‘Never again’ to ‘always prevent’The recent Halabja commemoration proves that the ‘three Rs’ of remembrance, recognition and retelling are not enough. ‘Never again’ must become ‘always prevent’.
‘From Denial To Recognition. From Destruction To Construction. From Tears To Hope’ – proclaimed the posters at Saturday’s ceremony commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship’s barbaric use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan.
The memorial event, on the outskirts of that tragic but unbowed town, was held in a vast marquee filled with more than 5,000 mainly Kurds but also delegations from around the world. Among them many children, bedecked in beautiful traditional costumes, their mothers holding them close, their fathers proudly wearing their Peshmerga fighter uniforms. It was impossible not to contemplate that on March 16, 1988, a similar number of souls had been obliterated at this place, dying in excruciating agony from the cocktail of mustard and nerve gas that Saddam rained down on them, having first dropped conventional bombs to blow out the windows and leave no refuge. 5,000 lives erased in the blink of an eye, as if they were an infestation of vermin, not human beings. And this only a tiny part of a wider genocide: over 4,000 Kurdish villages bulldozed; men, women and children herded into concentration camps before being shot in the desert; 182,000 murdered in 1987 and 1988 alone.
|Waiting to enter the memorial event at Halabja|
|The countryside en route to Halabja|
But something big was missing. A gaping hole at the heart of the debate reflecting the moral vacuum at the heart of the world’s conscience. Those at the conference hoped that the ‘three Rs’ of remembrance, recognition and retelling will be enough to prevent another genocide against them. The clarion call went up: ‘it must never happen again.’ Yet despite the Genocide Convention, the Nuremburg Trials, the documentation, the education, the International Criminal Court, the victims’ testimonies, the evidence, even the heart-wrenching tragedy of Anne Frank’s diaries, decent people and governments of the world, the kind who would solemnly nod their head in agreement with ‘never again’, have not actually taken action to give power to these heart-felt words. Cambodia, Bosnia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Rwanda and Darfur show that the three Rs are necessary but not sufficient to prevent future genocides.
|Students Union office in Halabja|
|At the 'Red House' in Sulaimaniya|
Today’s genocide victims deserve our respect and assistance in their demands for the three Rs and the world must continue to develop legal mechanisms and norms, in a noble attempt create the conditions when the international community will prevent genocide, such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework. Yet as Syria shows, R2P has no real force. To prevent there being any future victims of genocides as yet unleashed, there must be a commitment to take whatever action is necessary and practically possible, including military intervention. We keep remembering that humans are capable of untold evil. We keep declaring that we must not let this happen again. The most important thing to remember is that remembering is not enough and does not in itself prevent genocide. We must promise the Kurds that we will protect them from any future aggression. Individual countries must work with their allies to take action to stop genocide in its tracks whenever it occurs. It is worthy, but clearly not enough to establish tribunals after a genocide which prosecutes a tiny number of people. ‘Never again’ must become ‘always prevent’.
|Image from inside the museum at Halabja|
is a strategic communications consultant, Labour Party member, chair of Pragmatic Radicalism, and a fellow of the Humanitarian Intervention Institute. John visited Iraqi Kurdistan in March as part if a British delegation to a conference and ceremonies commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Kurdish genocide in Iraq. Whilst working for Ann Clwyd MP he accompanied her to Baghdad in 2005 and 2006 on visits in her capacity as the prime minister’s special envoy to Iraq on human rights. He tweets and blogs at