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International Law

Poles Saving Jews in Bangkok: History Lesson for Humanity

Rattana Lao

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Polish, Israeli and Thai diplomats, academics and students gathered together to listen and learn about the courage of Polish people saving the Jews during the Second World War.

Chulalongkorn University hosted “The Good Samaritans of Markowa” exhibition to honor the innocent and brave Polish families in Markowa who risked their lives saving the Jews from Nazi extermination. The event took place in Bangkok to celebrate the 40th year of lasting friendship between Poland and Thailand.

During the course of World War II, more than 50,000 Jews were saved by Polish people. Each Jewish survivor needed to change their shelter at least 7 times and required as many as 10 people to be involved in the process.

Irena Sandler, a Polish nurse, was one of the brave Poles who saved at least 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto. At the end of the War, 6,600 Polish people were awarded with the Israeli Righteous Amongst the Nation. However, not every brave Pole survived Nazi capture. Approximately, 1,000 to 2,000 Poles were executed as punishment to save the Jews.  

The brutality of War took away more than 6 millions Jewish lives and has inflicted deep wounds to those who have survived. The Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II in Markowa is one of the Museums established to offer a place of solace and for those who are left behind to come to term with this atrocity.

Understanding the complexity of the Holocaust has far reaching ramification not only to those directly affected, but also to students and public who live world apart and far removed from it.

Why?

Firstly, learning about the Holocaust from multiple perspectives allows human race to come to term with painful history with greater compassion. Learning about war and its awful aggression should not and must not instill hatred, but rather to promote greater understanding across nations, races and religions.

Secondly, through better understanding, it is hoped that we can prevent such crime against humanity to ever take place. His Excellency Mr. Zenon Kuchciak, the Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to Thailand, added to this: “These memories oblige us to act against the policies of religious hatred and racial prejudice.”

Religious hatred and racial prejudice are not problems of the past. They are still here and now. There are still many leaders and extremists who preach war and call for racial discrimination.

Professor Jolanta Zyndul, expert from the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, however, reminded that one should not study the Holocaust as a singular event in history. Something that happened once and won’t be repeated. Rather, it should be read and learned in relations with other genocide such as Khmer Rouge, Darfur and Rwanda.

“While we should not downplay the unique characteristic of the Holocaust, students must learn that massive killing has happened in so many places around the world and they are closer to us than we realize,” Professor Zyndul added.

This strongly invites us to revisit and reaffirm often disregarded truths of the WWII, like those in words of prof. Anis Bajrektarevic: “while Jews where the preferred non-territorial target of Hitler’s Nazi policy, Slavic states of the East/Southeast were the prime territorial target. As many as 36 million nationals (mostly civilians) of the Europe’s Slavic states such as SSSR, Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, (including their Jewish minority) have been killed by Germans and their servant fascists. Comparing it with the casualties of the Atlantic Europe at around 1 million, gives us a stunning proportion: 36 to 1 !!”

Despite all its might, forces of darkness were defeated and peace gradually prevailed.

The story of Poles – Nazi victims themselves, saving its Jewish minority empowers us all with the sense of courage and power of human sensitivity. Through the act of kindness toward fellow human being, change, a significant one, can take place even at time of aggression, suppression and extermination.

The Polish families in Markowa shed the beaming light of hope in time of darkness, the symbol of life at time of despair. Stories of these bravery and courageous ordinary people remind us that that there is hope for humanity even in the middle of war, World War.

Talking about Poles Saving Jews and Hitler’s atrocity during World War II in Bangkok has a context specific significance at a whole new level; educationally and diplomatically.

Not so long ago, there were public debacle about Thailand’s ignorance on the history of the Holocaust. A group of Thai students used the image of Hitler to signify heroism, while the Thai military government propaganda of 12 core values used Nazi symbol as a representation of democracy.

While the military’s ignorance is unacceptable and unexplainable, students’ mistake was perhaps the product of Thailand’s infamous educational system that promotes rote learning, enforces obedient and offers single-minded cum nationalistic learning of history. The textbooks tell what the powerful and authority wants students to read, and classroom pedagogy is top-down, lecture intensive and exam-driven. There is very little space for students to engage in any topic critically and creatively.

