THE CAMBODIA DAILY
Issue number 402
Saturday and Sunday, November 26-27, 2005
By Michelle Vachon
The book “Beyond the ‘Never Agains”’ speaks of realities that one would rather not face, raising hard questions about our humanity and so-called civilization.
People quoted in the 168-page book discuss genocide and bring that crime down to specifics that allow no one to just walk away. They talk not only of what to do after genocide, but also of how to prevent it, and what the international community has done and could do to stop it.
“We want you to know that you have a choice,” Yehuda Bauer, who headed the Hebrew University's holocaust studies for nearly three decades in Jerusalem, is quoted as saying.
“You have a choice between evil and good, that you not only can, but must choose which side you are on, the murderers and the hunters, the indifferent bystanders, the collaborators,” or the side of people who combat genocide, Bauer said.
Published in recent months by the Swedish government, the large-format, richly illustrated book reviews issues raised at the international conferences on genocide organized by Sweden in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004.
It consists of interviews with legal and genocide experts who attended the conferences held in Stockholm, and a series of excerpts from speeches made during the events.
Its title refers to the words “Never again” put on a memorial at the former Nazi concentration camp of Dachau in Germany. These words became a rallying cry against genocide after World War II as it became known that the Nazis had exterminated more than six million people during the 1930s and 1940s.
The Nazi crimes led to the adoption of the 1948 UN Convention on the prevention and punishment of genocide. As the book title indicates, participants at the conferences asked themselves what had been done against genocide since then.
Not enough, it seems, given the examples in the last 50 years that the experts note in the book and that make the Khmer Rouge killing of about 1.7 million people seem almost commonplace.
“Since the founding of the United Nations in 1945, there have been 55 genocides and politicides [mass killings for political considerations, such as the elimination of political opponents in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s],” said Gregory Stanton, the president of the NGO Genocide Watch who founded the Cambodian Genocide Project in 1982 to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to trial.
“Over 70 million people have died, most murdered by their own governments, [which is] more than in all the wars combined.”
Those experts look at those crimes from the standpoint of human beings slaughtered rather than legal definitions because, they say, legalities have so often delayed action.
As Jorge Taiana, Argentina's secretary of foreign affairs, pointed out: “While the states were still debating [at the UN] whether they would call it genocide or not, 200,000 people had already been killed” in Rwanda in 1994. By July of that year, 800,000 Rwandans of the Tutsi ethnic group were exterminated.
Those quoted insist on the need to intervene as soon as a government or a powerful faction in a region gets into large-scale torture and killing, well before the maimed and the dead turn into millions.
Wherever atrocities become policy, the international community should investigate and act when needed, they say.
“Let's talk about ‘atrocity crimes’ and not focus on the ‘G’ word,” said Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group.
“Leave it to the judges, the prosecutors and the courts to work out which crimes—genocide, atrocity crimes or crimes against humanity—have actually been committed.”
Unlike war, during which killing may be done for specific political or economic purposes, atrocity crimes make “killing another man who somehow differs by ethnic, religious or other features, into a usual social norm of everyday behavior,” said Ilya Altman, co-chairman of the Center for Holocaust Research and Education in Moscow.
All that stands between humanity and a sweeping authorization to destroy is one single principle: The sanctity of life, said Michael Naumann, publisher of the leading German weekly publication Die Zeit. “The Nazi [leaders] did not believe in it—period,” he adds.
That regime rose at a time when German visionaries, artists and thinkers shone in countless fields in Europe.
“It shattered the illusion that the cultivation of the arts and philosophy, of science and technology would render man immune to racism, to blood lust, to intoxication with power, to brutal, insatiable tyranny,” Ehud Barak, then-prime minister of Israel, said at the 2000 conference.
“There are lots of ordinary people without any particular inclination to evil who seem very peaceful. But in a particular situation, they can eventually commit incredible crimes. That's why the whole issue of prevention, reparation and memory is so important,” said Taiana, who was jailed for seven years during Argentina's Military Junta regime in the 1970s and 1980s.
But there can be no prevention without global international support, said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
And the international community has a rather dismal record on that count.
In the 1980s, the Khmer Rouge was able to regroup with international help on the Thai border while evidence of that regime's genocide was accumulating.
