Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 29, No.14

April 21, 2005


Defeating evil starts with us, genocide experts say

By Sylvain Comeau

More than half a century after the Holocaust, the spectre of genocide still haunts the world, and the international community must do more, speakers at a Concordia panel said recently.

Eric Saul, author and the curator of the Visas for Life exhibit, said that a vital part of the history of the Holocaust has been underreported: that of the heroes who saved millions of lives from genocide.

"The state of Israel now recognizes 23,000 individuals who saved Jews, but in fact, by current estimates, one million people saved 3.5 million Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.

“How many people have heard this statistic? Why does it have to be a footnote in a book? Why is that not central to Jewish and Western education about the Holocaust?

“These are empowering stories, and I don’t know why there are less than 50 books on rescue in the Holocaust, while there are over 80,000 books and articles about the other side of the Holocaust."

Saul noted that such a dearth of knowledge did not start with the Holocaust.

"In every conflict in the history of mankind, there have been people who stood up against the tyrants. More often than not, they have been completely forgotten by history and by every culture."

Visas For Life, which was exhibited at Concordia from March 7 to April 11, is a travelling exhibit honoring diplomats who used their status to save lives in Nazi occupied countries during World War II.

History professor Frank Chalk, co-founder and co-director of Concordia's Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, said genocide dates back to pre-history.

"It begins with our ancestors, who almost certainly committed genocide in Stone Age struggles between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons and others.

“We have within us an urge for social dominance, which is always there to be tapped by people who wish to exploit it. Together with the bonds of solidarity which we form naturally, we are also subject to ethnocentrism and xenophobia, which may have originated as protective mechanisms."

Chalk described a process of collective thinking that leads to systematic victimization of a designated group.

Cultures of cruelty

"Cultures of cruelty emerge in many societies; we are socialized to violence, group solidarity is exploited, and we often surrender our personal identity and values to the collective, group identity, and abandon our principles."

The next step in this grim process is to ostracize and persecute the targeted group.

"We create the 'social death' of the victim in society, excluding them from the universe of social obligation. We humiliate and degrade members of the group as if we were trained to do so from childhood, and come to regard them as threats to the welfare of our society."

What can be done to prevent history from repeating itself? "We can fight poverty around the world; we can work politically to prevent war, which is often the environment in which genocide flourishes. We can create a climate of accountability for genocide and crimes against humanity. We have to implement the report from the International Commission on Intervention in State Sovereignty."

That report, commissioned by the Canadian government, was presented to the UN in 2001. It offers recommendations as to how and when, and under whose authority, humanitarian intervention should occur.

Major Brent Beardsley, a Sir George Williams graduate who served as Gen. Roméo Dallaire's personal staff officer during and after the Rwandan genocide, said, "We decided that saving the lives of Rwandans was not worth our time and trouble, while hundreds of thousands were being slaughtered.

“Forty years after the Holocaust, to which we said 'never again,' we once again stood aside while one of the fastest genocides in history occurred."

Beardsley said that racism is implicit when an African genocide is not treated with the same urgency as one in other parts of the world. The normally slow decision-making process at the UN is just not good enough when death is sweeping across a nation.

"Every day the UN deliberated over Rwanda, another 8,000 to 10,000 people were butchered. Will we have the same failure in Darfur? What can each of us do to give meaning to the phrase 'never again'?"

The panel was held as part of Democratic Discourse in a Multicultural Society, a one-day conference on April 3.

The conference was sponsored by Concordia’s Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies and the Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University.

A video of the conference can be viewed at: