An event held at Scripps College Sept. 26 and 27 commemorated the life and legacy of Jan Karski, the member of the Polish resistance movement who, tragically unheeded, attempted to inform the international community of the Holocaust. Organized by the European Union Center of California, the event honored the 100th anniversary of the birth of a man who maintained lines of communication between the Polish underground and Polish government in exile; who infiltrated the Warsaw Ghetto and a German concentration camp; and who pled with leaders including President Franklin Roosevelt to stop the Holocaust.
Entitled “Jan Karski’s Centennial: Discussion of the Concept and Applications of the Responsibility to Protect,” the two-part event featured panels that focused on both Karski’s life and the philosophical and academic implications of his work.
“Both my colleague and co-organizer for the conference, Cameron Munter, and I are great admirers of Karski and were keen to have Claremont host one of these events,” wrote David Andrews, director of the European Union Center of California and Scripps international relations professor, in an email to TSL.
The first part of the event, entitled “The World Knew: Jan Karski’s Mission for Humanity,” focused on Karski’s role informing the West of the Holocaust and urging leaders to take actions to stop it.
Philippa Haven SC ’17, who attended the event, said that the exhibition successfully promoted awareness of Karski’s life.
“Throughout primary school, I had a lot of education about the Holocaust,” she said. “So it was interesting to me, who had substantial background on the Holocaust and World War II, to have never heard of him before.”
Pomona College assistant professor of politics and international relations Heidi Haddad, who spoke at the panel, also emphasized the value of learning about Karski’s life.
“I think that learning about Jan Karski is of tremendous historical value,” Haddad said. “There might be a narrative of the Holocaust that says that nobody knew what was going on. The Jan Karski story debunks that.”
The second part of the event, held Sept. 27, was an academic conference entitled “Exploring the Concept and Application of the Responsibility to Protect.” The conference focused on the philosophical implications of Karski’s ideas.
“We wanted to combine a retrospective on Karski’s life with an academically rigorous assessment of his legacy,” Andrews wrote. “That is to say, to what extent do governments today accept Karski’s contention that they have a responsibility to intervene abroad in order to prevent mass atrocities?”
This contention is referred to by the concept of the “responsibility to protect.”
“This idea of responsibility to protect directly stems from what Karski did,” Haddad said. “If you have information that grievous human rights abuses are happening, what do you do about it?”
The conference brought together several luminaries in the field of international relations, each with a differing perspective on the answer to the question of when, if ever, states are morally obligated to intervene.
The discussion allowed for the panelists to interact with each other and debate ideas. Of the many debates, one of the most common was that of a country’s ethical involvement in foreign conflict. Some panelists argued that governments with the power to protect the human rights of foreign civilians are morally obligated to do so, while others disagreed, saying that in practice, intervening in foreign countries only exacerbates civilian casualties.
Haven said being exposed to these differing points of view expanded her thinking on the concept of a responsibility to protect.
“Just hearing the name, you think, ‘Who wouldn’t be in favor of that?’” Haven said. “You can’t think of responsibility to protect as its own entity. You have to think about before, and you have to think about after.”
Haddad shared Haven’s view of practice versus theory.
“Policy history and state interests absolutely complicate these theories in practice,” she said. “Responsibility to protect is still a work in progress.”