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Speech by David Matas on Receiving the Mahatma Gandhi Centre of Canada Peace Award on June 8, 2017: The values of Gandhi today

by David Matas, posted July 21, 2017.

Thank you for this award.  The award, as perhaps it should, has got me thinking about the values of Mahatma Gandhi. 


Gandhi taught non-violence, the spirit of truth and tolerance of diversity. His values are timeless and universal.  Yet, he taught these values in a particular context.  The question which we face, which I have faced in my human rights work, is how to realize those values in a wide variety of contexts far different from the British Raj in the 1940s.


One difference between the British Raj during Gandhi’s time and many situations where human rights work is needed is that the British were willing to tolerate Gandhi. The British at the time did not appreciate how effective his non-violence would turn out to be. 


Gandhi believed in arousing the world.  Yet, as George Orwell has pointed out in his essay "Reflections on Gandhi", that is only possible if the world gets a chance to hear what you are doing.  Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible to appeal to outside opinion or bring a mass movement into being.


My human rights efforts are directed against governments far more violent than the government of the British Raj was at the time. In China or Iran or Eritrea, countries where there are grave human rights violations which I have opposed, there is no free press or right of assembly.  Mass demonstrations are met with mass repression. 


Terrorism kills innocents as viciously as state repression. Yet, arousing the world through free press and a right of assembly alone do little to counter the terrorist threat.


Human rights violations often occur in the context of internal armed conflict, where there is no established order.  In places like Syria or Somalia, using local media or assemblies to combat violations is fraught with peril.


When we are dealing with a repressive regime which murders its opponents and imposes censorship, when we are confronting a terrorist threat, when we are dealing with collapsed states, I would not say that non-violence, the spirit of truth and tolerance of diversity have no place. But mobilising these values in these contexts requires different strategies from the one Gandhi used.


One difference is an emphasis on internationalism. While I certainly applaud the courage of those in countries with repressive regimes who stand up to that repression, or those in collapsed states who try peaceful means to confront the calamities around them, it is asking too much to expect people who live under the thumbs of tyrants or in the midst of catastrophe to risk their lives, their health and their families in the pursuit of liberty. 


Against the worst violators, in the face of the most disastrous situations, effective stands for principle can not systematically come from inside. They must come from outside, from places where people can stand up for human rights in safety.


It is we outside of China or Iran or Eritrea who must promote the value of Mahatma Gandhi in those countries, because people in those countries run grave risks doing that themselves.  That is one reason I have been active in combating the mass killing in China of prisoners conscience for their organs for transplants, primarily Falun Gong, but also including Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Moslems and house Christians.  Falun Gong is a set of exercises with a spiritual foundation, a Chinese equivalent of yoga. Today, anyone inside China, even non-Falun Gong, who protests the victimization of Falun Gong will become a human rights victim himself. 


I do not think it is any coincidence that the Mahatma Gandhi Centre of Canada is located in Winnipeg, that the two honourees tonight live in Winnipeg, that the Canadian Human Rights Museum is in Winnipeg.   The Greek mathematician Archimedes, in the third century BC, said "Give me a long enough lever and a place on which to stand and I will move the world."  We here in Winnipeg are engaged in our international human rights effort not in spite of the fact that we are in Winnipeg, a place far away from many of the troubles we are addressing, but because Winnipeg is ideally placed to allow us to do that. 


A second strategic difference which arises from different contexts is the need for co-ordination. The use of force and non-violence do not always work in opposition.  Non-violent responses and the use of force can sometimes work in tandem.


The Allies, in response to attempts to stop the Holocaust while it was happening, took the position that the best way to do that was to win the war against Nazi Germany as quickly as possible.  Their efforts to stop the Holocaust were military in nature, directed almost entirely at military targets.


I do not suggest that the Allies should not have engaged in a military effort against Nazi Germany and its allies.  I do suggest that they could have done a lot more of a non-military nature against the Holocaust.


The Allies could have provided a haven to Jewish refugees, which they did not. They could have actively combated antisemitism, which they did not.  The Allies could have recognized the right of the Jewish people to a homeland in Israel before and during the War, rather than only after the War. They could have, before and during the War, established mechanisms to bring the perpetrators of Nazi mass murders to justice, rather than waiting till the War was over.  The public everywhere outside of Nazi control could have done more through demonstrations and public protest to arouse the world against the Holocaust while it was happening.


