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.

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