Today, that same international community has yet to find a solution for the Sudanese region of Darfur as, reports the UN Children’s Fund this month, “one of the world's most severe humanitarian crises continues to deteriorate.”
Since early 2003, nearly 1.9 million people—most of them less than 18 years old—have had to flee their homes in Darfur, Unicef said. The death toll due to starvation, disease and violence may range from 180,000 to nearly 400,000 people.
The international community only began to pay attention to Darfur’s situation last year.
And yet, security reasons abound for wanting the exodus resolved, says Bauer, adding: “Masses of refugees are moving west and south, creating humanitarian problems and destabilizing parts of the African continent.”
However, oil has been found in Sudan, which may explain China and other countries’ reluctance to unduly pressure the Sudanese government to end the killing, he said.
People act out of both their own interest and moral principles, said Bauer. So in order to get governments and people in general to take action, “we have to do so in a way that will appeal to the moral sensitivities of ordinary people and ordinary politicians,” he said.
One way to accomplish this is to promote the concept of "responsibility to protect” and to present human rights violations on a massive scale as threats to international peace and security, Taiana said.
When a government is persecuting its own people, the international community should intervene in spite of that country’s sovereignty, but according to set rules, he said.
This can only be done if democracy prevails internationally, experts say in the book.
“Only the democratization of people can allow societies to behave according to the universal values of freedom, tolerance and democracy,” said Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao, president of East Timor.
Another way to enroll people against genocide is school education, said Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson.
“If you're presented with historical settings and human lives, then perhaps you begin to think, ‘That could have been me.’.... But just because there have been abuses, we’re not automatically aware they have been committed,” which is why education must be conducted generation after generation, he said.
“One of the most hair-raising things of recent months...was the picture that appeared in January in the newspapers around the world of Britain’s Prince Harry wearing a [Nazi] swastika armband to a party,” Evans said.
“That his generation is so ignorant, that he is so ignorant of the significance of what he did, tells us that you can never do too much when it comes to trying to teach these lessons.”
Having young people connect with genocide victims and develop a sense of responsibility towards them is extremely difficult, says Stephen Smith, director of the Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial and Education Center in England.
Talking to people who lived through genocide may help them turn facts into human feelings, he added.
However, “people see survivors’ testimonies as exaggerations—when they testify how people were torn to pieces, how children were burned,” said Youk Chhang. “If such testimony is to be constructive, the victim has to appear strong. If you show your weakness, that allows the perpetrator to grow stronger.”
Having people grasp what genocide truly means is not possible, said Youk Chhang.
“Genocide cannot be explained in words—no one can understand how it felt.”
But, he said, what is important is to promote the idea that “No one has the right to take away your life.”
Genocide prevention and control also includes rebuilding a country afterwards.
“People too easily say, ‘let's move on,' but they forget that there are [genocide survivors] who cannot follow because they have been so deeply affected, so damaged,” says Esther Mujawayo-Keiner, a Rwanda genocide survivor and co-founder of the support group Avega for genocide widows in her country.
“It's like a situation in which you are being asked to walk despite the fact that you don't have legs anymore,” she said. “We need to be put back together, to be reconciled with ourselves.”
And yet, the cost of peace may be survivors having to live with the ones who committed the crimes.
“In our case, the suffering was accepted in the interests of a greater objective, the independence of our country,” said Xanana Gusmao.
When UN experts recommended an international criminal court for East Timor, they seemed to consider "nothing other than trying and punishing people," Xanana Gusmao said.
“For those experts, life operates according to the scales of justice-as though there is justice in the world...as though under-developed, developing or small countries do not feel the law of the strong hanging over their heads.
“Real justice is social justice, and our commitment should be to give our people a dignified standard of living,” he said.
But international law and tribunals may serve a purpose as a warning to leaders contemplating mass murder, said Raul Lago, secretary of the Presidency of Uruguay.
In addition, laws that transcend borders have become essential since perpetrators now operate worldwide, such as a Muslim minority with a radical Islamic agenda, which, Bauer said, “wants basically to convert or eliminate Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims.”
But this may lead to reaction no less disquieting, said Naumann.
“The Guantanamo policies of the United States, policies which are astonishing and scary,” of subjecting suspected Islamic radicals to, according to reports from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, “classic torture,” he added