Humiliation Nations: Rehabbing our Common Humanity, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Nov

Humiliation

Humiliation is poisonous. It’s one of the deepest pains of being human. Pierce Brosnan

There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger. Pranab Mukherjee

I have not seen deeper suffering than seeing humans humiliated.  Behrouz Boochani‏

It was the day after the US Thanksgiving and I (what else?) was reading over a brochure that was picked up for me during a visit several years ago to the Nazi transit camp at Westerbork in the Netherlands.    There one can still seek remnants of the railway that carried away many tens of thousands of Jews (and some others) directly to the ovens of Auschwitz, a number that included Anne Frank and, on its last “run” in 1944, 77 children unluckily caught by the Nazis while in hiding from their madness.

For me, a most interesting aspect in the brochure is what the authors referred to as Westerbork’s “system of false hope.”  Conditions in the camp were apparently “tolerable” enough, and the Nazis had instituted a system where select persons could be issued an “exemption” from deportation to the east.  Some actually got these exemptions, though most who got them eventually had them revoked, thus falsifying the “hope” that minimized the humiliation and despair of being in that place, that blunted the grave anxiety from watching trains pull out of the transit station filled with neighbors and comrades, until the veil of deception covering their own eyes was finally lifted.

Eventually the trains stopped running, the raids ceased to pull any more children out of hiding, the scars from years of anxiety and humiliation would grow no longer.  But what did we ultimately learn from this?  What has changed for us?  Why does it take us so long to see the doomsday transit and humiliating confinement – in historical and contemporary terms — for what they really are?

As we in the US prepared for feasts and football, there were a few events in the world that led us to believe that we might be slowly learning our lessons. For instance, many welcomed the conviction in The Hague of former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić, a result that brought tears to the eyes of persons who had waited many years for this long-overdue justice.  Given the scale of the atrocities that had previously been presented in court, evidence of thousands upon thousands humiliated, even butchered on Mladić’s watch, one can only hope that this verdict – late and tepid though it might well seem — will somehow promote, rather than impede a still-fragile regional reconciliation.

This verdict will effectively shut down the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia which will now be folded into the UN Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals.  But this will not end the UN community’s (often untimely) commitment to international justice, nor to the search for strategies to relieve those suffering soul-threatening humiliation and abuse at the hands of predatory forces inside and (mostly) outside government.

Two events in the pre-Thanksgiving period spanned a spectrum of this abiding UN justice concern.   On Tuesday, the UN Security Council under Italy’s presidency held a general debate on the issue of “trafficking in persons.”  The unintended backdrop for this meeting was the CNN footage of an open-air “slave market” operating in Libya and “feeding” off of the thousands of forced migrants gathering on Libya’ shores hoping only to be granted access to a life-threatening passage across the Mediterranean Sea.

As documented by the International Organization for Migration and other agencies, the volume of persons forced to flee conflict, drought, discrimination and other “push” factors continues to stagger the imagination.  To flee from your home dragging children behind you who can’t possibly understand what is happening to them or why their families can’t “fix things”; to face grave hunger and other uncertainties as strangers urge you across unfamiliar and at times unforgiving lands; and then at the end of the line facing a bevy of human predators ready and willing to exploit every migrant’s distinct vulnerability.  It is a story of multiple tragedies that seem to “pile on” those who are already at a breaking point.

A day earlier in a smaller UN conference room, delegations led by Singapore examined another issue critical to human wellness– water and sanitation.  In conjunction with “world toilet day,” Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed noted during this event that, “We all produce waste, but many do so without dignity and in a manner that ultimately jeopardizes their own health and well-being.”   She lauded the work of what she called “sanitation heroes” that clean latrines and other facilities thus ensuring higher levels of community health.   But she also noted the millions of people – especially women – for whom both health and physical safety are compromised daily due to a lack of private sanitation facilities.  She highlighted those persons needing only a “few cement blocks” in order to make still-open sanitation more secure, less risky, less humiliating. With urging from Singapore, Australia, Slovakia and other states, there was some hope by session’s end for more security and less humiliation relative to the most private and intimate of human functions.

It might seem like a long road from the haughty butchery of Mladić to the emotional safety of cement blocks. But the policies that lead to murder and misery, that hold families and communities hostage to sinister and predatory ideologies, do their damage in often very personal ways.   The “demonizing servitude” referred to in the Security Council by UN SG Guterres encompasses a wide range of what Sweden referred to as “grotesque” humiliations, from hunger and intimate exposure to the horror of having to sell off your children to servitude in order to protect other children; or even to watch those who systematically abused your family walk freely around the towns where those very abuses once occurred.

Tuesday’s Security Council debate did result in unanimous support for Resolution 2388 which, among other things, called for greater national efforts to break up trafficking networks and address the severe trauma often left in their wake; as well as additional training to help police and UN peacekeepers identify and disrupt traffickers and the many threats they pose. And one of the persons primarily responsible for coordinating UN efforts on trafficking in persons, USG Yuri Fedotov, did note during the debate a hopeful, “forward momentum” against crimes of slavery, especially those committed against children, responses which he tied closely to other efforts aimed at ending money laundering and corruption.

But the mood in Council chambers this day was generally more “appalled” and less “hopeful.”  As Ambassador Chergui from the African Union warned, where trafficking is concerned, “our common humanity is at stake” and “time is not on our side.” Such wide-ranging damage to human confidence and capacity diminishes both individual lives and the collective resolve we need to address what are in some instances “existential” threats and challenges.   While some are able to rise above pervasive abuse and hopelessness, it generally takes so much to restore even the most basic confidence in persons who have been beaten down and humiliated in ways that, to quote US Ambassador Haley, “most of us are blessed not to be able to imagine.”

This pattern cannot continue; neither the “unimaginable” abuse, nor the out-of-control predation, nor our own “system of false hope” that inadvertently substitutes policy resolution language for the urgent and quite practical tasks associated with the reclaimation of our common humanity.

The next time the US Thanksgiving rolls around, my hope is that (citing Colombia’s Ambassador) the practice of “selling people as merchandise” will have come to an end, that legal gaps currently exploited for trafficking purposes will have been closed, that the needless conflicts driving forced migrants into the clutches of predators will have ceased, and that the “poison” of humiliation will be seen for what it truly is – a threat to the common humanity on which our common future ultimately hinges.

That would indeed be a Thanksgiving to remember.

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