Ana Laura Zavala Guillen, PhD student at the University of Sheffield, and human rights lawyer for the past 12 years


“I thought they were sleeping peacefully under those trees as though in a portrait. Then, I came closer. There were thousands of bodies. None slept. All were dead. Children lay over their mother’s bodies too exhausted to cry.”

This is how George Rodger, a British photographer, described his encounter with the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp after the end of the Second World War. Photographs and videos were taken and recorded by the Allies to show to the rest of the world what had happened during the Nazi Holocaust. But how best to use this information to convey to others the extent of the atrocities committed?

Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, was invited by the producers of the documentary, ‘Memory of the Camps’, to recommend cinematographic strategies that could be used in the film. The producers were trying to avoid being accused of creating fiction out of horror. In order to create proximity and understanding, Hitchcock suggested focusing on the witnesses of the crimes, for instance SS guards and German neighbours who had stood by and watched the atrocities being perpetrated in the Bergen-Belsen camp but done nothing. His rationale was that the audience would not be able to relate to the victims or perpetrators, but would probably identify with the silent witnesses of horror. Did Hitchcock’s approach work and is it relevant in today’s society?

Despite living in a more globalised world in which social media provides information almost as soon as an event occurs, many people remain indifferent to gross violations of human rights because they feel removed from them. There was very little outrage, for instance, over the massacre of fifty seven students who were thrown into mass graves in Ayotzinapa, Mexico. They were attending a fundraising event but it was thought they might be planning a protest at a party hosted by the wife of a local mayor, and for that they were massacred in September 2014. How can we report and communicate in a manner which encourages empathy and discourages indifference towards such horrors? Indifference cultivates inaction and inaction permits atrocities.

Our attempts to challenge indifference must not be limited to calls for investigations into violations of human rights. We must insist not only that the truth is uncovered, but that perpetrators are brought to justice and that support is provided for victims and relatives in order that human dignity can be restored in the aftermath.

If we fail to bring perpetrators to justice and to provide support for relatives and victims, we run the risk of exacerbating an already terrible situation. In the case of the gross human rights violations committed against the Saharawi people, which occurred during the illegal Moroccan occupation in the 1970s, we were able, as human rights lawyers, to secure an acknowledgement of the crimes committed by the Moroccan government. To date, however, questions remain about the purpose of that investigation and the resultant acknowledgement. No-one has been brought to justice, and no effective support and solutions have been provided for the survivors and relatives who continue to live in refugee camps in the desert. Truth about gross human rights violations can have devastating consequences, if it is not accompanied by justice and reparation for the victims.

In the eleven years that I have been investigating human rights violations around the world, I have listened to hundreds of testimonies. During these testimonies I have witnessed members of the audience leave the room, devastated by grief, unable to continue listening; I have seen friends provide silent support to the victims trying to give them strength to finish their testimonies without breaking down; and watched lawyers struggling to contain their own emotions, remaining focused on the victim’s words, and preparing for the next question, because they know that the survivors have waited years for that day in the courtroom. I have seen victims live only to tell the story, speaking out in the name of the others who were murdered, as a way of coping with their survivor’s guilt. And in the most heart breaking cases, I have seen a relative commit suicide because what they had heard that day was impossible to accept when your mother and unborn brother were the victims. I have witnessed with them all.

In ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, T. S. Elliot writes “a rain of blood has blinded my eyes…How can I ever return, to the soft quiet seasons?” In order to restore human dignity after a legacy of gross human rights violations, truth has to be understood as playing a well-defined role in a bigger picture. That bigger picture must include justice and reparation for the victims if we are to fulfil the promise of never again for society as a whole.

Whilst no single country has succeeded in fulfilling all its duties, Argentina provides an interesting case from which lessons can be learnt. Sustained pressure from civil society groups that were not willing to remain indifferent led to the creation of the Truth Commission in 1984; one year after Argentina’s fledgling democracy took power. The country’s most senior military figures were forced to stand trial and convicted. Despite the government’s introduction of impunity laws for less senior military figures, continued pressure from civil society groups led to the revocation of these laws. This established the foundation for further prosecutions of military and police personnel involved in the disappearances, rapes and forcible transfer of children committed during the military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983. Whilst testimonies were being heard and perpetrators of crimes were being brought to justice, counselling, medical support and compensation began to be made available to survivors and relatives.

The return to T. S. Elliot’s soft quiet seasons may never be completed because of the irreparable loss caused by mass atrocities. However, if we can unearth the truth and fulfil our responsibilities to the survivors, by ensuring perpetrators are brought to justice, by providing compensation, psychological and medical support and by erecting sites to the memories of the victims, we may be able to honour and mourn the victims and continue walking towards the promised land of never again.

En memoria de
los 30,000 desaparecidos en Argentina,
y los 57 estudiantes de la Escuela Nacional Rural de Ayotzinapa desaparecidos en México
los seguiremos buscando
hoy y siempre

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