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British Lord discusses history of genocide, calls for awareness, activism

| Wednesday, February 16, 2022

David Alton, member of the British House of Lords for Liverpool, visited the Hesburgh Center for International Studies on Tuesday to give a speech on the horrors of genocide, why “never again happens all over again” and what can be done to prevent it. 

Known for his work in human rights advocacy, Alton was a member of the House of Commons for 18 years before he was appointed a life peer in 1997. He currently serves on the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Select Committee.

Kate Ross | The Observer
Nanovic Institute director Clemens Sedmak (left) moderates the Q&A session following British politician Lord David Alton’s address on combating genocide.

Alton has traveled around the world and witnessed some of the sites of horrific genocides, including Burma, Rwanda and China, seeing firsthand the “appalling consequences” of genocide.

The first genocide of the 20th century, Alton said, was the genocide of indigenous Herero and Namaqua people of Southwest Africa (a then German colony, now present-day Namibia) by German military forces from 1904 to 1908. Those who weren’t killed or expelled from the land were forced into concentration camps. This was one of the precursors to the genocide of European Jews in the Holocaust, Alton said, but it was not the only one.

The next came seven years later in Turkey’s Ottoman Empire. During World War I, over 1 million Armenians and many Assyrians and Greek Christians were murdered for their identities. Atrocities like these do not come out of nowhere, and Alton pointed to several “canaries in the coal mine,” or signs of impending genocide.

Four-time British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone pointed out one of those canaries in the Armenian genocide during a public rally in Liverpool. Gladstone spoke at this rally because two Armenian gentlemen approached him with their stories of the crimes against humanity they had seen.

Denouncing the horrors of what he had heard from these two men, he told the crowd, “If they were indifferent when people in faraway provinces were slaughtered, it would only be a matter of time before the same horrors were visited upon them.”

To this day, the Armenian genocide remains unrecognized by the Turkish government. It has been wiped from books, movies and other media while opposition has been squashed by the Turkish government, Alton said. Only 32 countries recognize the things that happened to the Armenian people as a genocide.

Without recognizing the truth about genocides, they will keep happening, Alton said.

“If you don’t want history to repeat itself, you must at least be told truthfully about historical events,” he said.

The Armenian genocide convinced Hitler he could also get away with mass murder, Alton said.

“The same rationale, a culture of impunity, led to the industrialized murders of the concentration camps,” he said. “With collective amnesia about what had gone before, it led to Hitler’s ideology of a purified master race directly inspired by the biological vision of a purified pan-Turkism based on racial origins and racial superiority.”

Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide, Alton explained, combining the Greek “genos,” meaning race, and the Latin “cidere,” meaning killing.

Alton is studying Lemkin’s work as a part of his upcoming book, co-authored with human rights activist Ewelina U. Ochab. Forty-nine of Lemkin’s own relatives were murdered in the Holocaust. He sought to find a word to define the atrocities he saw happening in the Holocaust after Winston Churchill described them as a “crime without a name.”

Alton pioneered the “genocide amendment” through Parliament in 2021, which attempts to address the failings of how the government handles genocides. They must do better at predicting and preventing genocide, punishing those who commit it and protecting its victims, he said.

“The promise to break the relentless and devastating cycles has not been kept, and I argue that in recent years, things have actually gotten worse,” he said.

In China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is committing genocide against the Uyghurs and other religious minorities in Xinjiang. Uyghurs have been put in internment camps the CCP says are educational and training facilities, although satellite images show there are several of what look like crematoriums in the facilities, Alton said. 

Countries must confront that other countries they have economic ties to, like China, are committing genocide, he said. An important step of action against genocide is to change your trading habits and economic support for these countries, Alton said, although some are wary of the idea.

Key witnesses at the hearing of the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Select Committee declined to say whether they should continue trade with countries accused of committing genocide.

“One said there are many countries in the world with appalling human rights records with which we’ve had an economic relationship over many decades,” Alton said. “That’s been a traditional position of the United Kingdom. It shouldn’t be.”

There must be a reconsideration of policies and a recalibration of resources in order to prevent and better handle genocide, Alton said. He called for a “much greater political will in concluding the unfinished business of 1948.”

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