Although many countries in the world today have the good fortune of being governed by democratic and pluralistic political regimes that respect the basic rights of human life and freedom, to this very day the outbreak of mass killings based on hatred, revenge, territorial expansion, greed or just plain convenience remains a fact of life on our planet.
Current, recent and not-so-recent examples of history indicate compellingly that genocide occurs in places where dehumanization and extremism have been practiced and encouraged by the authorities in power. Extremism is typically based on national, ethnic, linguistic, racial, ideological or religious grounds, on social class differences, or on various combinations of the above.
Extremism starts out by the basic ploy of categorizing human beings into two opposing camps: "us" and "them." Dehumanization, of course, is the extreme form of it: "we are human, and they are not." The excuse for this is to claim that we are the victims who have been unfairly wronged, disappointed, hampered, oppressed, threatened, and they - the ones on the other side - are the ones who are responsible for all our wrongs. But instead of trying to right any wrongs and working out any differences, the solution is simply to eliminate one`s opponents. Scapegoating then becomes a first step in this process. The solution, once you have found the scapegoat, is to eliminate them. In the immortal words of Joseph Stalin: you have a person, you have a problem; you take away the person, you take away the problem. It doesn't matter if they are young or old, or it doesn't matter whether entire nations, tribes or populations are involved. If you have a group and you have a problem, destroying the group becomes a way of eliminating the supposed problem.
Less than a decade ago, in Kosovo, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in other parts of the former Yugoslavia (and that's right here on the continent of Europe) hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were murdered solely because they happened to be born into the supposedly "wrong" ethnic or religious group. Similarly in Rwanda in 1994 an estimated 800,000 people perished in large-scale massacres.
Between 1940 and 1991, my country, Latvia, and her Baltic neighbors experienced an unprecedented loss of human life under the Nazi and Soviet-Russian occupations. During Stalin's reign of terror, tens of thousands of Latvians as well as hundreds of thousands and millions of other nationalities were repressed, imprisoned, deported and allowed to die a slow and painful death in forced labor-camps in Siberia. Genocide can happen through many forms of execution. It can be executed by means of a gun, a knife or a machete, it can take place in a gas chamber, but it can also be brought about through a slow death on a Siberian plain from hunger, from cold and the exhaustion of forced labor. The result is the same - death on a massive scale.
Latvia believes that the implementation of the U.N. Convention on Genocide, which requires those countries that signed it to intervene in cases of genocide, should be far more vigorous than it has been to date. We must not and we cannot sit back passively when crimes against humanity are committed. In Kosovo, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Rwanda, the international community did far to little and far too late. Similarly, in preceding decades, it stood idly by while the Soviet regime killed hundreds and thousands and millions of Eastern and Central Europeans as well as so many their own people. The international community responded far too late to the threat of an increasingly belligerent and xenophobic Nazi regime.
We simply must find ways for the international community to react faster and more effectively in the future. There are a number of ways in which this can be done. I hope that this conference will truly succeed in finding practical ways in which we can intervene effectively in the future. Latvia stands ready to participate. Latvia stands ready to do what it can. Latvia supported the resolution on anti-Semitism proposed by Ireland at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2003. Latvia has assigned one of its most respected judges to sit on the International Court in The Hague. Latvia stands ready to do more if required.
Latvia also fully supports the initiative by deputies of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, which foresees the establishment of an international commission that would objectively investigate the wrongdoings committed by communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. Without a clear understanding and unequivocal condemnation of such crimes, Europe risks remaining burdened by its history. There is no room for racism, intolerance, discrimination and xenophobia in the Europe of today and of tomorrow.
We need to educate our future generations, so that they can learn to espouse the values of tolerance, of compassion, of mutual respect. We need to build a Europe that is united in its diversity. We need to build a world that is united in its humanity. We must find ways of making people understand that the deliberate killing of any human being is an attack on humanity as whole. Genocide is a crime, genocide is a failure of civilization. We cannot stand by idly while genocide is being committed. We cannot turn our backs on it, nor is it enough to stand there and wring our hands about it. We must find ways of putting an end to it. We must find ways of intervening - and intervening effectively - wherever and whenever it happens on this earth.
Vaira Vike-Freiberga is president
of Latvia. These are excerpts
from her speech at the
International Forum for Preventing Genocide in Stockholm on Jan. 26.