These measures would have done more to mitigate the Holocaust, if taken together with the military effort, than the military effort itself alone did.  By restricting themselves to a military effort, the Allied forces and their populations made the Holocaust worse than it need have been.


One can say the same about terrorism today. Security measures are necessary to combat terrorism. We can not rely on peaceful advocacy alone. Yet, we tie our hands in the effort against terrorism if we rely only on security measures.  Inciters distort religion and human rights itself to justify terrorism.  Unless, through advocacy and activism, by standing against racism and religious intolerance, we combat their distortions, we present the inciters with an open field in which to wage their ideological combat.


To take an example, it is perfectly understandable that Israel, given its long and tragic history as the target of terrorism, would take energetic security measures.  However, we can not leave the defence against anti-Zionist terrorism to that.  Anti-Zionists take a two pronged approach to denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination - armed attacks and delegitimization.  A comprehensive response means countering both. There needs to be not just security measures, but also opposition to the glorification of terrorists and the huge financial rewards given to terrorists and their families.  Beyond that, there must be active efforts to counter the BDS - the boycotts, divestment, sanction - movement, the misleading attempts to paint Israel as an apartheid state, and all the other propaganda aimed at the destruction of the Jewish state.


For collapsed states, where there is bitter infighting seemingly coming from all directions, there is a tendency for outsiders to throw up their hands or to pick a favourite in a multi-sided combat and try to help that favourite through military means. Yet, here too, there is much of a peaceful nature that could be done – providing refuge to those fleeing the combat, countering the incitement which fuels the combat, bringing to justice the perpetrators of gross violations of human rights and bearing witness to the violations of human rights.  All that should be happening now for the conflicts in Syria and Somalia.


A contextual difference between the situation Gandhi faced and the situation we face today is the difference in incitement. There was to be sure, in Gandhi's day, many people who believed ardently in colonialism and imperialism. Yet, the colonialists and imperialists in India were by the very nature of their ideology largely foreigners. In advocating, within India to the local population against colonialism and imperialism, Gandhi was, by and large, preaching to the converted.


Today, in many contexts, we are not so lucky.  Incitement to hatred turns local populations against each other.  The advent of the internet makes this incitement more pervasive, more penetrating.  The effort to combat incitement is not just an effort of mobilisation; it is also an effort of communication, combating stereotypes, bringing truth to power - the power of public opinion.  As well, sometimes the effort requires legal means, the force of law.


The problem of incitement to hatred is global, not just existing in far away countries, but also at home. Yet, here too the problem is worst in the countries with the least vestiges of democracy and human rights. Tyrannical governments do not just use brute force. They use propaganda, justifying the brutality against their victim populations.  The targeted victims are vilified without inhibition or restraint, as well as physically victimized. Outsiders must do everything we can to combat that vilification. 


Another contextual difference between the India of Gandhi and today is the situation of minorities. While India, then as now, had many internal divisions, Gandhi stood for a majority population in his own country. But often, in promoting human rights, we need to speak up for minorities, not majorities.  Examples are the Rohingyas in Burma, the Copts in Egypt, the Ahmadhiyyas in Pakistan, the Yazidis in Iraq and the Tamils in Sri Lanka.


In Sri Lanka, to take one example, calls for an independent homeland for the Tamil people are banned by the constitution and mass murderers of Tamil civilians in the civil war are given impunity.  Tamils in Sri Lanka in the tens of thousands remain today dispossessed of their property and internally displaced.  The Sri Lanka situation reminds us that repression of minorities does not just happen in tyrannies. It can also happen in states that are democratic or quasi-democratic.


The answer here is also, at least in part, internationalism.  Even though in democratic or quasi-democratic states there is some room internally to protest the repression of minorities, we can not leave that protest to locals alone.  When human rights are violated, humanity everywhere must stand against their violation.  Minority victims must not be left to the tender mercies of a hostile majority.


In conclusion, I would say this. The values of Gandhi will always be valid. The challenge we face is to make them fresh.  To do that, we must adapt them to the realities we face.


David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

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