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HuffPost Greatest Person Of The Day: Tibi Galis On Preventing Genocide

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TIBI GALIS

If you met Tibi Galis on the street, you wouldn't guess what he does for a living. With a quick laugh, a wide smile, and a uniquely blended European accent that gives everything he says a tinge of optimism, Tibi currently serves as Director of the The Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR), an organization dedicated to providing worldwide policymakers with the tools to prevent genocide in its earliest stages.

Each year, the AIPR brings experts, diplomats, military personnel, and academics from over 60 countries to their meetings and seminars, giving high-powered officials the chance to communicate openly and confidentially about issues that often go unnoticed. The hope is to challenge a statement Albert Einstein made in 1934, that "the brotherhood of the well-intentioned exists even though it is impossible to organize it anywhere."

Tibi sat down with the Huffington Post recently to talk about his own unique upbringing, how his organization operates, and why it took so long for the world to address such a devastating problem.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Transylvania, so I was living a few hours from the former Yugoslavia. I remember watching that whole [conflict] happening, but it also felt very distant to me. I wasn't really living in that world, but I felt the effects of that transition from a communist regime into a democracy. Politics became such an important part of people's personal lives, and everything was changing overnight.

This sparked your interest in transitional governments?
Yes, definitely. I went and studied law and transitional government in the UK and Belgium. At a seminar I met a professor named Eric Gordy, and he was teaching at one of the first genocide studies programs in the world, at Clark University in Worcester, MA. His work really interested me; that question of how people build a story of the past. My research up to that point was about dealing with the past and setting rules for the future, so Gordy's work was fascinating.

So you moved from Belgium to Worcester, MA? That must have been interesting.
It was! But I loved the program, and through that I started working with the Swedish and British governments in genocide research. I was traveling around, learning the ins and outs of how governments operate and deal with one another. Then around that time, about six years ago, I met Fred Scwhwartz who was starting up the Auschwitz Institute and we got along very well.

And this was the first organization created to study and prevent genocide?
Yes, it's kind of amazing. We were the first organization of this kind in the world. We also organized the first genocide prevention training for US military personell, at Fort Leavenworth in 2010.

How is that possible that this type of organization is only coming to fruition now, after so many years of the world saying "Never Again?"
It's really hard to say. There has been some amazing research into how genocide happens, but people are still baffled about how complex it is. People relate to it as a tragedy, something we can reflect on after the fact, not something we can prevent years in advance. One thing we've learned is that it's a social tragedy - which means people make it happen, not one person. And lots of things can be done to intervene. Our idea of genocide prevention is coming at it from very early on and seeing the roots of it in governments and societies. So much of the talking is usually about the aftermath of genocide. They see it happening in the media and then they react. But it should never even get close to the point where military intervention is needed.

So Darfur is not in your wheelhouse anymore, then?
In 2005 I remember we started following Darfur. It was already too late, it was already happening, and yet people talked about it like it's this brand new thing. What we were lacking then was government groups taking action. And that's what we're trying to correct -- to make sure it never gets to this point. Because then it becomes crisis management, not prevention.

How does the Auschwitz Institute work to bring together other governments?
Countries spend a full week in Auschwitz, isolated from the rest of the world. They're in this historic place. We talk of new programs, they work together. We try to create an environment where people from all sides of the world are talking sincerely about problems.

What are some patterns you've noticed?
A society must be organized in a certain way to carry out atrocities. But if they are reorganized early on, then they can be prevented. When a government or a leader decides to carry out genocide, they use things that are in place -- existing sets of policies that already differentiate the groups. So what's important to us is that when groups are easy targets for governments, there's a framework in place that prevents them from being persecuted or attacked.

How do you know if you're succeeding?
One thing that's very funny about genocide prevention is if you do your job well, nothing happens.

I know your work is fairly confidential, but can you talk about any countries where you've made tangible significant and life-saving changes?
The thing is: we are not that focused on advising programs on how to make it go away. We need to give them the tools to do that themselves. Yes, we've seen it happen a few times - [he makes a "zipped lips" gesture] but I can't really say, unfortunately. The whole point is that we're doing this before it becomes an issue. The seeds of genocide are being erased by our work. But I will say that many of our alumni have done amazing things.

Which countries do you consider alumni?
So many governments have changed their structures. Argentina has helped us a lot -- after their society was marginalized by the Dirty War, they've really stepped up and helped us. We now have lots of partners in Latin America. Also lots of Eastern European countries, we've collaborated with countries in Africa, South Africa, we're also working with Sri Lanka, central Asia, Tajikistan, China. You'd be surprised.

How do you reach out to the public? Do you solicit donations?
Our mission is twofold -- we want to educate in any way we can. We use Facebook and Twitter a lot now. Apparently we are the number one Tweeter in genocide! [Laughs]. We are very keen on releasing good things as they happen. There are so many good things and positive changes. We're also very lucky that we've had support from the public, real grass-roots support, and other generous foundations.

How come Germany never started an organization like yours after the Holocaust?
I...don't know. I really don't know. When we started working on this, we were very surprised that people were not engaged. I think during the Cold War, there wasn't the possibility to do something like this. We couldn't start a dialogue between countries around the world, it wasn't possible. But since the 90s, it's gotten easier. You look at the green movement -- it started to be very serious in the late second half of the 20th century, even though those problems have been with us for hundreds of years. Genocide has been with human kind since the very beginning.

So why do you think we're ready to deal with this now, as supposed to 10 or 20 years ago?
I think there are moments that are favorable to human society as far as thinking critically about issues, and I think we've reached that moment, finally, with genocide. It's really not acceptable for a government to kill or deprive their citizens. It used to be seen as a legitimate way of dealing with problems, and I know that doesn't sound...right. But it's true. And now countries want to work together, they want to be in touch. It's really a very positive thing, this work.

Watch a video about the Auschwitz Institute below.

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