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Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Halabja and Kurdish Genocide in Iraq Shows We Must Move From 'Never Again' to 'Always Prevent'

25/03/2013 13:13 GMT | Updated 23/05/2013 10:12 BST

'From Denial To Recognition. From Destruction To Construction. From Tears To Hope' - proclaimed the posters at last Saturday's ceremony commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship's barbaric use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan.

The memorial event, on the outskirts of that tragic but unbowed town, was held in a vast marquee filled with more than 5,000 mainly Kurds but also delegations from around the world. Among them many children, bedecked in beautiful traditional costumes, their mothers holding them close, their fathers proudly wearing their Peshmerga fighter uniforms. It was impossible not to contemplate that on March 16, 1988, a similar number of souls had been obliterated at this place, dying in excruciating agony from the cocktail of mustard and nerve gas that Saddam rained down on them, having first dropped conventional bombs to blow out the windows and leave no refuge. 5,000 lives erased in the blink of an eye, as if they were an infestation of vermin, not human beings. And this only a tiny part of a wider genocide: over 4,000 Kurdish villages bulldozed; men, women and children herded into concentration camps before being shot in the desert; 182,000 murdered in 1987 and 1988 alone.

In the face of such cruelty, it is no wonder that the conference on the 25th anniversary of the genocide against the Kurds in Iraq, held last Thursday in Erbil, the booming capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, heard of the need for remembrance, for recognition of these crimes as genocide and for the retelling of this tragic story to future generations - the 'three Rs' of a conventional approach to genocide. Turkish photographer, Ramazan Öztürk, who captured the iconic images, said his experiences on that day had made him feel 'ashamed to be a human' and that 'it was not just Halabja that died but the conscience of humanity'. Academics spoke of labyrinthine legal obstacles to prosecuting perpetrators. Kurdish ministers thanked the parliaments of countries which have recognised these crimes as genocide (the British House of Commons did this in an historic debate on February 28). Children of victims danced and sang, bringing both the tragedy of their loss and the hope they represent into stark relief.

But something big was missing. A gaping hole at the heart of the debate reflecting the moral vacuum at the heart of the world's conscience. Those at the conference hoped that the 'three Rs' of remembrance, recognition and retelling will be enough to prevent another genocide against them. The clarion call went up: 'it must never happen again.' Yet despite the Genocide Convention, the Nuremburg Trials, the documentation, the education, the International Criminal Court, the victims' testimonies, the evidence, even the heart-wrenching tragedy of Anne Frank's diaries, decent people and governments of the world, the kind who would solemnly nod their head in agreement with 'never again', have not actually taken action to give power to these heart-felt words. Cambodia, Bosnia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Rwanda and Darfur show that the three Rs are necessary but not sufficient to prevent future genocides.

While many of the world's governments want to prevent genocide, they almost never act to achieve this aim. This despite most being signatories to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide which is explicitly designed to compel them to do just that. Remember that in 2004, the then secretary of state Colin Powell described the Darfur events as genocide, yet still the US chose not to act. If governments, like our own, continue to refuse to define these crimes as genocide, we might surmise that this is because they want to avoid fueling any belief on the part of the Kurds or any other persecuted people, that they will actually come to their aid in the future. This moral weakness is a by-product of an international system predicated on nation states' right to sovereignty. In our world, sovereignty trumps morality, time and time again.

Governments have chained up their good intentions within the prison of international legal jurisprudence. No oppressed people can take comfort from a system which guarantees in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that 'everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person', yet is governed by a Security Council which prefers inaction in the face of genocide, which preferences the rights and interests of dictators and so-called 'great powers' over the self-evident human rights of ordinary people. Iraqi Kurdistan is littered with what results when when tyrants are emboldened: mass graves and empty buildings such as the 'Red House', a torture complex in Sulaimaniya in which some victims were drowned in a pit of excrement.

Today's genocide victims deserve our respect and assistance in their demands for the three Rs and the world must continue to develop legal mechanisms and norms, in a noble attempt create the conditions when the international community will prevent genocide, such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework. Yet as Syria shows, R2P has no real force. To prevent there being any future victims of genocides as yet unleashed, there must be a commitment to take whatever action is necessary and practically possible, including military intervention. We keep remembering that humans are capable of untold evil. We keep declaring that we must not let this happen again. The most important thing to remember is that remembering is not enough and does not in itself prevent genocide. We must promise the Kurds that we will protect them from any future aggression. Individual countries must work with their allies to take action to stop genocide in its tracks whenever it occurs. It is worthy, but clearly not enough to establish tribunals after a genocide which prosecutes a tiny number of people. 'Never again' must become 'always prevent'.

Some rare, grainy footage was shown at the conference of men, women and children herded into concentration camps before being 'disappeared' in the desert. The Kurds in this video were indistinguishable from the Bosnian Muslims in films of the Screbrenica massacre, or the European Jews at Auschwitz. These people could be any people, anywhere, at any time. They will not be the last ghostly images on such films unless we take action. If you don't agree, take a trip to the safe, democratic and prosperous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Talk to the living victims and then reassess whether you could sleep at night having chosen to walk on by. The ghosts of genocide won't let you.

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John Slinger visited Iraqi Kurdistan in March as part if a British delegation to a conference and ceremonies commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Kurdish genocide in Iraq. Whilst working for Ann Clwyd MP he accompanied her to Baghdad in 2005 and 2006 on visits in her capacity as the prime minister's special envoy to Iraq on human rights.

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This article was first published at Progress Online on 19 March 2013.