28 April 2021 – Mukesh Kapila
The Twittersphere is full of commentary on the Tigray region in Ethiopia as war crimes and crimes against humanity continue to mount. Independent validated reports of mass rapes, starvation, destruction of homes and livelihoods, and displacement of communities, provide agonising detail. Some international bodies express concern. Others appoint special envoys to conduct intense diplomacy and make slightly stronger statements demanding that perpetrators cease-and-desist.
In contrast, other institutions and people are noticeably reticent. Perhaps they don’t know what to say or perhaps they are anxious about putting their head above the parapet in case their careers or contracts are cut.
Meanwhile, apart from the usual trolls, the commonest social media comments are around desperate pleas for lifesaving help and protection under hashtags such as #TigrayCantWait. Those who are suffering or witnessing what is happening on the ground, and those in the diaspora whose relatives and friends have been murdered, raped, or disappeared, are baffled why such statements are not accompanied by urgent action. Their questions are: What is the point of speaking up? Does it make a difference? Why bother?
Yes, it is worth speaking up for several crucial reasons.
First, to respect the affected – those who have perished, those who are intensely traumatised, and those who are desperate, afraid, hungry, sick, homeless, and separated from their loved ones. By speaking out, we acknowledge their pain and suffering, and register our opinion that what is happening is wrong, wrong, …and wrong. By doing that we bring consolation even if we can’t reverse their loss. We bring comfort even if we can’t relieve their suffering. We bring company even if they feel forgotten. We bring hope even if they feel hopeless. We bring courage even if they feel weak.
I learnt this personally from a woman in the Blue Nile State of Sudan who suffered terribly under the genocidal regime of former President Omar al-Bashir who had already ethnically-cleansed Darfur. During our conversation, she beckoned my cameraman to come closer. “Look at me. Speak for me as I can’t. Show my face and tell the world. I am born and humiliated here, starved and raped here, and burnt out of my home here. I will try not to die here but my greater worry is that no one will know what happened to me here”.
I understood that speaking up is important because it is a vital ingredient for building the resilience of affected people – and especially the poorest and most vulnerable whose coping capacities are most stretched. They are the vital defence in the thwarting of genocidal projects which must never be allowed to succeed. We know that this strategy works because, in countless places, survivors have resisted attempts to eliminate them and eventually bounded back. Although, along the way, a huge cost has had to be paid by the millions who perished – that is still not the same as a completed genocide.
Second, speaking up means that evil deeds that flourish best under the cover of silence become a little more difficult to get away with. By trying to expose such crimes through words and images via all the many forums that interconnect us, we reduce the spaces where perpetrators can hide. That squeezes their impunity. Such a strategy also works because, in recent years, more and more high-ranking war criminals have been pursued, and several brought to book in international courts, even if late. Every time that accountability is pinned and justice comes home, it moves us an inch forward in what is a relentless and lengthy struggle for a better, fairer world.
I learnt this from personal interviews with some of the perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda – like a former military officer and an ex-announcer on Radio-television Libre des Mille Collines– who were caught years later. They were captured because of words. Both their own original hate language and the counter words of their courageous opponents had pursued them until there was nowhere left to hide.
Third, speaking up raises the cost of doing evil business for the architects and captains of conspiracies to commit crimes against humanity, especially if they are authoritarian leaders with an image to curate. By using evidence-backed words to prick the bubble of lies within which they shelter, it forces the organisers of malevolent enterprises towards ever more ludicrous excuses for their unjustifiable acts. This eventually loses them credibility, even among their most diehard supporters, and hastens the collapse of the whole house of cards. That is why despots fear the pen more than the sword. We know that this strategy of words is effective when measured by the increasingly desperate efforts of totalitarian regimes to block the internet or censor the media.
I learnt about this power of words though practice when trying to outwit the maniacal leaders of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front who hid behind child soldiers and specialised in offering “short sleeves” or “long sleeves” to the civilian population under their control i.e. the graded amputations with which they penalised those who would not co-operate with them. Words – accompanied by suitable music in this case – over chat Radio Kiss FM had a destabilising effect where it was most needed – deep in the bush.
Fourth, speaking up in one setting helps to raise the barrier a bit for the commissioning and conduct of abuses elsewhere. That is because we live in an inter-connected world where people instinctively know that a crime against humanity in one place is a crime against all humanity everywhere. So, voicing objection is important because such crimes spread, especially when neighbouring countries get affected by the export of violence and refugees. This always happens, sooner or later. Neighbouring perps are then quick to learn bad behaviours from each other and even team-up to share tactics, tools and tricks.
Speaking up is, therefore, like a vaccine to prevent the spread of a serious infectious condition, and an investment in the prevention of future crimes against humanity. Obviously, this is a long term effort that requires booster doses by reiterated statements, especially when immunity is compromised by flagging interest and reduced vigilance.
We are learning if this can work in several current situations, for example, with Myanmar’s Rohingya people whose plight is now being recognised, even if reluctantly, by other marginalised groups in the periphery of the militarised nation. Words may help here if these peoples who have been divided deliberately by bad leaders, realise that they are in the same sinking boat. But with regard to another situation – the Uyghurs in China – many words have been exchanged but to little effect so far. However, there is no justification to give up: the final word has not been spoken yet.
There is a further point that I have learnt from experience. This is not about the words uttered but about who speaks and the pedestal from which they are spoken. The higher that is, the greater their impact. And that is why those who are privileged to occupy a higher pedestal have a greater responsibility to speak up. If they don’t, they betray the trust of those with no voice.
Unfortunately, that is the current case on Tigray where holders of high international office such as the UN secretary-general and leaders of the African Union have been remarkably mealy-mouthed. And we know that silence or ambivalence destroy as much as bombs and bullets. Under these circumstances, it is all the more important for others who have a pedestal – however modest – or even those with none, to raise their voice. Clearly and loudly to wake-up even the dead.