Anna Lawattanatrakul, a student from Faculty of Arts at Chulalongkorn, reflected on her educational experience in Thai school. “I was taught about the history of the Second World War simplistically, with an emphasis on memorization than understanding, and frankly I do not think it is enough.”

It is not enough.

Changing Thai educational system will take a long time and changing public attitude will take even longer. But that does not mean we should not try. In fact, it is the role of university to be the wind of change.

Dr. Verita Sriratana, Head of Central and Eastern European Studies Section, Chulalongkorn University, succinctly encapsulated this “the goal of an educational institution is to create a platform where knowledge, and in this case, the history of the Holocaust to be discussed from as many as different perspectives as possible.”

Historical sensitivity with cultural awareness is lacking in Thailand. This dialogue serves to fill that gap. It is a small step toward the larger goal of educating Thai students and public to break away from the small box of ignorance and understand the complexity of the world outside Thailand.

All of these won’t happen over night but it has to begin somewhere.

The first step for Thai students is to get the facts right.

Hitler is not a Hero and the Nazi is not a symbol of democracy.

Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and writes on education and development. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand.

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International Law

Defying the Herd: “Personhood,” War and the Triumph of Peace

Prof. Louis René Beres

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Art, we may learn from Picasso, is “the lie that lets us see the truth.” In this connection, Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti’s iconic sculpture, Man Pointing, appears to indict an entire world. Skeletal and (at least by inference) tormented, it casts a prophetic “last judgment” upon our determinedly self-dooming species. Willfully self-destructive, humanity continues to murder almost routinely, en masse and, in essence, to fully scandalize its own creation.

Usually without any hesitation.

There is more. For millennia, of course, the lead engine of human destructiveness has been war. Reciprocally, this unending “tribal” conflict has expressed myriad spasms of individualhuman needs. Though generally inconspicuous in launching such expressions, the personal and political have always been both darkly overlapping and deeply inter-penetrating.

Always, though not readily apparent, insistent human needs emerge as the principal driving force of all world politics. More than anything else, sometimes even more than the “normally” overriding drive to avoid death, human beings need to belong. This particular need can be manifested quite harmlessly, as at any large sporting event or rock concert, or perniciously, as in predictably recurrent eruptions of war and terrorism.

Still, one underlying dynamic of belonging never varies. This one is always the same. From the start, each individual human has carried forward, in his or her own memory, a bygone collective moment. This is an indelible marker of “membership” that, even over time, has lost none of its hideously virulent satisfactions.

This is a difficult concept to decipher and apprehend. Widely overlooked, its core source of comfort is an allegedly sacred complicity, that is, a tacit sharing with some and against “others,” a collaboration which sanctifies the original forfeiture of self and then inaugurates a grotesque and now all-too-familiar metamorphosis. When, at long last, the bitter transformation is more-or-less complete – when certain lethal differentiations based on “us” versus “them” have become de rigueur – entire civilizations could come to understand Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard’s utterly primal scream: “The crowd is untruth.”

There is more. In part, at least, Giacometti’s Man Pointing may represent a statuary expression of human isolation, of alienation, of “aloneness.” Already recounted for us long ago by Homer and Aristotle, each individual person ordinarily feels empty and insignificant apart from some recognizable membership in the crowd. Sometimes, that sustaining crowd is the State. Sometimes it is the Tribe. Sometimes it is the Faith (always, of course, the “one true faith”). Sometimes, it is even the “liberation” or “revolutionary” movement. 

Whatever the particular aggrandizing group of the moment, it is always the persistent craving for membership that threatens to bring forth a catastrophic downfall of individual responsibility. The calamitous result, as we have witnessed so often from time immemorial, is a convulsive and plausibly irreversible triumph of collective will. As a modern example of what can ultimately happen, the most alarming is plainly Nazi Germany. Hitler’s own personal filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, even named her classic work about the 1934 Nuremberg party congress accordingly (The Triumph of the Will).  

“Reading” between the lines of Giacometti’s emaciated figure, a practical conclusion should quickly present itself. Unless we humans can finally learn how to temper our overwhelming desire to be members, to belong, all currently prevailing military and diplomatic schemes to deal with war and terrorism will immediately or eventually fail. Without more expressly protean human transformations, these assorted and generally well-intentioned schemes for a balance of power, collective security (United Nations) or collective defense (alliances such as NATO), will remain effectively beside the point. Them expressed in more properly social scientific terms, these ineffectual schemes will remain “epiphenomenal.”

There is still more. The categorical obligation to read must go beyond any pertinent metaphoric allusions to art. This obligation must represent a distinctly literal imperative.

To wit, to finally succeed in its planetary search for peace, humankind would especially benefit from understanding Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Emerson, Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Ionesco, and Beckett. There, as a philosophic start, one could learn how to frame human-scale strategies and imperatives for defying the “crowd.” To survive and to prosper, Freud had noted, every civilization will need to harness Eros, that is, to help unite each single human life with all others.

Alternatively, as Freud had already understood, individuals, in the name of some sort of ritualized herd loyalty, will continue to flee their own inwardness. They will flee “normally,” in expectation of a desperately needed liberation from “repression.” Facing even a conclusive death of self, these terror-struck individuals will still refuse to be resuscitated.

Then, at last, perhaps stubbornly, they will have succumbed altogether to the crowd-created dizziness of the irremediable.

Conspicuously, Nietzsche had longed for a world “beyond Good and Evil.” Freud, who preferred the term “primal horde” to Nietzsche’s “herd” or Kierkegaard’s “crowd,” sought dispassionately to identify a world in which this longed-for transcendence might already have applied. Unsurprisingly, his discovery turned out to be our very own extant world, one wherein Eros remains unable to play its indispensable world-unifying role. Instead, it merely reinforces baneful or narcissistic identifications with each individual’s particular herd of choice.

For easily determinable reasons, the evening news is always about “disease” manifestations, but never about any authentically underlying pathologies. Our most pressing dangers of war and terrorism continue to stem from the combining of more-or-less susceptible individuals into various crowd-centered herds. Not every herd is violent, of course, but war and terrorism can never take place in the absence of herds.

This is a point well worth keeping in mind.

Whenever individuals crowd together and form a herd, the latently destructive dynamics of the mob may sometime be released. These dynamics lower each person’s moral and intellectual level to a point where even mass killing may become acceptable or welcome.

Genocide, it follows,must now “join” both war and terrorism as a potential consequence of these myriad collective identifications.

This brings us back to current events, to symptoms, to “epiphenomena.” At their core, most ongoing conflicts across the world – e.g., Syria; Egypt; Afghanistan; Pakistan; India; Sudan; Nigeria; Kenya; etc. – represent just another expression of endlessly fragmenting struggles between warring herds. Often, though the various tribal contenders would have us believe that “God’s will” is the gold standard of all their policy decisions, the de facto end to their blind fury is anything but divine.

In the end, Giacometti’s Man Pointing may be taken as an imaginative signpost of what is most deeply causal in spawning war and shaping peace. This is a consciously far-reaching detachment of individual human meaning from membership in certain herds, and a corresponding awareness that war has already decimated the herds of centuries. Whether such detachment and awareness are still within our remediating grasp is uncertain. What can be said with certainty, however, is the following:

 A triumph of peace can never be achieved at just the “symptomatic” level of international relations, but only at the more starkly underlying level of individual human beings.

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International Law

Why legal principles on war and environment matter

MD Staff

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Oh, the army tried some fancy stuff to bring them to their knees.
Like Agent Orange defoliants, to kill the brush and trees.
We’d hike all day on jungle trails through clouds of poison spray.
And they never told me then, that it would hurt my health today.
(Agent Orange Song—Country Joe McDonald)

Many of us remember shocking images of environmental destruction from conflicts across the globe; from the spraying of the poisonous chemical Agent Orange over the forests in Viet Nam in the 1970s, to the burning oil wells in Kuwait in the 1990s.

Sadly, Viet Nam and Kuwait were not isolated cases. Armed conflicts around the world, and their aftermath, continue to impact the health and well-being of people and the environment through pollution, infrastructure damage and the collapse of governance. The use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict as well as the burning of oil fields by the Dae’sh terrorist group are poignant recent examples.

Since 1999, the United Nations Environment Programme has conducted over twenty post-conflict assessments, using state-of-the-art science to determine the environmental impacts of war. From Afghanistan to Kosovo to the Gaza Strip and Sudan—armed conflict causes significant harm to the environment and the communities that depend on natural resources.

