Israel has just celebrated its Independence Day, hot on the heels of Holocaust Memorial Day. This resonates with me, as my grandparents and two aunts (infants at the time) perished in Auschwitz. The resonance increases with the idea that such gross violations of human rights should never be allowed to happen again. Never again, we say, when remembering the Nazi extermination camps.
But, if we are human, that never again should apply anywhere that human rights are violated. Israel – much as I support its existence – is not entirely blame-free, it has to be said – but there are many other countries that are far, far worse. I don’t have to make a list. The International Courts have begun to stretch their new-fledged wings with rulings against Charles Taylor, a ruler of Liberia, for abetting human rights violation in a neighbouring country; and Thomas Lubanga, a warlord in what we are now meant to call the Democratic Republic of Congo, for recruiting child soldiers. Such rulings can only be applauded – but tempered with the knowledge that these are piddling drops in a vast and bloody ocean. Most of the time the best one can do is shrug and make donations to charities whose aim is to relieve the suffering of those affected – what else can one do?
New has reached mes oreilles, however, of systematic violations of human rights so mechanised, so extreme, so unbelievably brutal, that I simply had to write about them. I refer to North Korea. It was the editorial in this week’s Economist – entitled, provocatively, Never Again – linked to this truly shocking article – that raised my consciousness. I knew North Korea as a country ruled by an hereditary Stalinist régime with a nuclear capability. I was much less aware that the Kim dynasty has a system of gulags that make those of Stalin or Hitler look almost friendly. People can be locked up for infractions as innocent as listening to a foreign radio broadcast, or failing to dust a portrait of Kim Il-Sung. They are locked up for life – and so are their families, right down to their grandchildren, according to a theory of guilt by association, and the racist doctrine that guilt is hereditary. The racism goes deeper – North Korean women near the border with China who are suspected of having been made pregnant by a Han Chinese man face forcible termination. I could go on, but I’d be parroting the article – go read it yourself.
What, then, is to be done? I have a feeling that we cannot sit back and do nothing, or, if something, to be distracted by North Korea’s nuclear capability or the forlorn hope that the new dictator will be any better than his forbears. In the same way that those were guilty who, in 1930s Britain, sat back while in the full knowledge of the unfolding Holocaust, we cannot – now we know what’s going on – do nothing. In the face of such knowledge, to do nothing makes us all guilty.
Commissions of enquiry, sanctions and working groups – the kinds of remedies proposed in the Economist – are pointless. Yes, we went to war in Iraq on the base of – at best – misinformation, and we are still at war in Afghanistan for motives that nobody can really remember any more. The appetite for warfare is understandably very slim. But the case of North Korea is different. Here is a régime whose policies must be offensive to anyone who counts themselves a member of the human race, and with whom no amount of sanctions or diplomatic shuffling will get anywhere at all. If we are to count ourselves as human beings, we must agree that in North Korea, régime change is not just desirable, but necessary.If there were ever a case for a just war, this is it.