide and atrocity prevention, unfortunately.”
Given that, how do you hope that your work will affect change today or even in the future?
“My life’s work really has been to try to understand why these horrible events happen. I think understanding why they happen is important for thinking about how to design a response. It’s also important for trying to anticipate where the violence is going to happen and when it’s going to happen. So I think ultimately I hope that my work really contributes to understanding why these events happen and then helping people think about a more strategic response to how they can stop it.”