In 2009, UN Environment and the Environmental Law Institute co-authored a seminal report, Protecting the Environment During Armed Conflict : An Inventory and Analysis of International Law, which identified gaps and weaknesses in international laws that protect the environment during war and armed conflict.  

Among the report’s recommendations was for the United Nations International Law Commission to “examine the existing international law for protecting the environment during armed conflict and recommend how it can be clarified, codified and expanded”.

Partly as a result of UN Environment’s request to address the topic, the Commission decided to include the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts in its programme of work and appointed Marie G. Jacobsson as its Special Rapporteur in 2013. In 2017, following three reports by Jacobsson on the protection of the environment before, during and after armed conflicts, Marja Lehto was appointed as Special Rapporteur for environmental protection.

“One of the defining features of the International Law Commission’s work on protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts is that the topic is not limited to situations of armed conflict but covers the whole conflict cycle, clarifying the international law applicable to the protection of the environment before, during and after armed conflicts. This broad frame has allowed the Commission to take a fresh look at the different environmental concerns and challenges that arise in relation to armed conflicts addressing, for instance, sharing and granting access to environmental information and environmental effects of human displacement. The Commission’s work has greatly benefitted from the increased understanding of the environmental impact of armed conflicts, based, inter alia, on the post-conflict environmental assessments conducted since the 1990s by the UN Environment Programme, the World Bank and others,” says Special Rapporteur Marja Lehto.

UN Environment, the Environmental Law Institute and others have supported the Commission throughout its work, and particularly the Special Rapporteurs, by providing publications, legal analyses, and case studies. They also organized a series of workshops and reached out to colleagues in governments, academia, civil society, and other international organizations to expand the information and analysis available to the Special Rapporteur. 

A resolution on the protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflicts agreed by consensus by all Member States at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) in May 2016 encouraged UN Environment to continue supporting the work of the International Law Commission on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts, and was an important signal of the commitment of Member States to tackle the issue.

Then Special Rapporteur Marie Jacobsson noted that this resolution was not only “a positive signal in itself, but it will also establish synergies for the future between the ongoing work of UN Environment, the International Law Commission, as well as the important work undertaken by the International Committee of the Red Cross on this topic”.

On 8 July 2019 the International Law Commission adopted 28 draft legal principles on first reading to enhance protection of the environment before, during and after armed conflicts.

“The draft principles are the biggest step forward in legal protection for the environment in conflicts since the 1970s and are long overdue. But they will only be effective in reducing harm to people and ecosystems if they are properly implemented. Governments, international organizations, experts and civil society will all have a role to play in making that happen,” says Doug Weir, Director at the Conflict and Environment Observatory.

The principles touch on various aspect of the conflict lifecycle and, among other things, address the designation of significant environmental and cultural areas as protected zones, the protection of the environment of indigenous people and prevention and mitigation of environmental degradation in areas where persons displaced by armed conflict are located.

“The principles cover both damage to the environment and natural resources. This is important, as initial discussions and framing focused largely on environmental damage and did not adequately address natural resources misuse, including the use of conflict resources to finance armed conflict, which tends to be more widespread. Another important aspect of the principles is that they address both international and non-international conflicts,” says Carl Bruch, Director, International Programs, Environmental Law Institute.

While the principles provide a critical overarching framework and represent a major milestone in ensuring environmental protection in relation to armed conflicts, they constitute the first step. There is still work to be done, for example to address the targeting of water infrastructure such as waterpipes and hydroelectric dams or to integrate environmental considerations in military manuals—a critical means for states to operationalize their obligations. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent guidelines for military manuals and instructions on the protection of the environment in times of armed conflict, which are currently being revised, offer an important complementary vehicle in the process to support military manuals.

“Protecting the environment before, during and after armed conflict must rise to the same level of political importance as protecting human rights. A healthy environment is the foundation upon which ​peace and many human rights are realized,” says David Jensen, UN Environment’s Head of Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding.

The challenge ahead is ensuring that the principles are implemented and operationalized. This will require substantial work and partnerships among all stakeholders, including through incorporating the draft principles into military training manuals and supporting outreach to international and domestic courts to support enforcement efforts.

