Racism, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity: Assessing the Genocide Convention After 60 Years with Dominique Sopo

Dominique Sopo, human rights activist and President of ‘SOS Racisme,’ addresses the 1st Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Dominique Sopo: After these two presentations I would like to say that when you fight against racism – of course SOS Racisme in France is an organization to fight against racism anti-Semitism and discrimination – it’s not something we do for glory. It’s simply because racism is not just unpleasant to hear but racism leads to consequences which can be apocalyptic. If in a society you allow the seeds of racism to grow you have no idea how far it can go. In fact, we do know in some cases how far it can go; it can lead all the way to extermination. I saw what happened in Rwanda. I went to Rwanda in 2006 on a trip organized by Jewish organizations in France. And if there was extermination it was because there were words to begin with. The radio of the hills disseminated words of hate, education to hate, so these things start with words. And people consider that some others in the society are not human. Very often people are called all kinds of animal names. The Jews were called rats, the Tutsis were called cockroaches and so on. When you have a society where some people are treated differently, when a society considers that some people can be treated differently, things become very very dangerous. If we are lucky enough to live in a society and in a country where there’s civil peace and where equality of rights, however imperfect, is nevertheless a reality, then, it is difficult to consider what the situation can be. One should never consider oneself only a victim. Because if you have the opportunity of doing something, one should consider oneself as a citizen, as someone who can trace one’s future. Because the world in which we live in our societies, at least here in the west, these are societies for which we are fighting because we’re not in the center of this permanent turmoil that is making your life a misery and endangering it.

So at SOS Racisme we fight against racism and we can also see what I’ve just said. But racism is not something which is natural or something which has always existed. Racism has a history. Racism emerged in very specific situations throughout humanity; it is a historical and cultural construct and one can fight against this type of phenomenon. [] And this is a discussion which is very sensitive in France because it leaves to all kinds of manipulations, namely when we get back to certain historical periods in the life of a country. For example, history can not only look at the past but very often historical work can also destroy some of the origins of racism for example, or other aspects. For example, the history of the Algerian War. It is something which the French have refused to look at. They’ve refused to go back and look at the situation because it is rather traumatic. And so the Algerians and all the North Africans are somehow associated with people who will stick a knife in your back if you turn your back on them. So when you go back and look at history you shouldn’t do so with an idea of getting revenge or anything like that. But the idea is to build a common future, to build a cultural substrate on which racism is very often built; racism and discrimination. This cultural substrate is not always conscious, it’s not something that people are aware of. It’s not necessarily something that people want to set up. These are references that are very common and one should sometimes examine them. For example, last night, we slept in a hotel called Kipling Hotel. Kipling is a writer that people remember but he was not a very nice person when it comes to questions of racism. But of course he did live a long time ago in the past. Now I look at my pen Caran d’Ache. I don’t know whether it refers to the man who drew the caricatures, Caran d’Ache, who did not have a very glorious role in the Dreyfus affair in France.

The second element that I wanted to insist on, was the fact that there are societies in which one can act as a responsible citizen. So one cannot only look at the situation as a victim one should never accept one’s role as a victim of society. Because if that happens you either become passive – because if you’re a victim you say well why should I do anything because I’m a victim anyway – or you can become violent. This is going to determine all your actions because you are full of rage and anger. And this is not the way out either. So there are ways of doing things through being a citizen.  

We try to give people tools to do all kinds of things against discrimination. We ask people to talk about their experiences of discrimination, to become witnesses, but there are other ways of doing things. For example, being a citizen and calling upon public powers, the public administration, to point out what is not working right. For example, point out that there are urban ghettos and discrimination. This shows clearly that the public’s administration and public powers did not do what they should have done. There’s also quite a community-based interpretation or view by the state of the society in France and people always want to look at the exotic aspect of others. For example, very often at SOS Racisme, we saw that there were practices by the administration where the people were grouped according to origin. For example there were areas of town where all the Arabs were housed and other places where people from North Africa were housed, other places where Africans were housed, because the administration said well it’s easier to manage these Africans if we put more together because they all speak African. This is a very strange vision and it kind of takes away the individuality of the person and so you’ll get discrimination. Although it is discrimination done with the best intentions in the world. 

Then beyond this visible lack of coherence and the kind of exotic vision, you can say that unfortunately, we also have all kinds of populist attitudes, which also turn against foreigners. Switzerland too has had some campaigns of that nature not so long ago. SOS Racisme in Switzerland was rather concerned about these campaigns. When you see the way in which foreigners are designated as scapegoats for what is not working in the society, there you do have also shortcomings on the part of the administration. And the government should do something about this because they need to promote values of democracy, equality and human rights. That’s one of the campaigns that we are carrying out at the moment against the expulsion of people who are not legally in France. That is, people who have no official residency papers. 

