Holocaust remembrance, truth, nonviolence and the Responsibility to Protect

By Simon Barrow
January 27, 2013

"Denying historical facts, especially on such an important subject as the Holocaust, is just not acceptable. Nor is it acceptable to call for the elimination of any State or people. I would like to see this fundamental principle respected both in rhetoric and in practice by all the members of the international community," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon back in 2005.

Today, 27 January 2013, is Holocaust Memorial Day across the world. Tens of thousands of groups from all kinds of traditions and backgrounds, religious and non-religious, are remembering the Nazi Holocaust and other terrible genocides across human history, including the one inflicted on the Armenian people from 1915-1923.

On 12 January, Ban Ki-moon made some powerful remarks at at the Park East Synagogue Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of The Holocaust in New York, in which he acknowledged both the unique suffering of those who died in the Nazi death camps, but also drew attention to genocide and mass slaughter throughout the globe. It was a universal appeal for awareness and action that is worth hearing and reflecting on.

He declared: "In the Second World War, Jews, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, communists, the mentally ill – anyone who did not conform to Hitler’s perverted ideology of Aryan perfection – were systematically persecuted, rounded up and transported to death camps.

"Some were murdered immediately; others cruelly worked to death. Such an operation takes extensive organisation. It takes many people – from leaders to ordinary citizens – to participate, cooperate or simply turn a blind eye. This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of genocide – and the reason why we must be ever vigilant.

"The language of hatred is corrosive and contagious. Its moral corruption can eat into hearts and minds in even the most progressive or sophisticated societies.

"The more often you hear that your neighbour is vile, subhuman, not worthy of the rights that you take for granted, the greater the chance of such beliefs taking root.

"That is why I spoke so frankly and forcefully last year in Tehran about Holocaust denial. It is why Rabbi Schneier and I and so many others are so committed to the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.

"Neither anti-Semitism nor Islamophobia nor other such forms of bias have a place in the 21st century world we are trying to build.

"This is also why I worry about the continued stalemate in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. We now have a whole generation of young people on both sides who risk growing up with a demonised, dehumanised – and utterly false – concept of their neighbours.

"They need to be educated to co-exist peacefully with their neighbours. The only way to build peace is to build bridges and break down walls. Doing so will take courage, but it must be done.

"This year, the United Nations has chosen “the courage to care” as the theme of the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.

"We are honouring those who risked their lives and their families to save Jews and other victims of persecution from almost certain death. Some, like Raoul Wallenberg, are household names. But most are unsung heroes -- brave men and women from all walks of life, and many nations. Teenagers and parents, parliamentarians and priests, journalists and diplomats -- all had the courage to care.

"Their example is as relevant today as ever – which is why the United Nations has produced an education kit for teachers to tell their story.

"In a world where extremist acts of violence and hatred capture the headlines on an almost daily basis, we need to take inspiration from these ordinary people who took extraordinary steps to defend human dignity.

"Last year I visited Srebrenica, the site of the worst act of genocide in Europe since the Holocaust. I visited the graves and wept with the mothers of the slain. It is not an easy place for a United Nations Secretary-General to visit.

"The United Nations – the international community – failed to protect thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys from slaughter. The shadow of Srebrenica has joined that of Rwanda, Cambodia, the Holocaust. Each time we hear “never again”. But can we truly say we have learned the lessons of these tragedies?

"As an international community, do we have the courage to care – and the resolve to act?

"In 2005 the United Nations General Assembly – at the level of Heads of State and Governments – adopted the responsibility to protect. It is a landmark concept. It puts the obligation firmly on States to protect their populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or ethnic cleansing. And in the face of these crimes and violations there is a corresponding duty of the international community to act.

"The responsibility to protect applies everywhere and all the time. It has been implemented with success in a number of places, including in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire. But today it faces a great test in Syria. More than 60,000 people have now died in a conflict whose seeds lie in the peaceful demand of people for greater freedom.

"We have seen a government brutally and mercilessly oppress dissent and fan the flames of a civil war that threatens to bring instability to a whole region. I have repeatedly called for unity from the Security Council to decisively address this tragedy. So too has the General Assembly – by an overwhelming majority. Each day brings more suffering.

"I met some of the refugees last month, in camps in Jordan and Turkey. I talked to families who had fled with just what they could carry; children whose future has been thrown into uncertainty. They told me that all they wanted was to go home and live in safety and security.

"Today’s theme challenges us: do we have the courage to care? I am deeply concerned about the situation in Syria not simply because of the terrible suffering, but because of what may come next. Each day’s delay in resolving the crisis raises the spectre of the violence spreading along religious and ethnic lines.

"Each day’s delay sees new atrocities by both sides. It is essential that all perpetrators of international crimes understand that they will be held to account.

"There will be no amnesties for those most responsible. The old era of impunity is ending. In its place, slowly but surely, we are building a new age of accountability."

The responsibility to protect is indeed a global responsibility. But it should not be seen simply as a cipher for counter-violence. There are a whole range of preventative, protective and interventionist strategies based on nonviolence and conflict transformation which need to be nurtured, developed, publicised, acted upon and funded.

Funding for nonviolent interventions in situations of conflict and threat are seriously under-rescourced, while billions are poured into arms and military action. Civic and faith groups are often at the heart of developing alternative approaches. Peacemakers have sought to work with UN forces to enlarge their capability to act non-militarily. Sometimes, it seems as if force is inevitable. But even then, those who accept the responsibility to protect but do not take up arms still have a role to play in shifting the agenda.

That includes cultural and political action in tackling at source the hatred, prejudice and intolerance which can grow into violent forms which, in particular historical situations and under particular pressures, lead down the path of mass violence and genocide. Acting early is the key to preventing genocide. By the time armed interventions are contemplated it is, all too often, tragically too late.

There is also a job to be done in unmasking the 'myth of redemptive violence' which underlies all slaughter, and even some attempts to prevent or derail it. In a fractured, uncertain and often unjust world, killing remains the unspoken religion of many, whether they declare themselves religious or not. Unmasking the lie of violence is as important as unmasking the lie of Holocaust denial, and of many other denials in the midst of bloodletting.

* Holocaust Memorial Day UK: http://hmd.org.uk/

* Holocaust and United Nations Outreach Programme: https://www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance/

* Church and Peace: http://www.church-and-peace.org/

* Declaration of C&P on Responsibility to Protect: http://www.nvpdecade.org/spip.php?article134

* Walter Wink, 'Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence': http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/cpt/article_060823wink.shtml


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His conversion to nonviolence occurred in the 1980s, as a result of reflection on the meaning of his Christian baptism. In 2008 he was part of a Church and Peace / Anabaptist Theology Forum consultation of peace churches and their allies looking at alternative resources for the discharge of the Responsibility to Protect.

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