Denial, And What It Tells Us About Today’s Human Rights Battles

 

On Saturday evening, I went to see the new film Denial, the true story of Holocaust denier David Irving and his defeat in a libel case that he himself brought against Holocaust researcher Deborah Lipstadt. It is a powerful, challenging and ultimately inspiring film, with superb performances by Rachel Weisz (playing Lipstadt), Timothy Spall (Irving) and Tom Wilkinson, who plays the brilliant barrister Richard Rampton, QC. It is a film which anyone with a conscience should watch.

 

The Holocaust was a uniquely horrific tragedy and one must be sensitive to respecting that. Comparisons with other crimes against humanity should be made with caution. Yet watching Denial made me so conscious of some parallels between what Lipstadt fought for, and my own work addressing contemporary human rights issues, including mass atrocities and crimes against humanity.

 

The evening before seeing Denial, I sat up late reading the United Nation’s harrowing and horrifying new report on the plight of the Rohingyas in Burma. It describes mass gang-rape, killings - including of babies and young children, brutal beatings, disappearances and other grave human rights violations by Burma’s military in northern Rakhine State, against ordinary civilians. An eight-month old baby was killed while his mother was gang-raped. A man slit a five year-old girl’s throat as she tried to protect her mother from rape.

 

As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said, “the devastating cruelty to which these children have been subjected is unbearable. What kind of hatred could make a man stab a baby crying out for his mother’s milk? And for the mother to witness this murder while she is being gang-raped by the very security forces who should be protecting her - what kind of ‘clearance operation’ is this? What national security goals could possibly be served by this? ... The killing of people as they prayed, fished to feed their families, the brutal beating of children as young as two and an elderly woman aged 80 - the perpetrators of these violations, and those who ordered them, must be held accountable”.

 

Just before the New Year, 23 international figures, including 11 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates and several former prime ministers, warned that the situation “has all the hallmarks of recent past tragedies - Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, Kosovo.” They called for an independent United Nations inquiry to establish the truth. Last month, Members of Parliament made the same call. The report released on Friday is a welcome step forward and might pave the way for a full Commission of Inquiry, or perhaps an investigation by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, to ensure that, as the UN High Commissioner put it, “victims have access to justice, reparations and safety.”

 

On Friday, and earlier in the week as well, I met with North Korean refugees who had escaped from the world’s most brutal regime, a dictatorship by a ruling dynasty that crushes anyone who refuses to worship them as a deity. Three years ago, a Commission of Inquiry established by the UN published a report which concluded that “the gravity, scale and nature” of the human rights violations in North Korea “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”. A catalogue of crimes against humanity, including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions”, as well as severe religious persecution, enforced disappearances, and starvation, should lead, the inquiry recommended, to a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Commission of Inquiry’s chair, Australian judge Michael Kirby, said that the evidence he heard “was very similar to the testimony one sees on visiting a Holocaust Museum by those who were the victims of Nazi oppression in the last century”.

 

I had campaigned for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea for several years, and helped found a global movement, the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), to do so.

 

And earlier in the week I was working on trying to raise awareness about a devastating 798-page report on forced organ harvesting. Titled Bloody Harvest/The Slaughter: An Update and written by former Canadian Member of Parliament and government minister David Kilgour, human rights lawyer David Matas and American journalist Ethan Gutmann. The report provides a detailed argument, on the basis of forensic research into the public records of 712 hospitals in China carrying out liver and kidney transplants, that the scale of organ harvesting is far bigger than previously imagined - and that it is continuing, despite China’s promises to the contrary. All three have previously published reports on the topic, but they now conclude that between 60,000 to 100,000 organs are transplanted each year in Chinese hospitals. The numbers and the extraordinarily short waiting times for transplant patients suggest that prisoners of conscience, primarily practitioners of the Buddha-school spiritual belief known as Falun Gong but also Uyghur Muslims, Tibetans, and possibly house church Christians, may be the primary victims. They find that one hospital alone, the Oriental Organ Transplant Center at the Tianjin First Center Hospital, is potentially doing more than 5,000 transplants a year. “The end of this crime against humanity is not in sight,” the authors claim. “The ultimate conclusion is that the Communist Party of China has engaged the State in the mass killings of innocents ... in order to obtain organs for transplants.” While China officially claims 10,000 organ transplants a year, the authors argue that this is “easily surpassed by just a few hospitals.”