Then people have to be coherent in what they’re doing. There has to be coherence between the official speeches that are being made, very often generous and so on. But the practices do not tally with these speeches and the responses are not appropriate. It’s impossible to do something correctly about these societies and so what Esther said is absolutely right. Coherence is also true at the international level. You have to look at it. Countries have to stick to their commitments. In France for example if we take the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, there are people who committed genocide in Rwanda and who have not been arrested and they live in France. All you have to do is look for them and they have to then take them to court. But there are some for whom this has not happened. So there’s a huge gap between speeches and reality. There’s a terrible violence which is done to the survivors because you see that those who were the criminals, and for whom it is very clear that they are guilty, they live without being disturbed even though they’ve got lots of deaths on their conscience.

Now to conclude. At the international level since we are here because of the way in which the Durban Review Conference was prepared and also because of some people who will be present and who are not at all the kind of people you’d like to see in these conferences. What I’d like to say is that what is unfortunately going to happen in the follow-up conference, in the Review Conference, is a typical illustration of diplomacy, which did not work the way it should have worked; diplomacy gone wrong. Two things one has to be extremely careful with. 

One needs to look at the dictatorships which say that there’s some kind of cultural shock between the third world countries and the Western countries. There’s the other way of looking at it, which says that everything good comes from the South and everything bad comes from the North. Now the first thing I’d like to say is as this of course a perversion of the anti-racist ideas; the anti-racist ideas which say that the North is imperialist and in the southern countries, in the third world countries, they are the victims of this imperialism. Of course you can’t say that human rights should not be disseminated because it’s a specific vision of the imperialist countries. This is really amazing because the people who disseminate this vision are racists, they are sexist, they are anti-homosexual, they oppress their own populations. They are simply trying to hide between behind the anti-racist speeches and they are trying to simply shut up those who speak in favor of human rights, especially of women’s rights. It’s a very sad situation and unfortunately the European countries have not been careful and they were not attentive enough. All these instances where the so-called Islamophobia was mentioned, they wanted to simply shift the whole discussion. Because when you talk about Islamophobia very quickly you’ll get to the hatred of religion and you get to the right of criticism of religions. In other words, people try to remove this right. Of course if you have hatred of religion that’s problematic. But those who are talking about Islamophobia are hardly ever present when Muslims are being killed. So there are many dangerous situations that Muslims can be in but the Islamists are never there to announce them. So the central point in France, for example, is very clear. There’s a perversion of the anti-racist discussion. For example, in Darfur when Al-Bashir was accused by the International Criminal Court, he said: “I’m a victim of the imperialist North.” Of course you have to be very very clear when you talk about what is happening in Darfur and in Sudan. In Darfur it is the Darfuris who are the victims and it is Omar Al-Bashir who is victimizing them. So there’s a complete overturn of the situation. It’s a  terrible violence [toward] these poor people and there is genocide.

The last thing I’d like to mention is the fact that this situation really shows that the true situation is not something which is going to be discussed at the Review Conference. Because a conference which should make human rights the central topic of discussion is centered entirely on something else. Because if we have a human rights conference and these essential questions of human rights are completely marginalized – or are even seen as elements that are being used by imperialists to intrude diplomatically or militarily in a country – we really have a completely ridiculous and amazing distortion. Well it is really unbelievable that Darfur is not a topic; it’s not an issue at this discussion. There’s an instrumentalization of racism. If we’re not looking at real racism, why are we having this conference? 

The second thing is negationism. The fact that the Shoah is completely negated, well that has already been mentioned of course but it continues. And it will continue for a few decades unfortunately, but when you look at the question of Rwanda there is even a negation of the genocide in Rwanda. There is a journalist who has written a book denying the reality of the Tutsi genocide. Or at least he is giving a vision which is extremely complex of this situation and the conclusions are that this is not really a genocide, it’s not quite as clear as that and so on. But what is clear is that one million people disappeared and the figures cannot lie in this respect. Unfortunately, the bodies are there, the victims are very real.

I just wanted to conclude with an anecdote about this court case against Pierre Péron that we lost in the first instance but we’ve gone to appeal. Not only is Pierre Péron negating the genocide. But he also asked Colonel Regardé to say when he was in the witness box, he said that the genocide, the alleged genocide like all genocide is the fruit of a great injustice. The fruit of a great Injustice. In other words, if the Hutu had not been oppressed by the Tutsis, they wouldn’t have had to kill the Tutsis. Well when you have that kind of argument unfortunately all too often heard, then a conference against racism must discuss this kind of thing and must condemn firmly this kind of negationism, which exists in relation to genocide. Even with regard to Darfur people are negating the genocide. Things are happening practically under the eyes of the cameras of the world and nobody is acknowledging the destruction of human beings that is taking place. So this question of negationism not only harms the victims but it should at least allow other genocides from being prevented in the future. Now if this is not something which is being discussed at the Durban Review Conference, then the Durban Review Conference has absolutely no meaning. And we can’t expect very much of this conference. 

I hope that our voices will be heard nevertheless. And what is happening in terms of the killing and destruction of human lives throughout the world, well the civil society should mobilize a little bit more. What is really striking is that people never say this. But what is happening in Darfur has been going on for six years and nobody says anything. In terms of France, for example, in the Darfur collective, I can say that the civil society is simply not present when we are talking about genocide and Darfur. If we really want to do something about what is happening there we are also responsible. We need to do something we need to mobilize around these questions. Thank you very much.

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