In confronting genocide, Canada puts Raoul Wallenberg's legacy into practice

Kyle Matthews on the lessons in leadership that history can provide us.
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October 2, 2014

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Embassy.

2014 is a sobering time for human rights experts and advocates. With the Middle East imploding and human rights abuses being carried out and broadcast in real time via social media by the murderous jihadist group known as ISIS, many individuals, organizations and governments feel powerless.

What can we do to protect religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq? Can anything be done to protect Nigerians from the African equivalent of ISIS, the dreaded Boko Haram? Or how about the Muslim-minority Rohingya group in Myanmar that is facing unimaginable ill-treatment? The list goes on.

While atrocities capture our attention and foments political will to “do something,” very few people will offer up examples of how small actions can make a difference and save many lives. Too often our political leaders and foreign affairs experts will present the policy choices as a simplistic dichotomy: go all out and unleash the military or stand by and do nothing. Canada and other like-minded nations need to break out of that traditional way of thinking.

Fortunately, history can provide us with lessons in leadership.

Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who was sent to Hungary near the end of the Second World War to save as many Jews as possible from the Nazis, offers us some key lessons of bravery and moral leadership. Wallenberg issued travel documents and established safe houses in Budapest and beyond, saving tens of thousands of civilians from a certain death. When the Soviet Union’s army marched into Hungary in 1945, Wallenberg was detained and mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again.

Moscow has never come clean on what truly happened to Wallenberg, nor has it opened up its archives to allow others to determine the truth.

While Wallenberg most likely died in a Soviet gulag, his heroics and legacy lives on. In 1985 Canada made him the country’s first honorary citizen, a distinction only offered to a few other individuals: the late Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi and The Aga Khan.

In 2012, the Canadian government announced Jan. 17 would be Raoul Wallenberg Day in Canada. Jason Kenney, then the immigration minister, at the time called Wallenberg “one of the greatest heroes of one of the darkest periods of human history.”

Many other countries agree with Kenney’s statement. This past summer, leaders of the United States House and Senate presented a Congressional Gold Medal to honor Wallenberg. In a state visit to Sweden in 2013 U.S. President Barack Obama remarked that "because he refused to stand by, Wallenberg reminds us of our power when we choose, not simply to bear witness, but also to act — the tens of thousands he saved from the camps; the estimated 100,000 Jews of Budapest who survived the war, in no small measure because of this man."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has taken a principled stand against ISIS and is ramping up international efforts to weaken the group and work with allies to prevent future mass atrocities that the jihadist group seems determined to carry out. Ottawa played an important role a decade ago in bringing the international community together to support the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a set of principles that stipulates when the world must act when a country is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens from mass atrocity crimes. Wallenberg’s actions represent what individuals can do to put R2P into practice.

Speaking in New York City two weeks ago, at the inaugural event of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies’ recent initiative to impart Wallenberg’s legacy of leadership to a new generation, the UN Deputy Secretary General (and former foreign minister of Sweden) Jan Eliasson reminded everyone “nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something." (The initiative continues this month with events in Toronto, Montreal.)

On Parliament Hill, Mr. Kenney recently invoked the “responsibility to protect” doctrine to fight ISIS’ “genocide” against religious minorities in Iraq. Since coming to power and forming the government in 2006, the Conservatives have been reluctant to support the R2P, perhaps because it was associated with the Liberal Party of Canada instead of viewing it as international mechanism to prevent future atrocities.

Regardless, what really matters is that the government of Canada now seems to be moving in the direction of making the prevention of atrocities a foreign policy priority and is putting the legacy of leadership of our country’s first honorary citizen into practice.