UN Environment

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International Law

Geneva Conventions mark 70 years of ‘limiting brutality’ during war

Newsroom

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Seventeen UN Member States met in November 1947 to sign protocols to amend the Geneva Conventions of 1921, 1923, and 1933. UN Photo

In commemorating the 70th anniversary of the landmark Geneva Conventions, the president of the United Nations Security Council hailed the “significant body of law”, describing it as playing “a vital role in limiting brutality of armed conflicts”.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the treaty, comprised of four Conventions and three Additional Protocols, established the modern, international legal standards for humanitarian treatment during times of war. They were agreed on 12 August 1949, and with some exceptions, ratified by 196 countries around the world.

“As they are ratified and acceded by almost every State of the world, the principles and legal norms enshrined in these Conventions are also recognized as customary international humanitarian law [IHL] and are universally applicable”, said Poland’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, speaking for his nation which holds the Presidency of the Council for August. “This is a rare quality for any multilateral treaty”.

Among other things, the Conventions established protections for vulnerable groups in armed conflict, namely the wounded and sick; prisoners of war; and civilians, including civilians living under occupation. 

Because Poland has been “painfully affected by consequences of other States’ failures to comply with international agreements” and in conjunction with its “sense of responsibility” to maintain international peace and security, Mr. Czaputowicz said that strengthening international law has always been important to his country.

“The greatest challenge to protecting human life in modem conflict is observance of and respect for the existing rules by the armed forces and non-State armed groups”, he asserted. “If existing rules were followed, much of the human suffering in contemporary armed conflicts would not occur”.

Poland’s top diplomat also pointed to new threats that demand practices and policy consistent with international humanitarian law.

“Artificial intelligence and autonomous weapon systems, such as military robots and cyber-weapons, reduce the role and control of human factors during wartime”, he continued. Moreover, the general rules of IHL prohibiting indiscriminate and inhumane weapons, “are being violated”.

Two IHL principles under the Geneva Conventions that deserve particular attention, according to Mr. Czaputowicz, are “the obligation to protect civilians, prisoners of war, the wounded and shipwrecked” as well as “limitations to the rights of parties to an armed conflict on how they conduct operations and on their choice of weapons”.

The increasing role of non-State actors and IHL legal loopholes are “the new reality of modem conflict”, he spelled out, bemoaning that they hinder international humanitarian law “in many ways”.

“International humanitarian principles are under pressure” and “the complexity of new challenges impedes the process of classification of conflict situations and makes it difficult to determine the exact rules that may be applied”, he elaborated.

‘Historic moment for humanity’

According to UN Legal Counsel Miguel de Serpa Soares, the four Conventions are “at the core” of IHL.

Noting that the first three conventions “were by no means completely novel at the time”, he singled out the Fourth Convention as being “the first treaty that was specifically dedicated to the protection of civilian persons in time of war”.

Mr. Soares also drew attention to Article 3, the provision on basic rules governing the humane treatment of people not involved in hostilities, including soldiers who have laid down their arms, those wounded or in detention, as well as civilians.

Calling the inclusion of Article 3 “a historic moment for humanity”, he said it was the first instance in which non-international armed conflicts were regulated by a multilateral treaty. The significance is augmented by the fact that the Geneva Conventions are now universally adhered to.

Conventions show ‘what is possible’

For his part, Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), maintained that the Geneva Conventions represent “one of the greatest achievements of inter-State cooperation” and “symbolize our enduring and common humanity”.

“The Conventions show us what is possible when States take collective and individual action to uphold the law and humanitarian principles”, he said.

Noting that “every single day” international humanitarian law is at work saving lives and protecting women, men and children in conflicts, he highlighted that while “we rightly hear about the violations because the consequences are tragic and visible”, we must also “recognize the protective power and positive impacts when IHL is respected”.

The ICRC chief painted a picture of IHL in action, when the wounded and sick are evacuated to safety; the detained are treated with dignity; the fate of missing people is clarified; and humanitarian assistance is delivered across lines.

“The impacts of IHL are also shown through acts of restraint, when horrors are not inflicted – civilian areas are spared from direct shelling, medical workers are able to freely operate without threat or targeting”, he added.

Continued violations do not mean the law is inadequate, but rather that efforts to ensure respect are inadequate, he flagged, urging “we can – and must – do more”.

The world must not forget that “the Geneva Conventions represent a line of our common humanity, and they shield us from our own barbarity”, underscored Mr. Maurer.

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