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A “good cop” to prevent genocide. We can help him/her with the Garden of the Righteous

by Gabriele Nissim

Analysis by Gabriele Nissim, President of Gariwo Foundation, on the value of the Gardens of the Righteous as places of education to surveillance in the framework of human rights in the world, at the Conference “Progetto Genesi. L’Arte di educare al valore dei Diritti Umani”.

After the Second World War, in December 1948, the United Nations almost simultaneously approved two important resolutions that were supposed to establish a legal horizon to ensure respect for the human person and for any national or ethnic group whose existence was threatened, as it had tragically happened to the Jews and Armenians due to Nazis and Turkey.

It is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, presented by Eleanor Roosevelt, which for the first time enshrined equality of all individuals in thirty extremely simple and clear articles, and the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, born out of the obstinacy of Raphael Lemkin, who for the first time in history called upon humanity to take up a new moral commandment.

The nationally recognised commandment “thou shalt not kill” was never about the existence of the other during war or of an ethnic minority in peacetime.

It was a crime to kill one’s own, while one could do so with impunity against those who were considered as different and enemies. It was therefore lawful to murder human groups who did not correspond to one’s own culture and identity. For this reason, Lemkin coined the term “genocide”, which denoted the cultural and physical annihilation of any minority excluded from its right to existence, and urged the international community to devise a new moral imperative (never again!) that after Shoah should be the basis of new ethics among nations.

“Thou shalt not commit genocide” was the eleventh commandment that was not part of the Ten Commandments. Based on these two resolutions, all those whose personal dignity was threatened and all peoples or national minority whose existence was in danger could appeal to the United Nations for protection.

If Antigone, for the burial of her brother, appealed to the unwritten laws of the gods, now for the first time in the history of mankind, a law was envisioned that was not only based on the depth of individuals’ moral conscience, but that could be guaranteed by new international rules taking charge of it.

Those who were persecuted, as Raphael Lemkin observed, could find an impartial judge and a “policeman saviour”, represented by the United Nations, which would come to their rescue.

We are aware of how silent, distracted, powerless this “policeman saviour” has proved to be, especially due to vetoes imposed by superpowers and by those who manipulate human rights by trying to conceal or justify crimes and persecutions, but also due to a lack of courage and determination, as it happened in massacres perpetrated in Srebrenica or Rwanda, where international intervention could have saved thousands of lives.

What was supposed to be a guardian angel of humanity has failed too many times in our times, from Iran to Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan in the face of the persecution of women, and nothing could in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Azeri invasion of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. And think of the concerns of Taiwanese inhabitants, who are afraid of being left alone one day, as it happens to the minority of Uighurs locked up in re-education camps in Xinjiang.

How then can we help this “good cop”, envisioned by Eleanor Roosevelt and Raphael Lemkin, play his/her role in guaranteeing the rights of individuals and peoples?

We must reflect on how there has been a lack of global information on the state of rights and the dangers of genocide. Most parliaments voted, for example, for Lemkin’s convention, but there were then no areas for discussion to take stock of possible preventive measures to be taken. For this reason, we have promoted the establishment of an institutional figure in the Italian Parliament who reports annually on the most critical situations at international level.

If there is no constant education in society, and in schools in particular, then the foundations for mobilising public opinion in support of the principles set out in the two resolutions are not laid when institutions remain silent.

Knowledge and information are the prerequisite for individual and political accountability. In its twenty years of activity, Gariwo has devised an original tool to offer moral support to international custodial and prevention bodies. These are the Gardens of the Righteous Worldwide, which we propose in every country of the world.

They play a dual role: educating individuals’ consciences to personal accountability and constantly informing on genocides and crimes of the past and the present.

The method is, however, completely innovative. Gardens are not places to remember the pain and victims of the past, as monuments and memorials can be.

With trees planted in their honour, they tell the stories of women and men of every corner of the earth who have acted to help and rescue other people.

We call these people the Righteous, with a broader meaning than the one given in Israel by Yad Vashem Foundation. The Righteous are not only non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust, but any human being who, within his or her possibilities, had the courage to defend human dignity.

Through the knowledge of these stories, often relegated to oblivion, society can understand the mechanisms through which individuals can turn from mere spectators into conscious actors in the prevention of genocides and the defence of human rights. This makes one realise how the horizon outlined by the United Nations is an actual possibility starting by the commitment of each individual.

