Denial of the past makes war crimes inevitable

1 May 2015

On 1 May 2015 Dr. Simon Adams published “Denial of the past makes war crimes inevitable” in the Zocalo Public Square Forum on: Here’s Why Genocide Keeps Happening. The Social, Economic, and Political Conditions That Lead to the Worst War Crimes

The Czech author Milan Kundera once wrote, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” This is a year of sad centennials, including the conjoined commemorations of the allied invasion of Gallipoli during World War I and the Armenian genocide.

For Australians and New Zealanders, April 25, 1915, Anzac Day, represents the most hallowed day in our shared military history. But I don’t recall any schoolteacher ever explaining to me that as the Anzacs stormed Gallipoli, leading politicians within the Ottoman Empire were preparing to extirpate Armenian Christians. On the night of April 24, as the Anzacs approached the Dardenelles, the arrest of Armenian intellectuals began. Soon after, the massacres and mass deportations commenced. A genocide that would result in the deaths of more than 1 million Armenians was underway.

Most Turkish perpetrators escaped punishment after World War I. Impunity begat impunity. From the killing fields of Cambodia to Rwanda or Bosnia, mass atrocity crimes were generally met with international diplomatic passivity throughout the 20th century. The new millennium didn’t start much better. The barren wastelands of Darfur provided yet another stain upon our conscience.

Amidst the political darkness, however, there has been some normative light. In 2005, the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (or “R2P”) was unanimously adopted at the UN’s World Summit, the largest gathering of heads of state and government in history. The basis of R2P is that all humans should be protected from the four mass atrocity crimes—genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. R2P urges an end to impunity, inaction and amnesia regarding atrocities.

That is why Kundera’s words resonate. The denial of past atrocities undermines our collective attempt to prevent similar crimes today. One doesn’t have to be Armenian to be moved by events 100 years ago or to be disturbed by the ongoing denial that genocide occurred. One only has to be human.

Dr. Simon Adams
Executive Director, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect


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