Am I a Witness? Remembering the Genocides of our Past

Am I a witness? Remembering the genocides of our past

As four survivors of genocides that occurred in the 20th century stand before me, I find myself feeling uneasy. I seem to have let myself believe in the morality of my generation. Yet the Darfur survivor that speaks to me today demonstrates that this is a flawed assumption. So I sit here, ashamed. I believed I lived in a world where human rights are defended, where strict laws regarding crime and punishment are upheld, and where racism is slowly vanishing. But there is still a genocide occurring today – over 400,000 Darfurians have been murdered.

The conflict in Darfur is now approaching its sixth year; however, any substantial action to end the genocide has yet to be put into place. Conditions continue to deteriorate for civilians, and hundreds of thousands lack necessities and are being displaced or killed. International intervention in Darfur seems to be failing, largely due to the continued harassment by the Sudanese government and the fact that the government has ties to militia and criminals. New eyewitness accounts from Darfur report rapes, torture, and mutilation by government-backed militias. The U.N. Security Council has a responsibility to take urgent action to ensure that civilians are protected, and that the perpetrators are punished. Despite our claims to having made significant progress in dispelling hate, indifference, ignorance, and apathy, this atrocity is ongoing. Why is the centre of international affairs unable to combat this genocide?

These were the questions I asked myself at the “four Generations of Genocide” event two weeks ago. The keynote speaker, Honourable MP Irwin Cotler, stated that we need to understand the importance of devoir de memoire. In order to fight any war, specifically a war against hate, we must remember the consequences of forgetting the lessons we learned from the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and Rwanda. But the fact that Ahmadinijad can have a podium at the UN instead of being indicted proves that these lessons have been forgotten.

In the 2005 elections, not one prime minister candidate even mentioned the word Darfur, and, aside from Stéphane Dion, this was still the case in the recent 2008 elections. Why is this issue seemingly off of the Canadian radar? We know how to make the person political, Cotler stated, but we should strive to make the political personal – these issues should be personal and political issues, for “if you kill one life it is as if you have killed an entire universe,” Cotler quoted from the Talmud and the Koran.

Irwin Cotler stated that “if the 20th century has been known as the age of genocide, four generations of genocide, that it has also been known as the age of impunity.”

Despite Cotler’s discouraging remarks, recent developments suggest a change from impunity: there have been warrants against the president of Sudan, and a recent ceasefire. Is it foolish to still have hope?

I can’t deny that I’m sitting here passively, as I advocate our government to change. How can I blame our leaders without acting myself? But I think there is something redeeming in the fact that I am here, listening to these figures of courage and strength. And as I look around at the audience, I am somewhat comforted. No, maybe we cannot all create UN resolutions or single-handedly campaign for change, but we can do something – we can listen. It is the transmission of stories that creates empathy, which leads to resolve and action. If we could have truly heard the voices of the survivors of all the past genocides, perhaps there would be no genocide occurring today.

Published in the McGill Daily, Dec 1 2008

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