Because we can: “Never Again”

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Because we can is a series of articles by the author on human rights and political freedoms. 11 years since the turn of the century, how are we doing in the struggle to uphold the concept of  ”human rights” across the world? We can ask these questions Because we can.

“The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference” – Ian Kershaw

66 years ago on the 27th of January 1945, Soviet troops liberated the camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. You will already know the why and the what of events that occurred here.

This anniversary is no more poignant or special than the rest, but it is a reminder. It is a reminder that if left unchecked, simple prejudice can be manipulated  and channelled  into hatred. That hatred is then organised and people become polarised. When people are no longer prepared to talk to each other due to their differences or  even indifference, violence follows. The holocaust during the second world war is the pinnacle of that indifference which resulted in genocide.

The 20th Century will be remembered for many things, and the holocaust is chief among them. Are we yet to still fully learn the lessons of this event? According to the Human rights charity Liberty, the holocaust was a turning point in the development of human rights. With increased exposure, the scale of what was going on inside the concentration camps became apparent. But without formal protection, human rights concepts are of little use to those on the receiving end of people seeking to abuse them.  It was from these events that the international community undertook legalisation which form the cornerstone of human rights law: the 1948 Declaration of Human rights by the then newly formed United Nations.

The question which then follows from this is whether this has stopped the horrors of the holocaust happening again. The answer is no. And it is still happening today. Politicians are reluctant to invoke the charge of genocide due to the nature of politics. A case in point was the ongoing conflict in Darfur from 2003. While researchers on the ground were giving reliable information to the then U.S Secretary of State Colin Powell that mass incidents of rape and murder were being committed against African minorities by Arab Janjaweed militia groups, genocide was not levied. Countries which had the power to stop what was going on in Darfur remained indifferent. 400,000 people  died and 2.7 million people were been displaced as a result.

Only in 2007 did the United States government officially admit that what was going on in Darfur was genocide. The President of Sudan, Omar-Al Bashir, has an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity in the Hague which is supported by NATO, the EU and human rights charities such as Amnesty International. This is the first time that a serving head of state has been sought to answer to charges and is a positive step forward in the enforcement of human rights under international law.

Is international law on its own enough to deter leaders from suppressing minorities?Law is important on it’s own as a deterrent to leaders to ensure human rights are kept in the cost-benefit calculus of politics. It is here though we can look at a controversial figure who authored the Chicago Doctrine, that intervention is justified in conflicts where ethnic cleansing is occuring or people are being oppressed. The author of this doctrine was Tony Blair.

When I try and explain the predicament of humanitarian intervention to people and its potential benefits or consequences, I ask them how they would react in this situation. If you were to see someone on the other side of the street being mugged, do you go over and help them or continue to walk on by? While this is a gross over-simplification of the situation, the premise is still there. Do you help other people who may be in trouble? Of course, the answer to this is dependant on a multitude of factors, such as who you’re with, whether you can physically help them or whether you even care.

So when have we applied the idea of intervention to say “never again” to the events of the holocaust? Before Iraq, Tony Blair was right to use this doctrine in the case of Kosovo in 1999 when NATO intervened in the ongoing conflict which saw the murder of 200,000 people in Bosnia. Although critics have said that the case for genocide was flawed, there was mass suffering and evidence of crimes against humanity. We could say that the success of stopping further murder in Kosovo was what emboldened Tony Blair to invade Iraq and Afghanistan alongside the USA after 9/11. These however, are still steeped in controversy of whether this was a valid case for war, or whether it was the case at all.

If we want “Never Again” to be a reality, we need to ask our politicians to be more prepared to enact leglisation or pressure them to take action directly to ensure crimes such as genocide don’t occur. Or alternatively, we can use the “it’s none of our business, we shouldn’t care about it” argument to justify why we should decry, but not do anything about such crimes.

History however, has a warning for what happens when we remain indifferent. That warning is in the cold and the dark that Soviet soldiers found at Auschwitz-Birkenau 66 years ago.

Picture: http://www.masonmichigan.net/amf/index.html

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Discussion1 Comment

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    I’ve been to Auschwitz (though it’s more appropriate to say Oświęcim, which is the actual Polish name of the town the concentration camp is located. The name was changed in the German invasion). It’s quite a unforgettable experience, and difficult to recommend. As you walk around the site of the adminstrative camp, you can’t help but feel a chill. One of the rooms has behind glass tonnes of shaved hair and scalps which were intended to be used to stuff mattresses or woven into carpets. Seeing this is uncomfortable enough, but then the tour guide informs you that this is but a fraction of all the hair that was removed. Similarly there are piles of glasses, shoes, bags, clothes, etc. around the buildings. Going into the gas chambers is probably the most eerie of all. Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the main extermination camp where most of the victims were kept, isn’t quite as creepy as it is overwhelmingly huge and empty. I’m certainly glad I went but not as keen to return.

    And somehow, in spite of all the evidence, there are people who believe that it never happened. Madness.

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