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Can Atrocities Be Prevented? Living in the Shadow of the Holocaust, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein at the Holocaust Memorial Museum

5 February 2015

I am honoured to be addressing you this morning, here at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., only days after we together commemorated the liberation of Auschwitz seventy years ago. I start by bearing homage to the survivors and the children of survivors in this audience. Your suffering was so great we will never properly understand it, nor the way the world abandoned you and your families so shamefully. Your courage over the years to convey your experiences to others has inspired all of us to work for the good. I speak to you, therefore, most humbly, in a building devoted to your pain – to the immense pain felt by the victims of the largest organized destruction of humanity that was the Holocaust: most especially European Jewry, but also the Roma, homosexuals, the disabled, Polish nationalists, the communists and the captured Soviet POWs. A building located within yards of the seat of world’s biggest economic and military power. And I visit today as the UN Human Rights Chief, representing an office whose roots go back to Eleanor Roosevelt, a major force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – itself the elegant and powerful response to the horrors expressed in this building.

My office is located in Geneva, in a building that once housed the League of Nations. In 1920, this was the world’s riposte to the catastrophic violence of the First World War – a failed riposte of course, a failed dream, whose failure led us to the Holocaust and beyond. This morning is therefore filled with symbolism for me, not least because I am also the first Arab and Muslim UN Human Rights Chief, and therefore the first such official to visit the museum, although I have been here before in my personal capacity. I have walked through the red brick walls, and sat mesmerized by the stories – very human, touching, deeply sad, stories by those who suffered so greatly.

I have spent years trying to understand all of this. I have travelled to Auschwitz-Birkenau, at the invitation of the Auschwitz Institute for the prevention of genocide (with whom I have had a close association) and spent two days feeling sick, physically, at what I saw in Auschwitz. Everyone must go there. Everyone must learn. I have also travelled to Nuremberg, and have tried to grasp why so many ordinary people could kill so easily, feeling no guilt whatsoever later, in courtrooms, when faced with the irrefutable fact that their conduct amounted to a colossal crime. Why was there so little, perhaps no remorse? Almost all the Nazis convicted of their abominable crimes, even in their dying moments, felt that what they had done was excusable.

Everything, as Leo Tolstoy once said, can be so easily rationalized, even if it is wrong, so dreadfully wrong. And piloted always by two variations of the same thought pattern. The first begins with this logic: “I am not a bad person. But in the unyielding grip of a circumstance over which I have no control, what would you have me do? Risk my reputation, my career, possibly my life? Even if I know it is wrong, there is nothing but to do it, it is the best of terrible choices.”

Of the many books written about the Holocaust, one of the most fascinating is Gitta Sereny’s “Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience”. In it, she describes the life of Franz Stangl, the most senior Nazi tracked down by Simon Wiesenthal and the only commandant of a pure death camp, of two death camps, Sobibor and Treblinka, ever brought to trial. Specifically, she recalls in the book her interviews with Stangl, after he was convicted and sentenced by a West German Court in 1970.

Of all the Nazi killers convicted, Stangl came closest to a genuine confession. In Sereny’s last interview with him, in June 1971, Stangl, after a long pause, muttered “So yes, I share the guilt …” but then, instead of pursuing the thought to its logical conclusion, and ending it with “ … for the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent people”, he said “my guilt, is that I am still here.” Sereny believed this was tantamount to a confession. To me, it sounds more like he copped out by his not saying “ … for murdering so many innocent people”. Instead he had retreated into believing it had been a time of war and, with so many people having died in that war, he as a military man, a commandant, too, should have died. To me, he had simply slipped back into the cradle of his long-held belief, that he had no choice, he had been forced to do what he did and he would have been punished severely had he refused.

The Ulm trial in 1958 exposed that general myth, however. There was not one documented case, not one, of a Nazi officer, nor orderly, being executed for refusing an order to murder. Not one! And there were cases of a refusal to murder, as the Auschwitz-Frankfurt trial made clear: the squad leader Herbert Scherpe on one occasion could not continue to murder by phenol injection the young boys from Zamość, and he stopped. He refused to continue. He received no punishment; and this was well known at the time. Rather than being the exception, it seemed to be the norm. There was a choice.