Through their activities, the Gardens push society in three directions. They stimulate public opinion, educators, intellectuals and journalists to seek out the best people in the world and in their own countries, who try to act as a buffer against genocide and can become sentinels of evil when the first signs of violence are perceived in the public debate - and now especially in social media - in the language, in the contempt of people and ethnic, religious and cultural minorities.

This leads to a bottom-up habit to constantly value what in every age Moshe Bejski, the creator of Yad Vashem’s Garden of the Righteous, and Vasily Grossman called the elite of humanity who can “save the human in individuals” in any circumstance.

Secondly, the Gardens educate societies to express gratitude to people all around the world who break the wall of indifference and make visible evil we prefer not to see for the sake of our quiet life. Gratitude represented in the Gardens is not only moral recognition due, but an actual act of solidarity that gives more strength and courage to those who work in difficult circumstances. Public visibility of the Righteous makes the path of executioners and dictators more difficult. Dictatorships and genocidal states win when resisters are left alone, because this is the sign of our indifference and passivity. It is as if we said a silent yes to their actions in the name of our quiet life.

Third, the moral examples of the Righteous have a therapeutic effect on people, which may be reminiscent of the spirit of the Delphic oracle that invited human beings to know themselves to recover from their mistakes, or the Socratic teaching that shook the consciences of the Greeks through the art of maieutics.

The fundamental point of the teaching of the Righteous is not what is commonly believed, especially in a country having Catholic traditions like Italy, where it is often believed that suffering is the mandatory path to virtue. The latter is the reason why victims are often confused with the Righteous. Far from it. The stories of these people show that those who behave in a certain way fully develop their personality and human richness. As Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller wrote, the Righteous are an expression of human beauty that attracts and leads to emulation. Those who develop a sense of ethics, find satisfaction and happiness in their solitude that others do not know, even if life then confronts them with complex and countercultural decisions.

Of course, we are not celebrating saints or “super heroes”, as it sometimes happened. There is no such thing as a perfect being on this earth, nor are the Righteous. It is precisely their humanity, with all their ambiguities and weaknesses, that makes it easier to understand and feel their acts and that triggers mechanisms of emulation. It is possible and human good that attracts, because this is how it is understood that ethical choices are within everyone’s reach and do not necessarily mean sacrifice and renunciation.

If an active life is created around the Gardens of the Righteous as a place for discussion, dialogue and new social attitudes, based on this ever-evolving methodology, the practical tool missing from the two UN resolutions can come to life.

We envision these Gardens as a great agora, a civic temple dedicated to the value of the human person, where visitors are urged to become citizens who take responsibility, not only for their own country, also for the destiny of the entire world. They thus represent the place, as Liliana Segre suggests, that teaches us not to be indifferent. Unlike in the past, when passivity allowed for the worst crimes.

The Gardens of the Righteous can thus be the new collective moral conscience that from time to time forces states and international institutions to take a stand. These places can become the necessary cultural arm of Eleanor Roosevelt and Raphael Lemkin’s institutional dream, on a journey that will never end. They can give a formidable push from below to denounce all aporias in human rights around the world and all signs of a new genocide.

As Czech philosopher Jan Patočka wrote, genocides and persecutions are part of the forces of the night of human condition, but there can be a place, in every city, which clearly tells of the possibility of turning on the light and rekindling hope, because it is always human beings who can choose.

The enterprise of Gariwo and its Gardens of the Righteous will succeed better in the world provided it is supported by institutions and the best forces in Italy.

This is the request I make in this conference, which I repeat in all initiatives we organise in schools and in all municipalities, because only a solidarity network of individuals and associations from different backgrounds can lead us to imagine that the imperative “never again” is not just a rhetorical exercise, as it happened all too often on Remembrance Days, it can turn into an actual policy and a possible journey.

I am optimistic, because inclination to the good and beauty, despite the dark periods of Italian history, are part of the DNA of Italian culture. In this journey in support of a new idea of justice, if we want it, Italy can be at the forefront of the European Community.

The possibility of a “good cop”, who, as Lemkin imagined, can come to the aid of minorities in danger, as he wrote in the UN Convention on the Prevention of Genocide, is therefore in our hands.

Translated by Valentina Gianoli 

Gabriele Nissim, Gariwo Chairman

Analysis by

10 October 2022

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