The theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘ordinary people’. Bob Copeland is one of the ordinary people who helps to organise Holocaust Memorial Day events in their community. In this article he looks at the ten stages of genocide and sets out some uncomfortable truths for us as a nation and as part of the international community. Based on previous articles he explores why it is that acts of genocide exist in the 21st century, and how as ordinary people we can honour the wishes of survivors and bring about the changes needed to prevent genocide.
Holocaust Memorial Day
For the first time since the pandemic we will be gathering to mark Holocaust Memorial Day in our village, where we have previously welcomed survivors to share their experience of living through genocide. We have also heard from students and staff from Katharine Lady Berkeley’s School about their experience of visiting the Holocaust sites in Poland. They have all demonstrated incredible courage recalling the horror they have witnessed, and the sites they have visited. The survivors share their experience to warn us, of where hatred and prejudice can ultimately lead, so that we can act to avoid catastrophe.
Often though, in conversation later they would share their deep, deep frustration with a world where genocide still occurs today. In this article I try to explain why genocide is still occurring in the 21st century, and look at some of the changes that ordinary people must strive for, so that acts of genocide can be prevented in the future. In doing so a number of uncomfortable truths are revealed.
Gregory H Stanton, president of Genocide Watch developed the ten stages of genocide to explain the different paths which lead to genocide. At each stage there is an opportunity for members of the community or the international community to intervene to stop genocide before it starts. Of the ten stages, classification, discrimination, dehumanisation and polarisation, all appear to be present in our society today.
Racism in the UK
What can be done to stop the hatred and prejudice found in our society today?
In 1999, the Macpherson report established that the Metropolitan Police were institutionally racist; 23 years later Nazir Afzal’s report shows that the London Fire Brigade is also institutionally racist. Nazir has since been contacted by people working in the NHS, the BBC and the police about issues of racism they face at work.
The stain of racism can be seen right across society, most alarmingly in the political parties that make up our parliament and government, and also in the media that shapes how we see the world and ourselves. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission has refused to investigate the Conservative Party for Islamophobia. Nobody it seems is interested in the hierarchy of racism found in the Labour Party by the Forde report and Al Jazeera. The national press and broadcast news media have it seems no interest in exposing the ongoing issues of racism that is apparent in either party.
The first uncomfortable truth is that we are living in a racist society.
Britain’s colonial history
To explain the origins of racism in UK, Sathnam Sanghera’s book Empireland looks back over the past 400 years at the growth of what became the British Empire, and the extraordinary violence unleashed by those who established colonies around the globe. For many, reading this book it will be the first time they will learn about the atrocities committed by the British.
Our culture is shaped by what we tell our children about our past, or in this case more about what we don’t tell them.
“If the British understood colonial history as well as Henry VIII 6 wives Britain would be a different country.”Empireland, p.200
My daughter recalls that when she left primary school her understanding was that: William Wilberforce had abolished all slavery; that racism had been stopped in America thanks to Martin Luther-King; and that racism was never a big problem in this country.
The British expanded their trading empire gaining huge wealth and power. A picture is built of unfettered free trade, with traders exploiting people and the natural resources of where they lived. The belief of the coloniser in their white supremacy was never questioned, and they continued to abuse and dehumanise those they colonised.
We owe a significant portion of our wealth to slavery. The banks funded it; cities like Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and Manchester grew because of it; the slave compensation records show who profited from it. One third of the 300 houses owned by the National Trust are tainted by wealth from slavery or have treasures that have been plundered.
In the post-war years the government, seeking to solve a shortage of labour in transport, health care and other sectors, encouraged many from the colonies to settle in this country. Those who came found that they were not welcome, as the prevalence of white supremacy held by many fuelled widespread racism and discrimination that is still evident today.
Failure to prevent genocide
In his book A different kind of war, Hans Christoph von Sponeck, a German diplomat who had been with the UN for 30 years, details the devastating impact of sanctions on the people of Iraq, and the determination of the US and UK governments led by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, not to acknowledge this or take action to improve conditions for the Iraqi people.
The mindset in the US and UK governments was polarised, either for Saddam or against him, but neither it seems was on the side of the Iraqi people.
As a direct result of sanctions:
- 1 in 5 children were chronically malnourished
- Child mortality in Central and Southern Iraq rose to more than 10%.
