Seventy years after the member states of the United Nations General Assembly passed the Genocide Convention accompanied by the pledge of “never again” – there is no doubt it was sincerely meant at the time, but both the human heart and human memory are fickle.
The last six decades are scattered with casual death, destruction and a callous disregard of past pledges. Cambodia, Rwanda, Srebrenica and Darfur are evidence of the capricious nature of high sounding rhetoric.
We have grown used to confronting the last stage of every genocide: denial. “It did not happen,” “the numbers are wrong,” “poor hygiene swelled the numbers.” Some small inconsistency in the mind of the denier undermines everything. Yet implicit within the obfuscation and lies is the assumption that if genocide “really happened” it would be terrible. I and others have noticed in recent years an even more sinister development in genocide remembrance: total and unqualified indifference.
Indifference is impervious to facts. “Six million Jews Murdered by Nazis, One and a half million Cambodians murdered by the Pol Pot regime, one million slaughtered in Rwanda, who cares it was so long ago, stop being morbid and wallowing in ancient death”. Facts no longer matter. The mass murderer Stalin is reported to have said a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a mere statistic. We now face a challenge of understanding a world in which Stalin could inhabit free from (among other things) the charge of cynicism.
Facts and the truth are no longer enough. We need to adapt a new set of skills to deal with the Age of Indifference. I don’t pretend to know the answer to this collective shrug of the shoulder. A start might be an understanding that we are all safer in a world free from sectarian strife, that murder many miles or years away effects us all eventually, pretending that it does not is no protection from the inevitable.
We need to be as tenacious as Raphael Lemkin a lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent who is best known for coining the word genocide and initiating the Genocide Convention. Lemkin spent his life trying to get the world to pay attention to genocide. He escaped from Poland, just ahead of the German occupation in 1939 and ended up in the United States. Lemkin hoped to alert the authorities to the real aims of Nazi war policy of annihilation. Sadly, as be recognised, “The Nazi plan was so outrageous that nobody would believe it in time to try to forestall it.” Few contemporaries saw so clearly the danger Hitler posed in 1933, not just for the peace of Europe but also for the future of the Jewish people.
In Lemkin’s memory we should confront the Age of Indifference with all its corrosive threat to our humanity.