Remarks on Receiving The Robert S. Litvack Human Rights Award
Thank you very much, Irwin. After this wonderful address by Judge Goldstone, there isn’t very much left to say, but let me explain how I got here. I received a call from Israel where Irwin Cotler was at that time. I was down in Florida. I hadn’t seen Professor Cotler for several years, and he began by asking, “Ben, how are you?,” which I interpreted to mean, “Are you still alive?”
I’m quite sure that he had canvassed more important Nuremberg prosecutors, but they were unfortunately dead so they couldn’t come, and-even in their present condition-if they heard about the freezing weather in Montreal, they wouldn’t have come anyway. I asked, “What am I supposed to do there?”-I heard he might be planning to give me a “plaque” that I’d have trouble getting into a plane. He explained, “Well, I want you to make a speech. I want you to make a statement. You’ve had fifty years of experience, so please tell us everything that you have learned, and what we have to do. Take as much time as you want-up to three to five minutes!”
Since I don’t mess around with Irwin Cotler, I’m going to do just that. You’ve heard something about my background, and how I got involved in combating genocide. It was pointed out by Silvia Litvack that I began by landing in France; “J’ai fait le débarquement de Normandie” (since I am in Montreal, I’ll show off my French). Other soldiers landed in water up to their waist; for me it got up to my chest. That was the beginning of my education for peace. Since I don’t have an unlimited amount of time, the jokes are on your time, Irwin. Let me just tell you briefly what happened in the last fifty years to me, and see what lessons it leaves for you. I won’t pay attention to your instructions to talk about “What have we learned? What are we going to do?” I can tell you what I have learned, and what you are going to do.
My wartime experiences led me into the concentration camps, which were so vividly described by Judge Rosalie Abella. I was a liberator. I saw the crematoria while they were still burning. I arrested criminals; I dug up bodies with my hands. That led me to a career as a war crimes prosecutor at Nuremberg, where I got to know the murderers-the remorseless killers-personally. The trial in which I was a chief prosecutor was the Einzatsgruppen case, in which the twenty-two defendants were convicted of murdering over a million people, mostly Jews and Gypsies, in cold blood-men, women, and children. Thirteen of the defendants, including six SS generals, were sentenced to death. Since I was inexperienced and was only twenty-seven years old, I rested the prosecution’s case after two days. That’s a record for some young people to try to match. The trial itself lasted much longer, but it took that added time to rebut the lies and the denials, which came from the defendants.
I learned about the mentality of intelligent German leaders-I only picked leaders to stand trial and most of them had doctor degrees! I learned that there are all kinds of people in the world, and the same mentality that made the Holocaust possible exists today. It exists in all countries. You’ve heard it described by other speakers at this conference. The perpetrators of the crimes in Rwanda and Yugoslavia reflect the same cruel thinking. What I saw and experienced had quite a profound effect on me. The trauma is still with me.
One young student here asked: “Tell us, how do you work against the system? Do you do it on the inside or on the outside?” Well, you do it inside, and you do it outside, and you do it every way you can. I stayed on in Germany after the war and the trials, and helped set up the restitution programs for all Nazi victims. That turned out to be an enormous operation that cost the German government over 100 billion marks so far, which is about 60 billion American dollars. There has been very little publicity about that vast, and still inadequate, program to compensate survivors of persecution. An important step forward was taken in Rome last July when, for the first time in human history, an international criminal statute prescribed that victims of crimes against humanity are, as a matter of legal right, entitled to restitution, compensation, and rehabilitation. That was a wonderful thing, because when I was working on that for very many years, there were no precedents for it whatsoever. There were certain principles of law and equity which seemed important to me. Those precedents were created quietly, but nevertheless they were there to be built upon until they could be universally recognized.
What is the conclusion? I only have a minute and a half left. What have I learned? I’ll only mention things that have not already been covered. Creating a more humane world is a long and difficult process. I’ve been working at it for over fifty years. I didn’t invent the idea of an international criminal court. I first read that in a book published in French in 1920 by a man named Vespasian Pella, entitled La jurisdiction pénale de la loi de l’avenir-or something like that. I wrote a two-volume book on an international criminal court about twenty years ago, in which I listed all the people from different lands who had been in favour of such a tribunal. But the wise thinkers got nowhere because the political will was absent. I have seen that it takes a long time to change the way people think-to change fundamental institutions. Judge Goldstone and others have talked to you about sovereignty-an idea which is eroding. It’s absurd as we enter the next millennium to be talking about medieval concepts like that, which are based upon the divine right of kings to pass on all property and absolute rights only to their first male heirs. And yet, this outmoded doctrine of state sovereignty still guides the world, and it is so difficult to change.