So why did so many like Stangl kill, later claiming they had no choice and feared punishment? Perhaps given the SS’s reputation for brutality, they simply dared not probe the choices, and fear could have tranquilized the conscience too. But in many cases I suspect this argument was put forward only as a retrofit, when many of the accused viewed it as a clever, exonerating, argument. Most people have experienced, in everyday circumstances, mainly when they were children, the fear of being punished or sidelined for not conforming.

Perhaps some ordinary people killed because at times the fear of pain or punishment overwhelmed reality. But mostly I suspect because, in the unique circumstances of that moment, they believed it was right – and this is the second, more disturbing variation of how we rationalize. They believed the killing, even of children, was entirely justified, even if they also knew it was in some sense awful. And once rationalized, the killing became mechanical and the victims, the people, become non-people, in the eyes of the killers and torturers.

In this context, it is worth recalling the extraordinary, troubling, conversation between Hermann Goering and Gustave Gilbert, a psychologist, during the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, as conveyed to us by Gilbert, and I quote:

"Why, of course, the people don't want war," Goering shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

"There is one difference," I [Gilbert] pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars."

"Oh, that is all well and good [replied Goering] but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

Goering was a diabolical man, but he was of course telling a truth. People can be made to believe, through clever messaging, well, virtually anything – especially in cultures where obedience is prime, and where they fear being called traitors.

It all begins witha terrific lie, made not to the people – that comes later – but to yourself as a leader, or future leader. It centers on the erroneous belief that circumstances dictate a special response. Irrespective of history, its warnings and screams, and irrespective of the accumulated wisdom of human kind as enshrined in law – in some way, the special circumstances of the moment justify unorthodox responses. And the law? Well, it may have to be breached temporarily, because the challenge demands it.

This logic is abundant around the world today: I torture because a war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because terrorism, repulsive as it is, requires it. I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity or my way of life is being threatened as never before. I kill others, because others will kill me – and so it goes, on and on.

The lie also pivots on this belief: I, as an individual know better, I see more clearly. I, or my kind, have been threatened – and the world, no matter what others will say, remains a continuing scramble for power and survival and I, along with those I belong to, must run with it to avoid being run over by it. I define myself narrowly as belonging to a nationality or religion, or an ideology, or race, or an ethnicity. I attach myself stubbornly to one or maybe two of these points of reference, sometimes fed by a closed, narrow, historical narrative; but not to a broader humanity and its laws because they are only a mirage, ridiculous really. Survival explains my bigotry, my chauvinism and my inherent feeling of superiority – although I would never admit those feelings in public – but in the end I know the truth.”

If you believe this, you lie. You are lying. You are lying to yourself. Whether you are a child absorbing the bigotry oozing from within a home, from within a school or larger community, or a local political leader forming a political platform or a national leader already swept into office, if you believe this, you are lying because the truth is no less clear. If we have learnt anything from our collective history, it is this: scrambling only for ourselves, our people, our political or religious ideology, or for our own kind, will only scramble it all – eventually, sometimes horrifyingly so – for everyone. If we are to fight, if we are to labour, we must then do so for every human being, and do so together. For humanity does exist; kindness exists, love, carrying no passport and unknowing of borders, does exist. By dint of experience, centuries of human cruelty, two world wars, the Holocaust, genocides and crimes against humanity aplenty, the laws have been written and fine-tuned.

In the years after the Holocaust, specific treaties were negotiated to cement into law obligations to protect human rights. Countries the world over accepted them – and now alas, all too frequently, ignore them in practice.

What we need so badly, Ladies and Gentlemen, is profound and inspiring leadership across the globe. A leadership that will care less about reputations based on matters of protocol: who is invited to what summit, who is a member of which G-group of countries, whether a leader speaks first or second at a conference (usually fussed over by a parade of media advisors). Instead, we need leadership that is concerned more about reputation based on whether the inalienable human rights and fundamental freedoms of their people, and all others, are defended and promoted. And this includes all rights, political, civil, economic, social and cultural. We need leaders who will observe fully those laws and treaties drafted to end all discrimination, the privation of millions, and atrocity and excess in war, with no excuses entertained. Only then, can we help ourselves out of the present serious, seemingly inexhaustible, supply of crises that threatens to engulf us.

I wake up every morning and, along with brilliant staff – some of the world’s best human rights lawyers and activists -- I scan the news and am revolted by what I read. I am sure you all feel the same. Everyday, we are outraged by one piece of news after another! In fact, we must fast be reaching a state of permanent disgust.

The beheadings by the Takfiris in Syria, Iraq and Libya of defenceless people, horrify us – as does the savage burning of my compatriot the pilot Mu’ath al Kassassbeh. So too the probable acts of genocide perpetrated by the Takfiris against the Yazidis in Iraq – enslavement, raping and killing, including of children. These horrors are not limited just to the Middle East; Takfiri atrocities are also committed in Somalia, Nigeria and Pakistan and beyond. And the Takfiris are not alone; the Shia’ militia in Iraq and the Shabiha in Syria – all, including some government forces, have committed gruesome deeds.

Some will say, therefore, what good are your treaties, your laws and human rights? When non-state actors like the Takfiris who call themselves Al Qaida, ISIL, Jabhat al Nusra, Boko Haram, the Shabab etc., reject all of it and are bent on the nihilistic destruction of all who think differently to them, beginning with Muslims.

Well, just bombing them or choking off their financing has clearly not worked, as that has now long been tried, for these groups have only proliferated and grown in strength. What is needed is the addition of a different sort of battle-line, one waged principally by Muslim leaders and Muslim countries and based on ideas – on a reassertion of traditional Islam in the everyday narrative of Muslims. This has started. In September of last year, 126 Muslim scholars directly, point by point, discredited the cruel, harsh, ideology promoted by the leader of the Takfiris in Iraq, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. This is a hopeful beginning, which deserves support.

Regrettably, we also find the space for dissent in many countries is collapsing under the weight of either poorly-thought out, or indeed exploitative, counter-terrorism strategies. Human rights defenders are therefore under enormous pressure in many parts of the world today. These defenders deserve our deepest admiration and gratitude. They risk imprisonment or worse in the peaceful defence of basic rights: the right to freedom of expression and assembly, the right to due process and fair trial, the rights of others not to experience arbitrary arrests and torture and the like.

After all, years of tyranny, inequalities, fear and bad governance are what contribute to the expansion of extremist ideas and violence. Few of these crises have erupted without warning. They have built up over years – and sometimes decades – of human rights grievances: deficient or corrupt governance and judicial institutions; discrimination and exclusion; drastic inequalities; exploitation and the denial of economic and social rights; and repression of civil society and public freedoms. Specific kinds of human rights violations, including sexual violence, speech that incites violence, and patterns of discrimination against minorities, can provide early warning of the escalation of crisis into atrocity.

With so much movement across our screens and newspapers, we believe we are now somehow cart-wheeling into a future more uncertain and unpredictable than ever before. We are also bombarded by so many individual pieces of news, and commentary, our thoughts become equally scattered and devoid of any clear understanding of what it all means. Even today’s editorials focus on slices of news, and no modern day philosopher has synthesized all we see into a coherent whole, with remedies equal to the challenges.

And so it would be easy for us to give way to a sense of complete hopelessness. But we cannot succumb to that way of thinking. Surely we now know, from bitter experience, that human rights are the only meaningful rampart against barbarity.

Yet, despite our work, and notwithstanding their commitments, governments and individuals still violate – as I have already noted – these conventions and fundamental moral principles. Since we cannot afford sinking into a state of paralysing shock, our task becomes the need to strengthen our ethics, our clarity and openness of thought, and our moral courage.

To do this I can only suggest that we must turn to a new and deeper form of education. Education that goes beyond reading, writing and arithmetic to include skills and values that can equip people to act with responsibility and care.

What good was it to humanity that Josef Mengele had advanced degrees in medicine and anthropology, given that he was capable of committing the most inhuman crimes? Eight of the 15 people who planned the Holocaust at Wannsee in 1942 held PhDs. They shone academically, and yet they failed to show the smallest shred of ethics and understanding. I am increasingly supportive of the proposition that education of any kind, if it is devoid of a strong universal human rights component, can be next to worthless when it should matter most: in crisis, when our world begins to unravel.

Of course we need schools to nurture curiosity and intelligence. Knowledge of complex geometry, or molecular cell biology, or Cartesian philosophy – or thousands of other facets of the great kaleidoscope of human brilliance – can be a precious thing. But when humanity topples on the cusp of real and vicious self-destruction, we don’t necessarily need people who are only smart.

We need people who are kind. People with PhD-level compassion. People who feel joy, and generosity, and love, and who have fully integrated the values that are essential to life in freedom and dignity. We need people with a strong moral compass, and we need to help to build – or rebuild – that compass with education that includes a deeper moral content.

As Viktor Frankl pointed out, "Striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in human beings". One of the lessons that Frankl gleaned from his experience of the Holocaust was that when they try to live without a larger sense of value, people give in to hatred, the lust for personal power, or, indeed neurosis.

Primo Levi was also convinced of the need for an education in responsibility and ethics. He told the Paris Review, " I don’t think scientific training as one is taught it in Italy or America brings you to an especially ethical consciousness. It should. In my opinion a young man or woman entering the university in natural-science departments should be told sufficiently and heavily to remember that you are entering a profession where morality is important. You should be conscious of your impact in real life."

Before every child on this planet turns 9, I believe he or she should acquire a foundational understanding of human rights, and that these concepts should grow in depth and scope as he or she develops. The underlying values of the curriculum would be virtually identical in every school, deriving from the Universal – and universally accepted – Declaration of Human Rights. In this way, from Catholic parochial schools to the most secular public institutions, and indeed Islamic madrassahs, children could learn – even in kindergarten – and experience the fundamental human rights values of equality, justice and respect.

My children, and yours, and children everywhere, need to learn what bigotry and chauvinism are, and the terrible wrongs they can produce. They need to learn that blind obedience can be exploited by authority figures for wicked ends. They should also learn that they are not exceptional because of where they were born, how they look, what passport they carry, or the social class, caste or creed of their parents; they should learn that no-one is intrinsically superior to her or his fellow human beings.

Every child should be able to grasp that the wonderful diversity of individuals and cultures is a source of tremendous enrichment. They should learn to recognise their own biases, and correct them. Children can learn to redirect their own aggressive impulses and use non-violent means to resolve disputes. They can learn to be inspired by the courage of the pacifiers and by those who assist, not those who destroy. They can be guided by human rights education to make informed choices in life, to approach situations with critical and independent thought, and to empathise with other points of view.

Children are fully able to grasp the implications of human rights. And they are able, too, to understand the power that human rights principles bestow on them. Every child can help to shape her or his universe: this is the lesson of that physically tiny and yet symbolically immensely powerful young woman, Malala, who has enriched the moral heritage of humanity.

We do not have to accept the world as it is; indeed, we must not. We do not have to give in to the dark allure of hatred and violence: indeed, it is vital that we find the energy to resist it. These lessons are surely as fundamental to life on Earth as advanced calculus.

As we progress into this century, all of us will face moments of doubt, and even despair. We may well encounter terrible suffering. But the clarity of human rights values and our faith in them will reseal our belief in ourselves. And, in answer to Herman Goering’s assertion that people everywhere can be dragged into committing abuses by their leaders, we will offer his observation our most robust rejection. We will not be dragged anywhere, by anyone, at any time, anymore.