Monday, June 02, 2008

Standing up to be counted

June 02, 2008
Kevin Cavanagh
The Hamilton Spectator

For all the oratory that erupts when politicians gather, a nation's legislators are ultimately measured more by what they do than what they say. So it was no small statement of principle last week when Canada's House of Commons passed a bill recognizing the 1930s Ukrainian famine as an act of genocide.

The bill refers to a devastating famine of 1932-33 in which shocking numbers of people -- up to 10 million -- were starved to death in a fertile agricultural region known as Europe's breadbasket.

Whether such atrocities should be recorded for history's sake as state-sanctioned homicide is a politically explosive debate, which -- even generations after the fact -- can trigger backlashes from present-day regimes of countries that are implicated in, embarrassed by and/or in denial of said outrage.

As you'd expect in a debate fired with nationalism and pride, there's hot contention over whether such incidents constitute mass murder, or the slightly more benign consequence of politics of the day. In this case, some historians and a lot of Russians reject the notion that the famine was a calculated extermination by the Soviet Union's monstrous dictator Josef Stalin.

But a growing number of countries around the world have come to accept that the denial of food to an entire population was nothing less than a strategy by Stalin to exterminate millions of Ukrainians and silence their clamour for independence.

This was the second time in recent years a Canadian government had the gumption to take a stand on a controversial issue in the global community. Four years ago, our Parliament became one of a very few to stand up and recognize the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 as a genocide, a label that elicits fierce anger from Turkey.

Does it even matter that a country such as Canada takes a stand on something that happened so long ago? Yes. It's a statement of principle seen and heard around the world, and helps shape global consensus about what is tolerable and acceptable in civilized society.

Sensitivity and fear of controversy lead many governments to take the easy way out and simply not have an opinion, one way or the other. Cynics suspect Ottawa's decision last week was done to win favour with a million Canadian voters of Ukrainian descent, considering the feds just last fall said they had no plans to recognize the famine as a genocide. But the fact is this private member's bill received all-party support, as did the 2004 vote on Armenia.

In the end, side-stepping difficult decisions because of fear or intimidation is simply an abdication of responsibility by people who should lead. It's a dangerous step down a path toward submissively swallowing censorship, propaganda and freedom.

The world will never learn from its history if we don't face up to it.

Editorials are written by members of the editorial board. They represent the position of the newspaper, not necessarily the individual author.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.