This wasn’t the result of the world not having enough food, or Iraq not having enough money to buy food, or Saddam hoarding all the food in warehouses, or ignorance by the UN of the consequences of their policies. The reason why the charge of genocide hangs over this period, is down to the failure of the UN to change its policies, and the role of the UK and US in blocking change.
Pope John Paul II said, “The weak and the innocent cannot pay for the mistakes for which they are not responsible”. Agam Hasmy, ambassador for Malaysia, spoke of “a policy intended to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction has become a weapon of mass destruction”.
Once it was shown that sanctions were having such a devastating effect on the people of Iraq, and that, by failing to take corrective action, the UN had crossed a line, the sanctions became genocidal.
The second uncomfortable truth is that, as part of the international community, the UK has not only failed to act to prevent genocide, but has actually facilitated it.
The people in Ukraine are just the latest victims of those who flout international law and abuse human rights. Through the United Nations, the international community has set up the International Criminal Court (ICC) to send for trial those who have violated international law. However the jurisdiction of this court is not recognised by three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: China, Russia and the United States.
If they had recognised the ICC then the following leaders should have been tried:
- Putin for his actions in Chechnya
- Blair and Clinton for the genocidal sanctions imposed on Iraq
- The leaders of China for their treatment of the Tibet, Hong Kong and Uighur people.
None faced investigation or prosecution, nor will they.
The principal instrument that the UN has to enforce international law is by a resolution under Chapter 7 of UN Charter, but when the aggressor is also a permanent member of the Security Council, their power of veto ensures that they can get away with genocide.
In a recent article ‘One UN for All‘ Hans Christoph von Sponeck wrote the following about the role of the UN Security Council:
“All legal obligations of the UN Charter with its 111 articles are repeatedly ignored or broken by the permanent members of the Security Council without scruples and with impunity … international law only applies to others. There is no lack of evidence of the powerlessness of the UN.
“The wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and of course in Ukraine are the horrific witnesses of this double standard. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has so far only been responsible for these ‘other’ 188 UN member states. Saddam Hussein was rightly convicted, George Bush and Tony Blair wrongly went unpunished.”
His article goes on to list the key reforms needed to the UN Charter.
What can ordinary people do to prevent genocide?
It is not unreasonable for ordinary people to expect their government to work for the UN, to be a credible enforcer of international law and take action to prevent genocide. This should be the primary foreign policy objective. But just as most people in the United States want a publicly funded health care system and most in this country want our key services to be publicly owned and run, neither is likely to happen.
The third uncomfortable truth, is that our nation is not a functioning democracy.
Political institutions on both sides of the Atlantic are led by vested interests rather than the wishes of the people. The lack of representation and accountability in parliament is the reason for the increasing level of direct action which forces people to push for change on the streets rather than in parliament.
People have long argued for reform of the British parliament, but five straightforward changes would deliver a step change in the level of representation and accountability of those we elect.
- Extend the right to vote to anyone over 16 who lives and pays taxes in this country, no matter where they were born.
- Political parties should be funded entirely by their members, with the most anyone can give set as a percentage (say 1.5%) of the average national wage.
- The selection of candidates for election is a vital part of the democratic process, so it must be regulated and transparent.
- With an electoral system based on “first past the post”, progressive parties fail to achieve the representation that reflects their level of support. To address this without changing how we vote, progressive parties need to select one candidate that they can unite behind to deliver policies foreign policy to address hatred and prejudice in our society and will prevent acts of genocide globally.
- Politicians have a track record of saying one thing to get elected, and doing something else once elected, more frequent elections would stop that.
There is a clear pathway to create a representative and accountable parliament, even with the current electoral system.
Surely the will of the people is to remove the stain of hatred, prejudice and racism that has been accumulating in our society for centuries, and implement a foreign policy to enable the UN to act to uphold international law, and remove the ever present threat of genocide.
As ordinary people we owe it to those who have gone before us, to engage more fully in the political processes and win the arguments for the reforms needed to make our parliament more representative and accountable and work to make the act of genocide a thing of the past.
An extended version of this article will be presented on Holocaust Memorial Day, Friday 27 January 2023, at 7:30pm in St Mary’s Church, Kingswood, Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire.