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"Armenia to Rwanda - Genocide in the 20th Century - Has humanity learnt anything?": Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM (2004)

Rights Rights and Freedoms

"Armenia to Rwanda - Genocide in
the 20th Century - Has humanity learnt anything?"

Speech by Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM, Human
Rights Commissioner at the Armenian Genocide Commemorative Lecture, NSW Parliament
Theatrette, Thursday 29 April 2004


Firstly I would like to acknowledge
the traditional owners of the land on which we stand and pay my respects to
their elders both past and present.

Distinguished guests, it is a great
honour to follow in the footsteps of so many illustrious speakers in delivering
this commemorative lecture.

In so doing however I am confronted
with the classic dilemma of many, namely what fresh insight can I bring to bear
on this subject that has not already been canvassed.

So, at this point I would like to
make a declaration.

In preparing for this lecture I have
read widely on the subject. And I thank the organisers for encouraging me to
do this.

But as a result you may possibly
pick up resonances of other speeches. Therefore if I have consciously or unconsciously
plagiarised someone else's words or ideas - I must plead guilty!!

Poland and genocide

But to continue; in my effort to
find some new soil to till, I have dug deep into my bag of rhetorical flourishes,
and decided to employ another classical technique by looking initially at genocide
from a more personal perspective as it relates to my country of birth, Poland
and her history. Allow me also to share with you a few of my family memories.

It is of course very appropriate
today to remember Poland in this context of a commemorative lecture about the
Armenian Genocide. Because it was Hitler himself in 1939, prior to the invasion
of Poland who exhorted his Army High Command to:

" .....send to death mercilessly
and without compassion, men, women and children who stand in the way (of Lebensraum)
because, 'who today remembers the extermination of the Armenians?'

Many of you here today would have
knowledge of the genocide committed from 1939 onwards by the Germans against
the Polish and European Jews.

Six of the main extermination camps
were sited in German occupied Poland including the infamous Auschwitz, its auxiliary
Birkenau and of course Treblinka.

Jan Karski

In this regard I had the great privilege
some years ago of meeting here in Australia the Pole, Jan Karski. My wife and
I were privileged to host him for a number of days in Canberra and to talk with
him at length.

This extraordinary man smuggled himself
into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 and saw the terrible death being visited upon
the Jews. He then went and observed, from the exterior, the Jewish extermination
camp at Belzec.

He took this information about the
extermination of the Jews to the top Allied war leaders, including personal
meetings with Roosevelt and Eden. He had asked the leaders to take action to
stop the genocide.

Unfortunately to little avail.

When Karski met Anthony Eden in 1943,
then the British Foreign Secretary, to personally report about the holocaust
and asked him to take steps to prevent it, Eden replied "that Great Britain
had already done enough by accepting 100,000 refugees".

Some people to whom Karski described
his experience - simply refused to believe his message. It was just too difficult
to comprehend.

Justice Felix Frankfurter of the
US Supreme Court and former Presidential adviser replied: "Mr Karski. I am
unable to believe you."
When challenged by a Polish diplomat present at
the meeting whether he was calling Mr Karski "a liar", Frankfurter replied:
"I did not say this young man is lying. I said I am unable to believe him.
There is a difference."

However, for these and other acts
of selfless heroism he received many high honours, including in 1982, recognition
by the Israeli Government as one of the "righteous amongst nations".

Treatment of non Jewish Poles

Perhaps less well known,
about this terrible period, is the mass deportation of non-Jewish Poles, who
were classified by the Germans as "Polish leadership and intelligentsia".

They were forcibly removed
from western Poland which was incorporated into the Third Reich and relocated
in Eastern Poland. This was the fate of my family. Many, including both my grand
parents were ethnically cleansed, to use the contemporary expression, from Wielkopolska
to a small town called Opoczno in south-eastern Poland. In 1939 the majority
of the population of Opoczno was Polish-Jewish.

I remember my mother telling
me that one day, early in the morning in mid-October 1939, German SS-officers
accompanied by German soldiers and police, forcibly entered her family home
in Jarocin and gave them 15 minutes to pack up and leave. While they were packing,
a local German family was already moving in.

Then my mother aged 15,
her younger sisters and brother and other members of her extended family (total
of 19 persons) were marched to a transit depot. Soon after they had their bags
taken away from them - meaning that whatever they managed to salvage when leaving
was simply stolen. Three days later they were put, together with several hundred
others, on a goods train and driven for several days to Opoczno. They arrived,
sick and starving and were told to settle there.

Most of my family survived
this ordeal. But most of the Jewish population of Opoczno were subsequently
taken away and gassed. Those Poles relocated from the West who survived, were
lucky that the war ended when it did. Because as "Undermenche" or sub-humans
they knew they were next in line.

Similar treatment was accorded
to the Poles who had ended on the Soviet side of the Ribentrop-Molotov divide
- the agreed border between Germany and Russia. Just remember Katyn and other
extermination camps where the 14 thousand Polish officers and many others perished.

Teutonic Knights and Prussians

However far fewer of you here today
would be aware of one of the earlier examples of genocide committed in territory
currently occupied by Poland between 1226 and 1288.

This was committed by the Teutonic
Knights, or to give them their full title "The Order of the Hospital of the
Blessed Virgin Mary of the German House of Jerusalem".

These ex-crusaders were invited by
a Polish Prince Konrad of Mazovia, to assist with his program of conversion
and subjugation directed against the pagan Prussian tribes to the north of his

In 62 years the Teutonic Knights
managed to utterly eradicate the Prussian tribes and establish themselves in
their place, much to the distress of Konrad's successors who then endured roughly
200 years of conflict with the Teutonic Knights.

Old Testament Tales

But as you know, genocide is not
a phenomenon limited to a particular time or location. And here is another example
to illustrate this.

Going even further back in time,
but leaving Poland for the Middle East, those of you present today who have
not recently read the Bible may be surprised at the language.

For instance in the Old Testament
in the first Book of Samuel, Yahweh directs Saul through Samuel to:

" ....go and strike down
( the enemy tribe of) Amalek; put him under the ban with all he possesses.
Do not spare him but kill man and woman, babe and suckling, ox and sheep, camel
and donkey"

I will leave the interpretation of
such utterances to biblical scholars, much better qualified than I for such
a task. The point I wish to make here is that genocide is not a novel, contemporary
invention, but it has been with the human race for centuries.

Definition of Genocide

Now I would like to make three general
observations about genocide. But perhaps, let us start first with a definition
of genocide.

As I understand "genocide" it means
the organised killing of a people for the express purpose of putting an end
to their collective existence.

Because of its scope, genocide requires
central planning and a machinery to implement it. Invariably genocide will therefore
be a 'state crime' as usually only a government has the resources to carry it

Armenian Genocide

Hence the Armenian Genocide,
centrally planned and administered by the Turkish government against the entire
Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire, initially between the years 1915
to 1918 and then from 1920 to 1923.

It is estimated that 1.5
million Armenians perished between 1915 and 1923. By 1923 the entire landmass
of Asia Minor and historic West Armenia had been expunged of its Armenian population.

Rwandan Genocide

In the more recent case of the Rwandan
Genocide, on April 6, 1994 the Hutu dominated central government conspired to
murder approximately 800,000 Tutsi. This out of a total pre-massacre Rwandan
population of 7 million people with the percentage divided roughly 85% Hutu
to 15% Tutsi.

This equates to 76% of the Tutsi
population of Rwanda being slaughtered in about 100 days. And of course, in
addition, approximately 2 million Rwandans, comprising Tutsi, moderate Hutu
and - ironically - some hard line extremist Hutu, took refuge in camps across
the border in Goma, Zaire.

Genocide - three observations

Returning now to my three general
observations about genocide; without pretending for a moment to have studied
all generally acknowledged genocides, it seems to me that three factors can
be identified:

Information about the occurrence
of the genocide, will be available to the nations of the world, while it is
still being carried out;

Invariably little or nothing is
done at the time of the genocide by exterior nations or bodies to halt the

Genocide is invariably about politics,
or more particularly about political power and dominance. Either the assuming
of it or the maintenance and strengthening of it.

Conversely, of course this means,
that avoiding or eliminating genocide requires in many cases internally generated
political solutions. This is particularly the case where the genocide is being
committed by

But more on that later.

Knowledge of the Genocide

To take the first point. In both
the Armenian and Rwandan genocides the outside world was well aware of what
was happening.

In the case of Armenia, although
the "Young Turk" government took precautions and imposed restrictions on reporting
and photographing, there were any number of foreigners - American diplomats,
missionaries and German army officers (Germany and Turkey being war allies)
who were aware of what was happening and reported on it.

Some of these reports made headline
news in the American and Western media at the time.

In the case of Rwanda, within 48
hours of the massacres commencing, French and Belgium troops combined to evacuate
all foreign nationals from the capital Kigale.

Within minutes of the UN troops abandoning
their base in a former school, which had also become a refuge for several thousand
Tutsis and moderate Hutu, the militia and Presidential Guard stormed the compound
and began massacring those present.

Ambassador David Rawson of the United
States stayed on in Kigale for a further 10 days after this event.

So plenty of information to the outside
world in both cases.

Little or nothing will be done

Turning now to my second hypothesis
that little or nothing will be done by the outside world to stop the massacre.

With Armenia, Great Britain, France
and Russia warned the "Young Turk" leaders they would be held personally responsible
for this crime against humanity.

But this must be balanced against
the fact that by this stage the parties were at war. Undoubtedly the biggest
opportunity to impose sanction, if only for those Armenians who had survived,
occurred after the war.

At Versailles, America, Britain and
France could have forced the Turkish government to make restitution to the Armenian
people for their immense material and human losses. But nothing was done.

In the case of Rwanda the international
paralysis that occurred is even more starkly revealed. This despite the adoption
in 1948 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of
the Crime of Genocide.

This Convention, amongst other things,
requires signatory nations to condemn genocidal slaughter when it is occurring
and act to stop it. France and Belgium are both signatories and yet they did
nothing, despite their troops' involvement in the evacuation of all foreign

The United States is a signatory
to this Convention. It is presumably for this reason that US Ambassador Rawson
characterised the massacres as "tribal killings" and after three weeks
only declared the situation: "a state of disaster".

Use of the "G" word by any senior
official was clearly a no, no!!

The United Nations itself dithered
both at the Security Council level and operationally. Then Assistant Secretary-General
for UN peacekeeping operations and Undersecretary-General Kofi Annan, seemed
unable to act decisively, despite prior warning from Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian
general commanding UN forces on the ground in Rwanda. This meant that a UN troop
deployment that had been accorded "utmost urgency" by the Security Council
on April 29, was only finally approved on June 9.

It has been subsequently estimated
that about 10,000 Rwandans a day were dying, so I'll leave you to ponder the
maths as to what a five week delay meant.

Nuremberg and the ICC

For the sake of completeness, it
should be acknowledged that there have been some isolated examples where governments
have been prepared to mete out justice to the perpetrators of Genocides. The
Nuremberg trials and more recently the 1998 creation of the International Criminal
Court (ICC), which is specifically charged to hold accountable and bring to
justice those responsible for mass murder, genocide and war crimes, are two
cases in point. However it is too early to judge the effectiveness of the ICC.

Genocide and Politics

And finally to the third leg of my
trifecta, genocide is inextricably bound up with politics.

When I first commenced serious research
into this speech I had the notion that one way or another, genocide was mostly
connected with racism, persecution of minorities or in some instances, economic/ideological

When you think of the Armenian Genocide,
Stalin and the Ukraine, the Jewish Holocaust, Pol Pot, Idi Amin in Uganda and
finally, Rwanda, it is difficult to see beyond these issues.

It is difficult to see political
dimension of genocide because:

Firstly and self-evidently usually,
but not always, genocide is generally directed against ethnic minorities.

Secondly and I think most importantly,
because it is the language or rhetoric that the leaders of genocide use. Usually
they aim to generate racial hatred or hysteria when they whip up their followers,
or seek to justify the necessity for their actions after the event.

In fact, political objectives are
rarely stated in an open fashion by leaders of genocide.

Power and Domination

But I believe that when you look
beneath the surface, you invariably find the issue is one of political power
and domination.

There is not time, nor do I profess
to be equipped to suggest this hypothesis applies in respect of every act of
genocide. But I do believe there is enough validity in it, to at least set you
thinking about the subject.

If I am right, then the longer term
solution for eliminating genocide does not lie with armed intervention from
a UN perspective. Such action is invariably aimed at separating the victims
from their pursuers, although of course on occasions that will be necessary.

Apart from any other consideration,
such UN intervention may only be applicable in the case of, what I will colloquially
call 'domestic genocide', a situation like Rwanda, where general war has not
broken out. Of course, in the case of the Armenian Genocide and The Holocaust,
the presence of generalised warfare makes for complications. In the case of
the Holocaust, some aspects of that genocide were committed by an invading army.
Clearly the UN would have found intervention in those cases problematic.

People have to learn to co-exist

In absence of external
aggression, to avoid genocide people have to learn to coexist. That is because
realistically, at some point, those protective UN or other outside forces will
have to leave.

The current situation in
Kosovo and dare I suggest it, Iraq, are cases in point. The UN/Coalition of
the Willing, is still present, but the problems don't seem to be resolving.

Northern Ireland is another
case in point.

At some stage the British
Government will probably withdraw and then Catholics and Protestants, on the
ground in Northern Ireland, will have to get on with the business of managing
political power in a way that actually works, for all the people of Northern

How democracies function

It is a commonly held wisdom that
a key to coexistence between majority and minorities within a country, is a
well functioning democracy.

Remember, however, even in a well
functioning democracy like Australia, government only works because the 49%
of the population who voted for the other side are prepared to accept the result
and let the government manage on their behalf.

Hence why political leaders, on winning,
say they are going to "govern on behalf of all Australians"; rhetoric we all
take with a grain of salt, but it's pretty important really.

Especially when you think what the
alternative proposition might lead to.

Anecdotal evidence has even suggested
this was one of the reasons, the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser was reluctant
to embark on a more radical legislative agenda reflecting his previous reputation
as an "economic dry". One theory has it that he was apprehensive it might cause
massive civil disobedience from voters, who objected to the way the Governor-General
had acted with regard to Gough Whitlam.

Of course even in a well functioning
democracy there will always be some fraying around the edges; majority government
does tend to mean that the majority view gets the parliamentary numbers.

Hence why you need 'equality laws'
and a Bill of Rights and independent human rights watchdogs, to provide additional
protections to various different minorities in various different scenarios.

Anyway, the mechanistic imposition
of democracy on a country does not always provide a well functioning society,
although it may prevent some human rights abuses. Few of us would think that
the imposition of democratic principles on Iraq from outside, will automatically
deliver a well functioning democratic Iraqi state.

Well functioning civil society

It is that in a well functioning
civil society, the major political parties will have the maturity to encompass
the widest variety of creeds, colours and values.

In this way no particular group within
that society should feel disenfranchised, nor should any homogeneous group feel
so empowered as to feel able to oppress any minority group.

The other checks and balances will
also need to be there of course: a Constitution, independent judiciary, regular
elections, a broad franchise, police and armed forces that are always subordinate
to the elected government of the day, free press and a flourishing NGOs with
strong human rights culture.

To sum it up, genocide is unlikely
to be perpetrated in a well functioning modern democracy based on a vibrant
and well established civil society. Democratic countries are also unlikely to
start wars to visit genocide on other nations.

Genocide - why is it still around

But genocide still does happen from
time to time, especially in less developed, non-democratic countries. Why it
is so and what could be done to prevent it from happening is my next offering.

Let us return first to my earlier
generalisations on the nature of genocide. I have previously referred to the
persistence of genocide. In fact this must be a matter of the most profound
disappointment that mankind still has to grapple with this issue.

Clearly it is a form of wickedness
which mankind has very great difficulty in foregoing.

I think this reflects the ongoing
need to reconcile mankind's primitive survival instincts, which demands that
one "group" must prevail over the "other group" in the competition for scarce
resources; with the evolution of our finer, civilising sensibilities which attempts
to channel the aggression into more productive paths.

Genocide conventions and UN security
forces not enough

That being so, while it is important
that we have international conventions outlawing genocide and the capacity to
enforce that sanction, through bodies like the UN, and an ICC, we must acknowledge
them to be only a partial answer to the problem of genocide.

I have already demonstrated in the
case of Rwanda, the inefficiency of that response.

Even when the system is able to act
quickly enough to head off the opposing parties, before the bloodshed starts,
sooner or later the supervising force must depart. Then the opposing parties
must be able to deal with each other.

However that is not to dismiss the
UN's contribution in another important area; namely the possibility of long
term solutions involving human rights education, based around agreed and secular

UN inspired human rights

In particular the UN has established
human rights concepts, or generally accepted universal rights, the use of which
assist in the maintenance of a civil society both inwardly and outwardly. These
rights might need strengthening, protection and education about their meaning,
but they still provide the best template for action.

Specifically they provide the key
to relationships between individuals and groups in a society.

What Rights?

  • Rights securing life, liberty
    and security of a person;
  • Equality before the law , right
    to a fair trial and due process;
  • Right not to be discriminated
    against in society by government/organisation/individuals because of: race,
    sex, religion, social status;
  • Right to participate in the political
    process and elect the government;
  • Allowance for majority rule and
    protection of the minority;
  • Right to freedom of thought, religion
    and association;
  • Unfettered access to economic,
    social and cultural rights.

But the key here is: adherence to
values and principals that are universally accepted and secularly based.

While religious ideals may have originally
inspired many secular human rights, in a modern civil society, the interaction
of many different religious faiths may make agreement difficult.

