Put Hate Crimes on the Human Rights Agenda


By Michael Posner

Published June 20, 2007, issue of June 22, 2007.
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In February 2006, Ilan Halimi was found just outside Paris, half-naked, stabbed, and burned with cigarettes and acid. He died soon after — tortured and murdered for being a Jew.

Stories of this nature rightfully horrify people everywhere. The disturbing truth is that we are living in a time of growing European antisemitism.

France recorded a 6.6% rise in attacks against Jews for 2006. Ukraine saw a notable rise in attacks on Jewish individuals, as well as increasing vandalism of synagogues, cemeteries and Holocaust memorials. And the police chief of Berlin reported that neo-Nazi attacks had nearly doubled in his city over the course of 2006.

The situation is urgent. European governments have been burying their heads in the sand, failing to address a steady, steep rise in antisemitic crime that began in the late 1990s. But as we consider the significance of these events, it is vital we note that the Jewish community is not alone in its suffering and that its fight against antisemitism is not best done in isolation.

Among the victims of German neo-Nazis, the majority today are non-Jews. Indeed, during the World Cup soccer tournament last year, Germany’s Africa Council produced a “No-Go” guide for nonwhite visitors, warning them away from areas known for extremist violence. Former German government spokesman Uwe-Karsten Heye was blunt in his assessment, saying that there were parts of his country where “anyone with a different skin color… would probably not get out alive.”

Likewise, in Russia Jews are under threat every day, but the vast majority of those being attacked, battered and murdered are the so-called dark-skinned people of the Caucasus or foreign visitors of African or Asian origin.

Hate crimes of all kinds are on the rise throughout the world. The ideologies of extremist nationalist movements find much to despise in anyone who does not fit their brutally narrow worldview, and developing news events often serve to provoke and shape violence. Attacks against innocent Muslims increase in the wake of extremist Muslim violence; anti-gay crime rises during gay pride events, and antisemitic violence spikes during periods of political animosity toward Israel, as during last summer’s war in Lebanon. Russian citizens from Chechnya face everyday threats in northern cities in a violent ripple effect spurred by the distant conflict in their homeland.

Most European governments have failed to establish official mechanisms to systematically monitor and report these offenses. While community-based organizations have compensated somewhat for these failures, the absence of a broader approach also makes it difficult to place hate crimes solidly on the international human rights agenda — and let there be no doubt, hate crimes are human rights violations.

In the wake of the ravages of World War II and the Holocaust, the United Nations drew up a document calling on every nation to acknowledge and protect the dignity of all human beings, everywhere. The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights affords everyone on earth “the right to liberty and security of person” and forbids “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”

When a neo-Nazi kills a Senegalese man in the Russian Federation, when a pregnant Malian nanny and her 2-year-old charge are murdered by a Belgian anti-immigrant extremist, when feces are thrown at gay-rights activists in Riga — when such incidents occur, governments have failed to meet their obligations to defend against discrimination. These hateful acts demand that the world’s governments, and not just the communities affected, take heed.

This was first brought home to me in 2001, at the U.N.’s International Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia in Durban, South Africa. The rancorous attacks against many Jewish representatives was, for me, a wake-up call that addressing antisemitism on the international stage must be made a central piece of the anti-racist, human rights agenda.

It is appropriate and important for there to be an open debate about Israeli policies and practices that lead to human rights abuses. Yet, just as anti-gay religious teachings can never justify crimes against the gay community, and bombings in New York, Madrid and London must not excuse attacks on anyone who happens to be Muslim, so must the world community understand that legitimate debate about Israeli government actions cannot be allowed to devolve into violent antisemitism.

Moreover, violence against a feared “other” is often driven by prejudices that involve multiple factors: race and gender, physical appearance and religion, sexuality and national origin. Antisemitism involves a uniquely toxic cocktail of factors and has continued to mutate into new forms. Its ancient and modern dimensions together provide ideological glue that unites a broad spectrum of European extremists. Hatred of Jews is a uniting force in the equal-opportunity racism that makes many European streets a gantlet to be run by minorities of all religions and hues.

The skinhead pack that attacks Jews and is inspired by antisemitic screeds will also hunt for dark-skinned immigrants, gay men and members of a Muslim community. The “Russia for the Russians” nationalists who predominantly attack ethnic Georgians or Chechens today may tomorrow make Russia’s vulnerable Jewish community a primary target. Extremist movements in Europe attack people who stand out from the majority — and antisemitism is too often a core belief and an organizing principle.

Such acts are part of the same continuum that includes ethnic cleansing and genocide. They are crimes against all humanity.

Individuals of goodwill and governments alike must begin to act firmly to stop antisemitic violence and all racist and religiously motivated crimes. They must be vigilant about condemning, reporting and monitoring hate crimes; enact laws to punish them as more serious crimes; provide the necessary resources for law enforcement; speak out loudly and often against intolerance and bigotry, and, not least, work together with others across the globe in coalition and common cause.

In America, we are lucky to have comprehensive, nationwide reporting systems and a functioning criminal justice system. But there is much that the American government still must do, together with its friends and allies, to hold back a worrisome, rising tide of hatred.

Individual communities will themselves always need to be aware of the threats to their own, and the world’s Jews must always remain vigilant against violent antisemitism. Yet it behooves all the world’s citizens to take a firm stand against hate crimes. In a world of differences, no one should face violence or fear because of where they came from or who they are.

Michael Posner is president of Human Rights First.

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