Today's forgotten holocausts

Observations on memorials

Memorials are inevitably political. What is selected as worthy of remembrance, what is emphasised, dictates the contemporary meaning of the remembered thing. This is particularly true of the mass exterminations that took place in Hitler's Europe. The erection of new Holocaust memorials always arouses bitter controversy. In the case of the proposed Berlin memorial, which is supposed to be the Holocaust Memorial, located in the former heart of the Third Reich, this led to paralysis.

For five years, deadlines went by and the memorial went unbuilt, as political and ethnic factions argued over what form it should take. The site is still unfinished, apparently scuppering itself in its attempt to be the last word on human evil.

You don't need to subscribe to the view espoused by the Jewish-American historian Norman Finkelstein, that the memory of the Holocaust is being exploited for political and financial capital, to see that there are pressing problems with "totalising" approaches to the Holocaust. President Bush's speech at Washington's Holocaust Museum last year is just one example: "Human evil has never been so ambitious in scope, so systematic in execution, and so deliberate in its destruction."

Emphasising the uniqueness of the events that took place between 1933 and 1945, and stressing their incomparable status in world history, can blind us to the lessons the Holocaust can teach about present situations. Visitors stream into museums and direct their compassion into the horrors of the Nazi death camps without recognising the contemporary parallels.

Earlier this month, James and Stephen Smith, both doctors, announced plans to build an institute for remembering, researching and preventing contemporary instances of genocide next to the Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire. The creation of the Aegis Institute is the product of a personal process of realisation for the two brothers, who opened the Holocaust Centre in 1995 just before the Srebrenica massacre. "We suddenly felt like someone who had been labouring on a memorial to the Armenians in 1939," James Smith told the New Statesman. "What were we doing building a museum when the gates of Hell were being opened?" Shortly afterwards, the Smiths went to Rwanda to work as doctors, and were shocked at the indifference in the west to the atrocities they found there. Political inertia rather than lack of information stopped the UN from intervening until it was too late in Rwanda. The Smiths decided to embark on a long-term project to place the causes and consequences of genocide alongside the Holocaust in the hearts and minds of the western political establishment.

The Aegis initiative reflects a growing tendency to take a multi-disciplinary approach to human rights problems. Stan Cohen, head of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the London School of Economics, believes that genocide has too long been the preserve of lawyers, whose framework for analysis is the 1948 Genocide Convention, which is problematically specific to the Holocaust.

The purpose of the Aegis Institute is to create links between the aid workers who must deal with the consequences of genocide, the academics who define it, the policy-makers who are in a position to do something about it and the general public, who need to be educated about it. James Smith believes the Holocaust Centre will play an important role in this, not least in grounding the academic study of genocidal politics in the most well-documented form of its human cost.

The Smith brothers are campaigning for more efficient genocide prevention structures, and for resources to document the aftermath of genocide in Rwanda where, forgotten by the world's press, the situation remains unremittingly bleak. Apollon Kabahizi, a survivor from Rwanda who now works for the Aegis initiative, believes the west is guilty of dual standards in its attitude to the Rwandan genocide. "When everyone said 'never again' after the Holocaust, what was this meant to be?" he asks. "Does it just apply to some people and not to others?"