I’ve learned something else which is very important. If you keep at it, and you never give up, you begin to see change. Judge Goldstone has listed key events, the entire hierarchy, going back to the Hague Convention where parties agreed upon rules for more humane ways to kill each other, and later, the international criminal courts at Nuremberg and Tokyo and the ad hoc tribunals created by the Security Council of the UN and the recent Statute of the International Criminal Court.
These were all important steps forward, despite major defects, some of which are ridiculous. For example, Judge Goldstone referred to the rules, after the First World War, that outlawed the use of dumdum bullets which are made of soft lead and make a big hole in the body as they kill you. The use of such weapons-that are obsolete-is still listed as a war crime, yet it’s not yet illegal to drop a nuclear bomb on a city. Is that not ridiculous? Is that not the dumbest thing you can think of? The emperor is not only naked, he’s stark raving mad!
Why aren’t you screaming? Why aren’t you screaming? This is the job for the young people to do. I have pretty much run out of steam, at least I’m running out of years-I’m past seventy-nine. There are many things you can do. The best thing you can do is just use your common sense. Never mind the traditions. Never mind the institutions. If you know in your gut that something is wrong, and it smells, start screaming and try to change it. And you know what will happen? You’ll be marked as a fool, and for a long time you’ll struggle, and people will sit on you, and they will call you the “Man of La Mancha” and nobody will read your books. But the time will come when you’re old and grey that some people will present you with an impressive citation-that you can’t carry-and it will say something about what a wonderful effort you’ve made. And you’ll begin to see change.
In conclusion, what lesson do I give you? What can you do? First of all, never lose hope, never lose hope. Hope is the engine that sustains human endeavour, and it gives you the energy that you need to carry on. And you can’t lose hope because what are your options? Are you going to accept the world the way it is? If you are satisfied with the killings and the misery and the hate, then go home and play ball-don’t come to lectures like this. Just hope that you’re not the next victim - and there is no guarantee that you won’t be the next victim. On the contrary, you will surely be a victim. One day you will all be victims if the world continues this way. So you mustn’t lose your hope. You mustn’t lose your energy and your drive. You must keep trying; you must never give up. And then if you do that, fifty years from now, you will be surprised, there will be a change. So I wish you all the best of luck and I thank you for the opportunity of being here. [Applause]
I treat your applause as a request for an encore. Philippe Kirsch managed to get away, unfortunately, before I could thank him. We had agreed beforehand that the best thing that we could do, since this was Montreal, would be for him to simply say “merci” for his award and I would simply say “thank you”. And that would be the end of it. But he got away with saying nothing and I got stuck with three to five minutes. As a sign of my personal esteem for the great job he did at Rome, I wanted to give him a token of appreciation that might be a little easier to carry. It’s an interesting historical document, and it will link what we were talking about. This is a xerox of the covering page of the Statute of the International Criminal Court as it was adopted in Rome, saying that, for the first time in history, “an International Criminal Court is hereby created”. This was on 17 July 1998, and some of the key people who were there signed this cover page. The signatures were collected by Bill Pace of the Coalition for a Permanent International Criminal Court, and include UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Emma Bonino, European commissioner of human rights, who played a very important role, the president of Italy-and many others. I thought this would be a nice souvenir of a very historic event. The first name on the top - and it’s purely coincidental, I’m sure,- is Benjamin B. Ferencz. And the last name on the bottom is Philippe Kirsch, who chaired the conference so brilliantly. I thought, here is a chance for me to say to Philippe that I came in at the top, and that your name is at the bottom signifies that you will now carry on. And I pass now the baton to you to continue the race to a more humane world.
I now pass this small document to Professor Irwin Cotler with the obligation to give it to Philippe Kirsch for his folder. Again, I thank you all.