February 23, 2020

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International Holocaust Remembrance Day The Hague

The Ambassador of Israel, H.E. Mr. Naor Gilon.

By John Dunkelgrün.

For the second time the Stichting Chaj together with the Embassy of Israel and the City of The Hague recognised International Holocaust Remembrance Day with a very special lecture at the Peace Palace to highlight the influence of the Holocaust on the development of international law.

The organisers succeeded in lining up several most impressive speakers, like the acting mayor of The Hague, H.E. Mr. Johan Remkes, the President of the International Court of Justice, H.E. Judge Abdulqami Ahmed Yusuf, Mr. Arie Sznaj, the Ambassador of Israel, H.E. Mr. Naor Gilon, H.E. Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova, and the keynote speaker Professor Philippe Sands QC.

Dr Ekaterina Trendafilova, President of the Specialist Chambers.

Mr. Remkes welcomed everyone by stressing that one lesson from the Holocaust is that we should never let those who initiate or participate in atrocities escape judgment and that education is the key to democracy. He quoted Maria Montessori in saying that all politics can do is keep us out of war, but establishing lasting peace is the work of education.

The Mayor of The Hague, H.E. Mr. Johan Remkes.

Judge Yusuf in his usual quiet and considered way, all the more impressive because of his evident deep concern with the subject, pointed at the danger of dividing humanity into “us” and “the Other”. During the Holocaust, the “Other” were the Jews, the Sinti and Roma, Gays, and the mentally infirm. It is almost impossible now to imagine a group of men sitting quietly planning the murder on an industrial scale of millions, only because they were the “Other”. The many genocidal atrocities against other groups since 1945 shows that we haven’t learned much.

Among the selective guests, Belgium’s Permanent Representative to the OPCW, H.E. Mr. William Roelants de Stappers.

That is why we must remember and always take action against racism and prejudice, We should never allow the denial of the right of existence of entire groups. It not only denies the humanity of the victims, but it diminishes the humanity of the perpetrators and bystanders equally. We must act against the precursors of genocide. It is only through our actions that we can honour the victims.

Remember your humanity in times of inhumanity.

Mr. Arie Sznaj gave a moving account of how his grandfather as the only one of his large family escaped the razzias and murders in Lviv (then called Lemberg). In 1939 over one-third of Lembergs 350,000 inhabitants were Jews and almost all perished.

Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova in her introduction to Professor Sands told how she became a jurist because she dreamt of a society where the rule of law prevails. And to protect this rule of law citizens sometimes have to take a stand against their government for what is right. Sometimes that requires lying down on the train tracks, as the Bulgarians did when the government wanted to deport Bulgarians Jews by train.

Philippe Sands, an internationally renowned lawyer, educator, writer, actor, and descendant of Holocaust survivors spoke partly about the history of the concepts Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, partly about his family history and partly about the tension between the two concepts.

Contrary to intuitive thinking the two concepts are not age-old fundamental aspects of the law. They were formed in the twentieth century by two men who -incidentally- came from and were educated in the same city, Lemberg. A further coincidence is that the grandfather of Professor Sands also hailed from the same place and was educated by the same teachers. Background matters. Background directs who initiates laws, what laws are developed, how they work and how they come into being.

One of these men, Hersch Lauterpacht, escaped the horrors of the Holocaust by fleeing first to Sweden and then to the U.S., where he was offered a chair by Duke University in Durham. He developed the concept of Crimes against Humanity. The other, Rafael Lemkin, escaped to England, where he worked first at the London School of Economics and later in Cambridge. He developed the concept of Genocide (and coined the phrase). It is a subset of Crimes against Humanity in that it is intended to target a specific group of people, racial, religious, ethnic or cultural. These concepts were first used in the Nurnberg trials, where for the first time a supranational legal concept was considered more powerful than the national law.

They helped to convict people like Seyss Inquart for his crimes in The Netherlands and Hans Frank who was directly responsible for the deaths of the families of Lemkin and Lauterpach. No longer should people be able to hide behind national laws to protect themselves from persecution. The power of the sovereign state was no longer absolute.

Professor Sands spoke at length about the tension between the two concepts. “Genocide” is seen as it were as the crime of crimes and gets front-page news, Crimes against Humanity much less so. Yet, there is a drawback to the concept of Genocide. By definition it divides the actors involved into perpetrator groups and victim groups, making the segregation stronger. But since 1945 most of the horrific events have been acts against groups. Primo Levi held that ‘Many people -many nations- can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that “every stranger is an enemy”. Only education and information can counter that. 

Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp.

International law now reigns supreme over national laws, when we care to use it. The Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in Britain on the indictment of a Spanish prosecutor for acts committed in Chile. The country of Myanmar was ordered to act swiftly to protect the Rohingya or face the Security Council. And so today, in the City of Peace and Justice, there is not only the International Court, but the International Criminal Court, and various special tribunals that confront both sovereign states and individuals with laws that are crafted to protect both individuals and special groups. It isn’t perfect, but it is working and growing in power and experience.

Dr. Jurist Alfred Kellermann with other guests.

Later this year Professor Sands hopes to publish the sequel to his successful East-West street.

It was a packed auditorium where the 350 attendants, ambassadors, judges, lawyers and those lucky enough to get registered listened riveted to their chairs by the quality and importance of the speeches. To represent the many Dutch jurists that were killed during the Holocaust, six children lighted candles to six jurists, while their names and a brief c.v. were read.

One can only hope that this event, held this year for the second time, will become a tradition so fitting for this city and the Peace Palace.

Photography by Arnaud Roelofsz.

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