 

China’s forced organ harvesting has been the subject of hearings in the US Congress, the European Parliament and a debate in the House of Commons, as well as a report by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. Two documentaries, Hard to Believe and Human Harvest, and a dramatization in the form of the film The Bleeding Edge, starring Miss World Canada, Chinese-born Canadian actress Anastasia Lin, have helped bring this atrocity to the world’s attention. There are increasing calls for an international inquiry, potentially under the auspices of the UN.

 

Denial, rather like other films focused on campaigns for justice and freedom such as the story of William Wilberforce’s struggle to end the slave trade told in Amazing Grace, combines many of the themes I encounter in my daily advocacy.

 

Firstly, in all of the examples above, I face those with a form of ‘denial’ - both the regimes in Burma, China and North Korea of course, but also in the international community. Among policy-makers in denial they are not usually of the racist David Irving variety, but more of the ‘realpolitik’, ‘not politically convenient’ variety. Or, if they don’t deny the abuses are happening, they find reasons why they can’t, or won’t act.

 

This leads therefore to the second theme - the hunt for evidence. All my advocacy is grounded in well-researched first-hand evidence, my own or that conducted by reliable colleagues and sources. The scene in Denial when Rampton and Lipstadt travel to Auschwitz resonated with me as I recalled the times I have walked through burned out villages in Burma, met with refugees and displaced people, heard first-hand testimonies of torture, rape and killing. The power of first-hand evidence is vital in countering the deniers.

 

Thirdly, the importance of strategy. One has to think not only of what is the right thing to do, but also what is the most effective thing to do. Denial shows Lipstadt’s legal team adopting tactics with which she, initially, disagreed but were designed to work. Knowing your enemy and how they operate is essential. Like her legal team, human rights advocacy cannot be governed purely by one’s emotional desire to do something, to follow one’s conscience, powerful though that is. We always need to think: what will work?

 

Although Lipstadt’s lawyers deliberately chose to deny the victims of the Holocaust the opportunity to testify, whereas my work relies on victim testimony, in common is the desire to protect victims. Rampton and the solicitor, Anthony Julius, ruled out putting victims on the witness stand because they knew how Irving would treat them and wanted to protect them from that indignity. Similarly, although my work involves giving voice to the victims, we always protect their identity unless they themselves wish to go public. We sometimes provide platforms for them to tell their story, but would always try to protect them from being subjected to insulting and traumatic questioning of the kind Irving would have loved to have unleashed.

 

Lastly, the importance of teamwork. Lipstadt makes a point of this in her remarks at her press conference at the end of the film. The combination of Rampton’s brilliant performances in court and his immersion in preparing the case thoroughly, along with Julius’ preparation of the brief and the contribution of researchers, together with Lipstadt’s own historical research and fundraising efforts, and the contribution of experts such as historian Richard Evans, made Irving’s opponents a winning team.

 

The same is true of the campaign to end the slave trade, told in Amazing Grace. Wilberforce could not have succeeded in Parliament without the grassroots campaigning, involving petitions and boycotts and townhall meetings organised by Thomas Clarkson, the testimony of Olaudah Equiano, the encouragement of John Newton and the participation of many others.

 

That is all true in my work too. I could not do my job if I didn’t have colleagues conducting research, coalitions pooling their influence, Parliamentarians, journalists and lawyers willing to help, and supporters who sign petitions, write letters, donate funds and pray. And we have our very own Richard Rampton in the form of Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the barrister who prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic and who so generously supports our efforts on North Korea and Burma.

 

Denial was an inspiration and a challenge to me on many levels. It is a reminder that when we step up and fight injustice, instead of taking the more comfortable option of ‘settling’, then as long as we are willing to work hard, conduct painstaking research, develop careful strategy and build a strong team, we can indeed win.