Therefore I would argue that it is
better to let individuals privately worship, while publicly adhering to a secular
set of values. And the international human rights law provides such a generally
agreed set of norms.


And this is where I believe bodies such as HREOC or National
Human Rights Institutions come in.

While there are many constituent parts to the "human rights
family" - NGOs, Ombudsmen, UN oversight bodies to name but a few - clearly the
national independent human rights institutions (NHRIs) have a very important
role to play in this balancing process.

By NHRIs I mean independent organisations established and resourced
by national governments, within certain UN defined guidelines, to protect and
promote human rights in a given country.

The role of NHRIs continues to be of key importance in any
civil society as any democratically elected government is more likely to consider
the needs of the majority, while an NHRI is often more concerned with protecting
the rights of minorities, or those who challenge the majority's view.

And the truth of this statement is surely partly reflected
in the worldwide push towards increasing numbers and strength of NHRIs.

Multiple influences on vibrant 'civil society'

Another important condition for a well functioning national
institution is the existence of a vibrant civil society that can cooperate with,
but also act as a watchdog over national institutions.

But the key thing to remember is that an effective NHRI needs
to be a watchdog not a lapdog. The test is - if government approves of you too
much, there is something wrong with your independence and with your role as
an effective protector of human rights.

In a civil society once the NGOs start barking - this is the
time to double check - to be sure that you are not turning into a lapdog.

How does this affect Australians

Let us now briefly focus on Australia. In my various meetings
around Australia in the post 9/11, post Bali, Iraq War world, I am occasionally
asked whether I detect any signs of significant stresses between different groups
of Australians.

In my view the majority of Australians prefer the model of
a "modern" society. They wish to have state and church separated, an economy
driven by profit motives but with a broad based safety net. They enjoy Australia
being in the forefront of economic and social development.

Different minorities on different issues

But we also recognise that there are some Australians who may
be in a minority at different times or over different issues. For example for
many Moslem Australians, religion is an integral part of their whole community
and lifestyle.

Other Australians, for example on the economic front, believe
that we should limit our consumption and save resources for future generations.

Some members of our community, such as retirees may have different
views on the allocation of relatively scarce community support facilities.

So how do we best deal with these "mini-clashes" before they
escalate into "significant stresses" and maybe ultimately the unthinkable: "genocide".

Accommodate differences through secular values

First, we need to have a strong set of secular standards in
order to accommodate our differences. And I believe that we have such standards
- these are human rights standards, which in the popular mind are associated
with the United Nations. They are the "good behaviour rules", "the grease which
oils the wheels".

In other words we need to ensure that community values in this
country intersect with human rights values. This is the secular roadmap that
we will all need to consult, no matter what our religious belief or stance on
economics or community resource allocation, as we navigate our way through a
community that aspires to civil discourse and behaviour.

These standards, especially those already fully incorporated
into our domestic laws, such as sex, race and disability need to be the continuing
subject of mass education.

Additionally we also need to strengthen the menu of rights
by creating better ways to implement them, especially in the field of civil
and political liberties (eg bill of rights).

To sum up we should continue to create a human rights culture
based on the knowledge and understanding of the existing human rights and anti-discrimination
laws. It is important to create respect for other cultures and tolerance of
religious differences.

As Kofi Annan: said

"...the perception
of diversity as a threat is the very seed of war".

Between, and within civilisations,
dialogue and good conflict resolution skills are the preferred methods of dealing
with such cultural tensions.


But for our dialogues to be real,
not based on mantras, they need to aim for better understanding of the differences.

They need to use the human rights
principles as a point of departure and then move to where the differences are,
to more particular examples. They need to explore and not be afraid of discovering
where the real differences lie and try to understand the other point of view.

Accordingly obligations are created
on both the majority exponents of any particular issue in the community at any
moment in time and the minority exponents of a contrary position.

The majority must ensure non discrimination
and turn their back on the excuse to use the situation as an opportunity to
entrench their political power.

The minority must appreciate that
its values are not obligatory on all and retain a degree of flexibility where
private and public life intersect.

Respecting separateness and its associated
values and lifestyles, brings with it an obligation to remain engaged with broader

Australia has most successfully achieved
this to date but overseas experience tells us to be watchful.

Ultimately all our human transactions
are enhanced by the degree to which we respect each other's human rights. Thus
my 'call to arms' today, is that each and everyone of us must take personal
responsibility for our behaviour in this regard. Clearly the scourge of genocide
is something that potentially lurks just below the surface of human consciousness.
It is up to each of us as individuals to ensure it does not bubble up to the

updated 19 May 2004.

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