Friday, August 14, 2015

Human Rights Museum

The other-worldly structure housing the Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg is reason enough to spend time there. Walking up from level to level on the “ramps” allows you to appreciate the enormous open space, suggestive to me of the global significance of all of us on earth being interdependently inhabitants of the same space, in space . . . this fragile earth. The panorama of Winnipeg city from the Eighth floor encourages visitors to think about their (our) place in the human story; the cities, towns, villages in which we all live are where we are rooted, where the human rights to food, shelter and safety are extended to us . . . or not.

I've had people tell me that they don't like talking about our relationships to one another in terms of rights, that rights smacks of selfishness, of a me-centered world view. My counter to this has always been that demanded rights might well have that feel, but that in a world where two thirds are in need and one third are in surplus, it's probably a good way to measure what goods, services and living space would be necessary before we could say that fairness had crowded out inequity. If quality acute health care is expected in Rosthern, does it follow that persons in rural Zambia ought to enjoy a similar level of care? If I can drink from a tap in my kitchen without having to haul or boil the water, and if I have a right to complain when that's not the case, do persons in rural Sierra Leone have the same right to complain?

The museum traces the development of cultural/social rights that are often taken for granted. Women's suffrage, freedom from discrimination in the workplace, access to education, etc. are all covered briefly in booths that must become almost inaccessible on busier days than the one on which we visited. Much of what is displayed can't be appreciated without attending to audio-visual displays that have a beginning and an ending, and being able to do that requires that visitors take time to sit and wait, observe and contemplate.

The museum must be treated as a series of experiences, not as a window shopping for neat information. Time must be taken; repeat visits are necessary; there is simply too much to be absorbed in one four-hour visit.

There are critics of course. It's something very new: I can't find anything in my experience with which to compare the architect's vision, for instance. The subject of human rights doesn't immediately spring to mind as a topic for a museum. It's not a big surprise to hear the words “ugly” and “magnificent” in the same dialogue about the place. When the engineers and the builders first examined the architectural drawings, they must certainly have scratched their heads: it's that revolutionary.

And some have complained that their cultural history is not given adequate attention. You'd expect this given Canada's multi-cultural composition. Even a space this size has limits, as does human imagination.

I've always appreciated the concept of human rights as a starting point for protecting and enhancing the health, freedom and dignity of all people and so have donated considerable time and money to Amnesty International, an organization working from the premise that humans are born with inalienable rights. The UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights passed in 1948 lays out the fundamentals of inalienable human rights and equivalent documents exist in the constitution of many states. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms became the law of the land in 1982, broadening the scope and jurisdiction of the 1960 Bill of Rights. Bills of Rights probably owe their beginnings and content to a considerable degree to the development of the Magna Carta, begun in 1215 and amended in subsequent years.

Rights of the individuals and communities of the world can be written on paper, but they remain words only until accepted, adopted, incorporated into the fabric of national and international relations. The problem of enforcement looms large; the UN can lodge a complaint against Canada for its human rights record in relation to its aboriginal population, but causing the Canadian government to act on that complaint is another thing. In other countries, the provisions of even the basics in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights are simply ignored.  Economic and political interests have been known time and again to render individual rights dispensable when doing so advances their hold on power.

But the struggle goes on and on one floor of the Human Rights Museum, visitors are encouraged to write and post notes based on their hopes and dreams for a future where all humans can feel the freedom and dignity that we enjoy daily. 

Do visit it when you can, and do set aside enough time to absorb its message.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

"A Problem from Hell"

A (faulty) memory of Van Gogh's "A bedroom at Arles"
We all know by now what compound words ending in ...cide refer to. Killing. When it's patricide, a child kills his/her father; in matricide, it's a mother; suicide is the killing of the self and infanticide is the killing of an infant.

