This story was written alongside Epoch Times’ first reports of forced organ harvesting from prisoners on conscience by the Chinese state.
History has set an alarming precedent: Witnesses to atrocities are rarely believed, and even when there is insurmountable evidence of crimes against humanity, states are alarmingly slow to act if they act at all.
The scene has been enacted time and time again. Someone witnesses the development of genocidal policies in a totalitarian state or observes extreme, systematic violence, often backed by the local establishment, that targets a group of people. The witness speaks out, hoping to stop the atrocities. The pleas fall on deaf ears.
In mid-1943, when wartime courier Jan Karski emerged from occupied Poland with detailed eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust, he was met with skepticism. At a meeting with three of the Roosevelt administration’s most influential Jews, Karski told the story that he had risked his life to tell. No less than Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter told him to his face: “I am unable to believe you.”
More than 50 years after Lenin’s establishment of the extensive system of Soviet labor camps known as the Gulag, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote the definitive work on the subject, “The Gulag Archipelago.” His opus stemmed from eight years of his own experience, as well as meticulous notes from the experiences of perhaps hundreds of other inmates. Yet, in the West, his book also met with skepticism and sometimes with outright resistance.
To many, particularly to those living in free societies, such atrocities may be simply unimaginable.
“Indeed, the ideal for a well-functioning democratic state is like the ideal for a gentleman’s well-cut suit—it is not noticed. For the common people of Britain, Gestapo and concentration camps have approximately the same degree of reality as the monster of Loch Ness,” wrote Arthur Koestler, in his 1943 wartime essay, “A Challenge to ‘Knights in Rusty Armor.'”
Propaganda also plays a role. Totalitarian regimes are typically masters of smoke and mirrors, encouraging sympathies towards the tyrants on one side, and attacking their enemies on the other. For instance, “Uncle Joe” Stalin’s smiling face alongside Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta did much to engender a positive feeling towards him in the West, even as evidence of his crimes mounted, and he was posthumously denounced by his successor.
In her Gulag: A History, perhaps second to The Archipelago in its frank treatment of the Gulag system, Anne Applebaum writes of attempts to discredit Solzhenitsyn: “Soviet propaganda was not without its effect. Soviet attempts to cast doubt upon Solzhenitsyn’s writing, for example, to paint him as a madman or an anti-Semite or a drunk, had some impact.”
Finally, it often comes down to this question: Where is the evidence? Circumstantial evidence yields too easily to doubt and propaganda. Eyewitness accounts depend on the credibility of the witnesses, and judgments of these witnesses may be very subjective. However, hard evidence is difficult to obtain.
“The critical thing is to somehow offer the world’s press (and bloggers) pictorial evidence of the atrocities. Not easy,” said Manny Drukier, the author of the autobiographical Holocaust memoir “Carved in Stone” (and also my father-in-law).
Evidence Not Enough
But even when ample evidence of crimes against humanity exists, historical precedent stands firmly against action.
In early 1994, Canadian Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, an officer in charge of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, repeatedly warned that an infrastructure for the systematic killings of Tutsis was being put into place. He started his warnings a full four months before at least half a million Tutsis were methodically slaughtered in a concentrated campaign.
Speaking of a massacre Dallaire personally witnessed, he told his superiors in a coded cable that he “firmly believe[d] that the perpetrators of these evil deeds were well-organized, well-informed, well-motivated and prepared to conduct premeditated murder,” according to a Human Rights Watch report.
Despite his being a witness to the atrocities, Dallaire’s U.N. superiors repeatedly turned down his calls for reinforcements as well as his recommendations for intervention to stop the killings.
Why Haven’t Governments Responded?
“There isn’t any one-size-fits-all kind of answer,” said Dr. Rafael Medoff, Director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which focuses on America’s response to the Holocaust.
“In different situations, various factors and motives have combined to shape the international community’s response—or lack of response—to mass murder or other atrocities. In the case of the Holocaust, President Roosevelt’s main concern was that he might lose votes if he helped Jewish refugees, while the British were chiefly worried about Arab reaction if the Jews were allowed to enter Mandatory Palestine. Some Americans opposed helping the Jews simply because they didn’t like Jews; while for others, it was the fear that if refugees were let in, they would take away jobs.”
According to the Human Rights Watch report on the Rwandan genocide, entitled “Leave None to Tell the Story,” the powers who could have committed themselves to stopping the killing failed to do so because of their self-interest.
“The Americans were interested in saving money; the Belgians were interested in saving face; and the French were interested in saving their ally, the genocidal government,” said Alison Des Forges, key contributor to the over 900-page report, in a press release. “All of that took priority over saving lives.”
Yet there is cause for hope. History does have examples where the “key players” have managed to make a move and save lives even if the help came sorely late.
Just fifteen months prior to the end of World War II, despite strong opposition from many self-interested parties, a group of activists led by Peter Bergson successfully lobbied the U.S. government to establish the War Refugee Board to offer asylum to those Jews who could still be saved. According to Medoff, the Board helped save more than 200,000 refugees from certain death. It was a small number compared to the total number of those murdered by the Nazi regime, but it was still 200,000 who survived due to concerted efforts.
With the right will, action can be taken, and lives can be saved.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Epoch Times.