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Friday, January 25, 2008

Never again?

GHRD attended an international conference in Krakow, Poland last week; FLARE – Freedom Legality and Rights in Europe. FLARE is a European network of more than 40 civil society organisations with the aim to promote legality and human rights in Europe. It was an interesting (and hectic) week and I enjoyed the workshops and in particular to discuss human rights with representatives from Italy, Romania, Serbia, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, …

But it is the visit to the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau that I remember the most. It was a horrific day in every sense. I thought I was prepared. After all, I deal with cases of gang rape, torture and murder on a daily basis at work. And I specialised in genocide at university. I have studied the holocaust in every detail; seen the photos, films, read the books of survivors, and experts; I even analysed the toilet system in the camps (!). But to walk for hours through this death camp, created by humans with the sole intention of exterminating others, where over one million human beings lost their lives in the most dehumanising way, gave rise to feelings that no books could ever convey. I felt sad, helpless, empty, angry, disillusioned; the importance of keeping Auschwitz as a painful memory felt stronger than ever. Indeed we must remember, and the words never again must never silence.

But it did happen again. And it happened before. Again and again and right now.

The Holocaust was unfortunately neither the first nor the last moment in history where one group organised, planned and executed the killings of another group, with intent to destroy, in whole or in part. Indigenous peoples were extincted with genocidal intent as soon as Europeans ‘discovered’ their continents over 600 years ago. Genocides took place in Bangladesh, Ottoman Empire (Armenian genocide), East Timor, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia- Herzegovina, and Sudan, to name a few.

A genocide does not take place overnight – it requires structure and planning. Major genocide characteristics are: the division of people between ‘us and them’, hate speeches, dehumanisation, propaganda, targeting of a specific group because of their ethnic/religious identity, which finally leads to the extermination of this group.

The development in some South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Jammu/Kashmir, Malaysia, and Pakistan is not too far away from this description. Now it is up to us to decide if again will ever turn into never.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The slave trade of our time

Welcome back to the first blog of the year 2008!

I have been preparing a lecture for The Hague University and the cultural week this upcoming Tuesday. I am aware that it’s a privilege to be able to stand in front of 200 students, that (whether they like it or not) will have to listen to what I have to say about such an important subject as human rights. It’s also a challenge to compose a comprehendible introduction to the entire international human rights system – in only 45 minutes. I have been thinking a lot about how I can make maximal use of this time; what aspect of human rights is the most crucial to emphasise, what is it that I want people to know about human rights?

One crucial and always relevant point I will emphasize on Tuesday is that the international human rights system as we know it today is the result of historical processes and it is thus changing over time. The norms and values underlying it, including the concepts of rights and which groups we consider human enough to be granted these rights, are dynamic. It is therefore crucial that we always continue to evaluate and criticize this system and the groups that we consider ‘humans’ and thus should be granted rights.

Throughout history, human rights have been violated in the most atrocious manners; we have raped and murdered and enslaved people; but at the time it was often not considered a human rights violation. We have justified the enslavement of native Africans, the wiping out of entire indigenous populations, the repression of homosexuals, women, disabled, political opponents, the persecution of the Jews, just to name a few, legally, morally and scientifically.

Women are too stupid to vote or attend university, homosexuality is a disease that can be cured, Africans and Native Americans needed to be saved by the ‘civilized’ Europeans, and the Jewish conspiracy was reaching such dangerous levels that the holocaust almost should be considered collective self defence. These have all been arguments that have justified the infringement of rights for certain groups, and they were more or less accepted by the public at their time. Today, it sounds horrific. Today, we think we know better. But do we?

We have seen a scary development, in particularly after 9/11, moving towards a system where human rights become relative and depends on your belonging to religious/ethnic groups, where torture and arbitrary arrests are being justified in the name of ‘war on terror’.

So, two questions I am looking forward to discuss on Tuesday are:

What is the slave trade of our time? And who are the 'Jews' in 2008?