There’s a kind of ethical trap in writing on human rights and forced migration. On the one hand, one feels compelled to define events in the starkest terms, identifying the most appalling cases to present in galvanizing prose with a clear call to action. On the other hand, it never takes much investigation to understand that many human rights issues are morally fraught and such sharp language obfuscates the most important details. (Darfur may not have been a genocide?) Yet, perhaps even more challenging for the writer are the cases that do present clear victims and clear perpetrators—it’s these cases (like HRI’s VAWA and asylum cases), where the survivors are universally working to move beyond the instigating crime and violence, that it feels plain wrong to then lift that person up as a cause célèbre. And so the moral compulsion to write about and remember human rights abuses for the sake of the public good (never again!) runs aground in consideration of the victims themselves.
While traveling in East Africa, I came across a story, shared by a journalist friend, about a prominent foreign correspondent who often writes morally charged stories on conflicts in developing countries. The story itself may well be apocryphal, but as with all such stories, hits at a truth. The story goes that he arrives at an IDP camp and immediately starts telling people: “I’m looking for a woman whose family was killed, who was injured, and who was raped multiple times.” The people in the IDP camp start asking around and eventually bring him a woman, but he quickly turns her away because she was only raped once and her family is still with her. They find another woman, but again he turns her away for similar reasons. This absurd parade continues until the leadership at the IDP camp are sufficiently offended and they direct him out of the camp to a village still within the conflict zone: “we’re sure you’ll find your victim there.” He does, of course, and is celebrated for bringing these horrors to the attention of the West.
Yet it is incumbent upon us to write about human rights. Perpetrators of human rights abuses depend upon the obscurity of their victims. They need them to be forgotten—not just historically but even in the midst of the crimes themselves. I’m reminded of a guy during world war II, a monstrous Nazi bureaucrat really, who was in charge of the shipping routes and timetables between the ghettoes and the concentration camps. His name was Eichmann, and he was made most famous through Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann In Jerusalem. But there was one peculiar aspect about his job that’s especially disturbing—all the train routes took little detours out of Germany and then back in. Just a quick little loop across the border. Why? Because the Nazis had passed a law in 1941 that all German Jews that left Germany would lose their citizenship, and for the Nazis this was important. They didn’t want things like citizenship with all its incumbent rights and access to courts to trouble the Holocaust.
And so they went through this horrifying formality (and really it’s these formalities the Nazis went through that leave one breathless for words in the face of the scale and cost of the Holocaust) to erase people from the citizenship books, and make sure that no one had legal standing to defend the “deported” Jews in court. In the end, this relatively simple act of erasure and exclusion did not protect Eichmann himself from the courts. Quite the opposite, it spurred a number of changes in international law (including the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees) to assure that there would always be a court, somewhere, that could offer protection and pursue crimes against humanity. But it’s also a detail that we’ve forgotten when reciting the statistics about the Holocaust, even though understanding the historical and legal context of asylum protections is a lesson that may be instructive to our own difficult questions about immigration in our communities today.
Writing about human rights is not about recording events as they are, it’s about translating and connecting private injustice to larger questions of public justice. I find myself drawn to the instances where the call to action doesn’t come out so neatly, the complicating details drop away in the midst of moral outrage, and the act of remembering itself is morally fraught. I’ve signed up to write a few more guest blog posts for HRI over the next couple of months. In each I’ll be focusing on the moral ambiguity in contemporary human rights issues.
The opinions expressed in this piece are those of Mr. Banta and do not represent the opinions of Human Rights Initiative or any of their employees.