27 January 2009

Never forgetting is our duty and our responsibility

Almost the first act of the new Obama administration was to order the closure of Guantanamo and the secret CIA torture camps. One of the main difficulties the administration seems to face with the planned closure (apart from the fact that the Bush administration doesn't seem to have actually kept any coherent files on any of the detainees) is what to do with the innocent victims that have been held there for the last seven years. The irony is that many cannot be returned to their home countries for fear of torture and persecution by the authorities there, and the US certainly doesn't want to be reminded of its own crimes by offering the detainees asylum itself.

To date only Albania has accepted released detainees, a group of ethnic Uighurs who would face extreme conditions if returned to their native China. Portugal led the way in the EU by offering asylum, but only for a very limited number. The EU met yesterday to decide on a course of action; they have repeatedly called upon the US to close Guantanamo, but again failed to offer any assistance to those held illegally there. Here in Ireland Ciaran Cuffe of the Green Party today called upon the government to accept even a single detainee, but the Minister for Justice has said that they will only do so as part of a common EU approach.

On Sunday evening I attended Ireland's national Holocaust Memorial Day in the Mansion House, as I have done every year since returning to Ireland. The event is a secular remembrance of all victims of the Holocaust, Jews, Poles, Slavs, Roma, homosexuals, those living with disabilities, socialists, trade unionists, and religious and ethnic minorities, and is an official event supported by the Government. In a powerful opening speech President McAleese highlighted the need to never forget the atrocities committed and never to be silent about other injustices and barbaric violations of human rights:
"Never forgetting is our duty and our responsibility... May the name of the Holocaust continue to disturb the landscape of our thinking and may the seeds of horror which it sowed bring forth a harvest of determination strong enough, tough enough to face down the extremist bigot whose greatest friends are silence and neglect of truth."
Part of the Memorial was to acknowledge Ireland's complicity in the events of the Holocaust. Although neutral and a non-participant in the Second World War, Ireland was very aware of the atrocities being committed against European Jewry and others, but did nothing to prevent it or help those affected. By 1938 the world knew exactly where the campaign of intolerance and ethnic segregation in Germany against its Jewish population was going, and FDR convened an international conference in Evian-le-Bains in France to find a way of helping the thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing and being expelled from their homes. As well as major powers such as the US, the UK, France, Canada and Australia, Ireland attended along with a number of smaller countries. Not one single nation, including Ireland, offered to take in any refugees, and the conference collapsed in failure.

Isaac Herzog, Chief Rabbi of Palestine and former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, knew Taoiseach Eamon de Valera personally and throughout 1938 and beyond appealed directly to him to accept Jewish refugees into Ireland. De Valera refused. The then Minister for Justice Patrick Ruttlege wrote in April 1938, "The Jewish Community in this country should not be increased by way of immigration, except in cases where the immigrant is a definite acquisition to the state", and the Government adopted a policy of refusing almost all visas for Jewish refugees. It was not until the closing stages of the war when the full horror of the extermination camps was public knowledge that Ireland finally allowed a limited number of refugees to settle.

Ireland was in a unique position to offer the persecuted peoples of Europe a safe haven, but by closing its doors it was fully complicit in the genocide that took place.

While in no way can the victims of the so-called War on Terror be compared to the systematic atrocities of the Holocaust, once again Ireland has been complicit in actions that are morally reprehensible and this complicity will bring shame to future generations. The Government's enthusiastic support of the use of Shannon Airport as a refueling stop for CIA and military flights involved in the rendition of detainees to Guantanamo and other torture camps means that the blood of every prisoner is on our hands. It is therefore our moral duty to accept any and all released detainees that wish to settle here and provide government support as compensation for their lives that we helped take away.

I can only hope that the Government ministers in attendance on Sunday listened very carefully to President McAleese's words, and act accordingly.

I have also written today to Green Party Ministers Gormley and Ryan in support of Ciaran Cuffe's call. Given that opposition to the Shannon stopover was an important theme of Green Party campaigning before entering Government, and given the repeated calls from party membership for Green Ministers to be seen publicly to act within the Government on areas beyond the confines of their Ministerial portfolios on issues that align with Green Party concerns, I asked them to support Deputy Cuffe's call at Cabinet level with the greatest possible force and urgency, though no doubt Deputy Cuffe's actions were already approved by both well in advance.

The Holocaust Educational Trust of Ireland is an amazing organisation that works to educate and inform about the Holocaust, and supports the organisers of the Holocaust Memorial Day.
Full text of President McAleese's speech

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