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Past human rights crimes should not be denied - instead we must remember and learn

Strasbourg 05/02/2007
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Europe may pride itself on a decent human rights record today, but it has a bloody history. During the last century, some of the worst crimes against humanity were committed on our continent. It is important that these heinous violations be exposed, remembered and presented in an open, honest and impartial manner to the next generation of Europeans. We must learn from our bitter history.

The Nazi extermination of more than half a million Roma in the late 1930s and early 1940s has only partly been recognised. The Porrajmos is seldom emphasised in descriptions about the genocidal crimes during the Hitler regime which also affected Jews, homosexuals and ethnic Poles. There are very few memorial places relating to the Roma victims and it took many years before compensation to the Roma survivors even became an issue.

This silence has been a message in itself, a message that the Roma people have certainly noticed. The silence also makes it more difficult for new generations of Europeans to understand the Roma situation today. Here, as in other cases, experience shows that denial of the past undermines the present work for human rights.

For this reason, it is particularly important that the current generation of politicians in Germany has made a strong effort to expose the truth. The new Holocaust memorial in central Berlin is a stunning monument with an impressive museum underneath, presenting a step-by-step explanation of what actually happened when organised anti-Semitism led to outright genocide.

Another museum I would hope that every young European could visit is the one in Auschwitz-Birkenau in present-day Poland. This is where evil was industrialised; high-productivity factories were built for the purpose of exterminating humans efficiently – the gas chamber and the oven were the last two stations. About 2 million people, most of them Jewish, were murdered there. Nothing could be more important than keeping the truth about this crime alive – and pass this memory on from generation to generation.

When recently in Kiev, I paid a visit to the new monument commemorating the Holodomor (“killing by hunger”), the man-made famine under the Stalin regime which took the lives of millions of people in 1932-33 (the estimates range between 4 and 7 million). The Ukrainian authorities rightly feel that this crime has not received sufficient attention in other parts of Europe and are now preparing information activities to change this state of affairs, an initiative which should be supported.

However, I also noted that the manner in which the memory of Holodomor was presented was the object of some political controversy. This is not surprising, as discussions about past human rights crimes are almost always controversial.

For instance, if neighbours were involved, some people may not want to irritate them. If the perpetrators were nationals, some people may prefer to forget or even to deny them because remembering is too painful. There may also be those who want to give a certain spin to the memory in order to take advantage of what is being said about the past.

A major obstacle to recognising past crimes is often national pride. It is not easy for people in any country to recognise that their ancestors committed massive atrocities – even when those responsible have already died. In Germany it took several years after the war before full recognition began to materialise.

Such pride seems to have contributed to the unwillingness in Turkey to clarify openly all aspects of the mass killing of Armenians some ninety years ago. The savage murder of the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink on 19 January 2007 appears to have been motivated by a distorted nationalistic reaction to this issue.

Hrant Dink believed that what happened to the Armenians was genocide, but he wanted to avoid politicisation of the issue and opposed the demand from Armenian diaspora circles that the European Union should condition any talks with Ankara on a Turkish recognition of the killings as genocide. He wanted the untainted truth.

I am sure that the Turkish Government will now feel the urgent need to go further on its pledge to encourage open research and discussion on this issue, hopefully with the co-operation of Armenia – in order to establish and disseminate the full truth. It was encouraging that people in Istanbul now demonstrated under the banner “We are all Armenians”.

The main avenue towards preventing such grim history repeating itself is indeed the acceptance of reality as it happened, and the exposure of the full truth regarding past crimes. This requires that research is undertaken to document in depth what really happened and that accountability is determined when possible. If perpetrators are alive, they should be brought to justice – for these crimes, there can be no statute of limitations.

Museums should be equipped to illustrate this darker part of history. Pupils in schools should be able to enjoy their right to know and receive good education materials. Places of remembrance and memorials in honour of victims are needed in particular for those who have the right to grieve, remember and reflect.

More and more human rights organisations have realised that the past must be addressed in this manner in order to secure a sound approach both for the present and the future. One example is Memorial in the Russian Federation, which has made a remarkable contribution for this purpose in the former Soviet Union and even organised its own little museum of Stalinist crimes. There should be more such initiatives.

An honest and impartial version of historic events is what brings the development of humanity forward. This is particularly true in the field of human rights where lessons must be learnt in order to avoid a repetition of past atrocities.