Events in memory of Alison Des Forges will focus on Islam and human rights in Africa

Alison des Forges.

Release Date: April 16, 2015 This content is archived.

“We will go beyond sensational media headlines ... as we examine groups such as Boko Haram, Seleka and Al-Shabaab. ”
Ellen Dussourd, co-chair
Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Committee

BUFFALO, N.Y. — To honor the memory and achievements of the internationally-known historian, human rights activist and Buffalo native Alison L. Des Forges (1942-2009), PhD, three events will take place in Buffalo on Thursday, April 23 and Friday, April 24:

  • An international symposium on April 23 featuring talks by university researchers and representatives of human rights organizations working in Africa, including Human Rights Watch. This event, free and open to the public, takes place on Thursday, April 23 from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in 120 Clemens Hall on the University at Buffalo North Campus.
  • A scholarship dinner and discussion on April 23. A reservation is required, and tickets are $100 per person. Proceeds go to the Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Scholarships for Buffalo Public School graduates who demonstrate a strong interest in pursuing studies at UB related to human rights and social justice. The dinner takes place on Thursday, April 23 from 6:30-9 p.m. at the Jacobs Executive Development Center at 672 Delaware Ave., Buffalo.
  • A community roundtable on April 24, where university researchers will reflect on the previous day’s symposium topics. This event, titled “The Interplay of Politics, Religion, Terrorism, Modernity and Human Rights,” takes place on Friday, April 24 from noon to 2 p.m. at the Burchfield Penney Art Center at 1300 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo.

For information about the events and to register for the dinner, contact Ellen Dussourd (716-645-2258, or Shaun Irlam (716-359-2222,

The two-day program, titled “Islam, Islamism, and Human Rights in Africa,” is sponsored by the Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Committee, along with the UB Department of History, Department of Political Science, Humanities Institute and Office of the Vice Provost for International Education.

“In an effort to address issues of intense public concern, these events will explore in depth the recent rise of violent extremist groups in Africa,” said Dussourd, co-chair of the Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Committee. “In so doing, we will go beyond sensational media headlines to the historical roots of this phenomenon as we examine groups such as Boko Haram, Seleka and Al-Shabaab.”

One of the world’s leading experts on the Rwandan genocide, Des Forges was senior adviser to the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch at the time of her death in 2009 in the crash of Continental flight 3407 in Clarence Center.

She was an adjunct member of the UB history faculty during the 1990s and received an honorary doctorate from SUNY during UB’s 155th general commencement ceremony in 2001.

Her book, “Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda,” is a landmark account of that event, and her tireless efforts to awaken the international community to the horrors of the genocide earned her much recognition, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999.

The April 23 symposium will feature six speakers addressing three topics: “The Interplay of Politics and Religion,” “The Interplay of Terrorism and Modernity,” and “Focus on Human Rights.”

Presentations will include:

  • “The Rationality of Abusing Civilians in Civil War.” This talk by Jacob Kathman, UB associate professor of political science, will examine the conditions under which combatants believe it is rational to use violence against civilian populations even when they recognize that popular support is eventually essential for their success.
  • “Historical Perspectives on Jihad in Africa: The Religious Logic of Boko Haram.” This talk by Ndubueze Mbah, UB assistant professor of history, will discuss the transformation of the movement from a nonviolent organization to a radicalized and nihilist movement reminiscent of antecedent cases of reactionary revolt against the crisis of modernity.
  • “Terror, Jihad and Modern Society.” This talk will be given by Martin Klein, professor emeritus of history at the University of Toronto, who has written extensively on Islam, slavery and colonialism in West Africa.
  • “What are the Islamist Solutions to Post-colonial Crises in West Africa? Rethinking Competing Muslim Modernities in Mali.” This talk will be given by Bruce Hall, associate professor of history at Duke University, who explores the emergence of ideas of racial difference along the West African Sahel, focused in and around the Malian city of Timbuktu.
  • “Challenges to Human Rights Research and Documentation in Central and East Africa.” This talk will be given by Maria Burnett, senior researcher with the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, who currently covers Uganda and emerging human rights issues in Central Africa and supervises work on Somalia.
  • “Terrorism and State Culture: Creating a Human Rights Agenda in Somalia.” This talk will be given via Skype by John Foley, advocacy and research manager with the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project based in Nairobi.

At the community roundtable on April 24, Hall, Klein and Mbah will briefly summarize their symposium talks, and then exchange reflections on the previous day’s events.

To contribute to the Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Scholarship Endowment Fund at UB, visit

Media Contact Information

Charlotte Hsu is a former staff writer in University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, email or visit our list of current university media contacts.