Are Genocides Worth Remembering?

A shortened version of this originally appeared in Scotland on Sunday on 23rd January 2016.

On 27th January Scotland, and the UK, remembers the Holocaust and other genocides.  Given the challenging financial situation in the UK, is the hosting of memorial meetings across the country a good use of Scottish or UK Government resources?  Isn’t life depressing enough without having to remember that the last 100 years has witnessed many states sponsoring the planned, systematic mass murder of their own populations including Turkey, Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and in the Darfur region of the Sudan?

Millions die every year from hunger, disease and war so why pause on 27th January and remember the Holocaust and other genocides?

In his book ‘Rwanda and Genocide in the 20th Century’, former secretary-general of Medecins Sans Frontieres, Alain Destexhe, says: “Genocide is distinguishable from all other crimes by the motivation behind it. Genocide is a crime on a different scale to all other crimes against humanity and implies an intention to completely exterminate the chosen group.  Genocide is therefore both the gravest and greatest of the crimes against humanity.”

The UN Convention on Genocide came into effect in January 1951 and it is estimated that 20 million men, women and children have died as a result of the Holocaust and other genocides in just over 100 years.  Despite a UN Convention; such shocking figures; and the now overused and under implemented words ‘never again’ the genocidal process is still allowed to develop.

So what is the point of remembering?  Is remembrance enough?   Remembering without understanding the process of genocide might well make us feel marginally better but will it prevent further genocides happening?  Surely we must find better ways of learning from remembrance and from challenging the processes of genocide whenever and wherever we see them beginning to take root.

Gregory Stanton, President of Genocide watch has identified ‘ten stages of genocide’; classification; symoblization; discrimination; dehumanization; organisation; polarization; preparation; persecution; extermination and denial. In each of these stages he has outlined what can be done to stop the advancement of the process and has stated that ‘ultimately the best antidote to genocide is popular education and the development of social and cultural tolerance for diversity’. He has further identified that ‘the movement that will end genocide must come not from international armed interventions, but rather from popular resistance to every form of discrimination; dehumanization, hate speech, and formation of hate groups…. it must rise from each of us who have the courage to challenge discrimination, hatred, and tyranny’.

Education is often put forward as a tool for building a fairer, better society and I would be the first to agree that education is crucial – but I would ask the question ‘education for what?’  The Nazi’s were extremely well educated; educational games were developed for children that encouraged hatred of the Jews; scientists developed the equipment of the death camps; social scientists developed the racist theories that underpinned the Holocaust; even the cultural education of classical music, literature and the arts were used as tools of propaganda against the Jews.  So the question again has to be asked ‘education for what’?   Do we need to have, right at the heart of our education system, the ‘social and cultural tolerance for diversity’ that is identified by Gregory Stanton as the ‘best antidote’ for genocide?

Children spend much of their lives in educational environments but just how much of that time is actually spent exploring tolerance for diversity?  Are the children of Scotland learning about cultural and religious diversity and its positive impact on society?  Are examples of best practice shared throughout the country?  Are programmes being developed for schools that really celebrate global citizenship?  As Director of a National Interfaith Dialogue organisation, Interfaith Scotland, I could ask are children learning the tools needed to successfully talk about difference and to do so with respect and openness.   Hopefully the answer to all of the above is yes but educators and Governments need to be constantly vigilant to the voices that would sow distrust and fear in society.

And what of the environment outside the classroom; what of our adult world and our ‘tolerance for diversity’?  How influenced are all of us by what we read, hear and see in the media? The media has always had a powerful role to play in the process of genocide. Historically it has been a tool used effectively in the dehumanizing stage of genocide.   So are we constantly vigilant and questioning of the stories told in our national newspapers, on TV and on the radio?   If we think of some of the recent reporting on the current refugee crisis it would be hard not to identify shocking negativity towards refugees in some national newspapers.  As far back as 2010 a Red Cross report stated that 72% of respondents in a poll said newspaper reporting about asylum seekers and refugees was negative and the public most readily associated the word scroungers with refugees.  No one can have missed the extreme language used by Katie Hopkins, columnist for the Sun Newspaper, when she described migrants as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘feral’ – similar language used in the Rwandan genocide!  Thank God the decent British public rose up and condemned her, demanding an apology.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, this Wednesday, Scotland will remember the Holocaust and other genocides.  It will embrace the theme for 2016 – ‘don’t stand by’ and will welcome to Scotland Mukesh Kapila, the former UN Ambassador to the Sudan who had the courage to blow the whistle on the genocide taking place in Darfur.  Scotland will also welcome Inge Auerbacher, who as a child survived Terezin a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.  Of the 15,000 children who entered only 1% survived.  Mukesh and Inge, both know only too well that doing nothing to prevent discrimination, hatred and intolerance has terrible, unthinkable consequences.  Inge was a child in November 1938 when she witnessed first had ‘Kristallnacht’. She saw how Nazis torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses, killed close to 100 Jews and in the aftermath sent 30,000 Jewish men to concentration camps.

Mukesh witnessed first-hand the atrocities committed in Darfur.  In his book ‘Against a Tide of Evil’ he tells the moving story of how in March 2004 he was sitting in his office in Khartoum writing a report for the UN about the situation unfolding in Darfur when he heard a commotion outside his office. A tall woman in torn, dirty clothes fought her way in to speak with him. Her name was Aisha. He offered her a chair but, fearing she would spoil it, she sat cross-legged on the floor. She had travelled from North Darfur, from a village near the town of Tawila, and now she told him her story. She had been in Tawila with her family on market day when Arab militia – the Janjaweed – on horseback and in vehicles stormed the marketplace. They rounded up the women and girls and raped them systematically “like it was a production line in a factory”.  Her father, husband and two sons were in the crowd as she was raped repeatedly until she passed out. Huts and trees were set alight. In the aftermath, she couldn’t find her family and fled 1,000km to Khartoum.  This was a testimony from one brave victim, sitting on the floor of his office and it was the catalyst he needed to blow the whistle, to defy his superiors and throw the story open, telling the world that “the first genocide of the 21st century” was taking place in Sudan.

In an interview with Alice Wyllie of the Scotsman Mukesh said that ‘the higher you climb in office, the more distant you become- the numbers are there but in a way the bigger the numbers, the more abstract they become. In Darfur, meeting the individual victims and perpetrators, I began to realise that each little mini situation in the big drama was utterly unique. This really came home to me when I returned to Rwanda … for the first time in 18 years. I looked at a room full of skulls and bones and, with my medical knowledge I could tell how each individual had died; a blow on the head, a machete in the back of the neck. And I realised that amidst the hundreds of thousands, each death was unique and hence each survival was unique. From that grew the idea that I wasn’t interested in speaking to the intellectuals or the policy makers. I was interested in speaking to ordinary people’.

It will be the ordinary people of Scotland that Mukesh and Inge will talk – so yes Scotland will remember but it will do so much more.  In the coming week a befitting national memorial event will be held in Falkirk; hundreds of local memorial events will take place across Scotland; thousands of school children will learn about the Holocaust and other genocides; films will be shown; dialogue events will take place; public lectures at Universities across the country will be held – and we will not forget; we will honour the victims; and we will do what we can to understand, to learn, to speak out, and to say very loudly and very clearly that yes the Holocaust and other genocides are worth remembering.

Dr. Maureen Sier, Director, Interfaith Scotland

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Author: ifsambassador

Our team of Ambassadors for Scottish Interfaith will post blogs using this account to share events during Scottish Interfaith Week.

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