It says a lot about humanity, international institutions and individuals that despite our facade of civilisation and modernity, the last three years saw weapons of mass destruction used against civilians and violations of human rights on an industrial scale, both in Syria. It was reported this week that photos smuggled out of Syria in 2011 of industrial-scale torture by the Assad regime are to appear in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. The scenes they depict, as with those from the Ghoutta WMD attack last year, evoke bygone eras of man-made tragedy. It is entirely appropriate therefore that they appear in such a museum, their ghosts reminding us of the human cost of inaction.
In these isolationist times, to have maximum impact, the photos should be displayed next to those showing other recent examples of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, which the international community did little or nothing to prevent: Bosnia, the Anfal campaign against the Kurds in Iraq, Rwanda, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and, of course, present day Iraq and Syria.
I have visited the Washington DC Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem in Israel, and the Halabja memorial in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. As with all people of good conscience, I say ‘never again’. Yet it keeps happening again and again – a perpetual cycle in which those with evil intent fill the vacuum left where good people choose to do either nothing, or the bare minimum.
Perhaps this is a tragic reflection of illogical, irrational, contradictory urges within us all. We demand lower taxes yet simultaneously expect public spending increases. We refuse to vote, yet criticise politicians for not listening. It is human nature, yet when it comes to human rights, this wishful thinking, this perpetual hoping for the best, this conflicted logic is deadly.
To put it crudely, we say we believe in human rights but we do nothing to uphold them. Almost as if it would be enough to write down the criminal law, but be content with no criminal justice system. When other people’s ‘right to life, liberty and security of person’ (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3), is being snuffed out we offer words of outrage, words of sympathy or words from noble legal texts. Yet when our own lives are threatened we demand action.
Politicians are far from solely to blame, for we the people have a responsibility to take the defence of human rights more seriously. We who are fortunate to live in democracies, enjoy but often do not value the rights won by and defended by our forebears in armed conflict. Yet from our gilded citadels, the delicate balance our politicians walk between leading and following is at present tilting in favour of the public’s abhorrence for military intervention to protect civilians from terrorists or dictators. We must accept our individual and collective responsibility to our fellow humans by urging our politicians to uphold human rights.
Large-scale human rights abuses should not be merely contained, they must be confronted. Politicians the world over have a responsibility to improve the mechanisms by which ‘never again’, ‘the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ and ‘the responsibility to protect’ become more than words. At present, people of good conscience are gifting the field to those for whom human rights are anathema. Unprotected principles perish. Rights will rot away if not respected. One day we may ask others to protect our human rights. We had better hope that they value our rights more than we value theirs today.