And then there's genocide, etymologically the killing of an ethnic, racial or religious population. The word dates back to the 1940s when a crusader for the victims of mass murders like the purge of Armenians by Turkey in 1915 sought a designation for such events and coined the word in use today. Raphael Lemkin was moved by the accounts of the Armenian massacre and began a crusade to establish international laws allowing for intervention in active or imminent genocides, effectively rewriting an aspect of the principle of unconditional national sovereignty.
A marvellous telling of Lemkin's story can be found in “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power. A film based on Lemkin's story, Watchers of the Sky is reviewed by Nina Strochlic and is a useful starting point for anyone not familiar with this very important development in international law.
I found reading A Problem from Hell exciting, especially since the Truth and Reconciliation report on the T & R hearings raised the question of whether or not the residential school system constituted a genocide or not. When in 1951, the United Nations adopted a convention on the subject, (based on Lemkin's proposed definition of his new word) the following acts “. . . with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical (sic), racial or religious group . . .” were included: (Powers: p. 62-3)
  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
By the standard of the 1951 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, then, the Canadian government and the collaborating churches could, in their enforcement of residential school attendance for First Nations children, justifiably have been charged with genocide on the basis of—at least—the second, third and fifth criterion. 
Unfortunately, neither the word nor the convention existed until 1951 when the ghastly residential school system was in it's final few decades.

The US was one of only a few countries that refused to ratify the convention, arguing that the interpretation of what constituted genocide and what didn't was too vague and might result in other nations dragging Americans and the USA into courts for spurious reasons. Their unwillingness to sign was arguably indicative of what America has so often shown in international affairs: US sovereignty is sacrosanct; the sovereignty of other nations is negotiable depending on the relevance to American interests. (Think Nicaragua, Iraq, Kuwait, etc.)

Failure to prevent or mitigate the genocide of the Tutsies in Rwanda indicates that we are not to this day willing to become embroiled in racial or ethnic massacres in foreign countries unless our economic or political interests make it advantageous to do so. A reading of Romeo Dellaire's Shake Hands with the Devil (or at least a reading of the Wikipedia entry on him) paints in vivid colour the worldwide failure to protect persons against genocide if they're not nearby . . . or are not us.

The question of intervention pales, however, next to the bigger question: what situations give rise to the contemplation and execution of the most heinous of crimes imaginable, namely the deliberate destruction of everyone—man, woman and child—who is a member of a group not currently favoured? What preconditions make it possible to recruit persons to be the practitioners in such a purge? Surely, genocide is the monstrous end-product of prejudice gone wild, and prejudices have roots in cultures and educational practices. 

Hutu and Tutsi, Jewish and Gentile, Kurdish and Turkish children placed together in a playpen may play amicably with each other; the notion in the Gentile child that his Jewish playmate is to be feared has to be taught, nurtured until it's a hardened and permanent part of his psyche before he can be convinced that shooting that playmate is an acceptable, even honourable act. Surely that's how it must be.
We don't see our current prejudices as seed beds for genocides, but we ought to be vigilant, aware from the Holocaust experience that there is grave danger in harbouring and teaching attitudes of superiority/inferiority. Could the current unrest in American white/black relations be a starting point for genocide? Are we harbouring, even nurturing prejudices with a potential for growth into something we can no longer control?

NAZI hatred extended to pretty much every human being who wasn't a conventional Aryan and gays and lesbians, political opponents, ethnic minorities were all swept up in their net as worthy of extermination.
As followers of Jesus, are we aware of such dangers and therefor at the forefront of the defense of the innocents? Do we place ourselves between the persecutors, the haters of this world and the persecuted? Or are we swept up in the attitudes and actions of cultures of selfishness, carelessness, prejudice?

Our role is to be prophetic; and a clear understanding of the seeds of genocide, and action on it, can surely be categorized as responding to that age old and wise proverb that says “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound (ton?) of cure.
Do explore, at least, the life and struggles of Raphael Lemkin and ask yourself: how much am I willing to give to defend the innocents? Perhaps if most of our family had been gassed and burned in the NAZI purge (like Lemkin's), our passions for prevention, intervention would be more immediate.