THE BLOG

Three Years on From Breivik's Massacre, It's Time to Start Taking Survivors Seriously

22/07/2014 17:16 BST | Updated 21/09/2014 10:59 BST

On Tuesday, three years passed since far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik took the lives of 77 people in Oslo and on the island of Utøya, where hundreds of young political activists were gathered for a summer camp. The shooting was the most violent incident in Norway's history since World War II. It was the largest far-right terror attack to hit Europe's soil in decades. Over the past three years, Anders Behring Breivik's has been convicted of terrorism and pre-meditated murder, and though many will gather to commemorate the victims, Norway has moved forward from that day without much change.

We now, to a larger and larger extent, see far-right extremists not only taking to the streets and intimidating communities, but entering European parliaments. De-politicising the incident in Norway did not help in stalling this development. This is not an alarmist claim, but an unfortunate reality we as Europeans must face. Anti-foreigner attacks by the far right in Germany grew by 20.4 percent in the last year. In the past 5 years, hate crimes against Swedes of African heritage rose by 24 percent. Three members of Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which has been linked to paramilitarism, will take seats in European Parliament soon. As government officials scramble to comment, and academics to understand the problem, some of the most important voices on this issue have yet to be brought to the table in a serious way - the voices of survivors.

Survivors of far-right violence are still fighting for justice and support in countries like Germany, Hungary, and even in Norway. In Hungary, survivors of a string of serial attacks of Roma communities, which killed six people - including one child, still live in fear. Police tried to dissuade many of them from reporting the attacks, and neither the government nor political leaders have come forward in the past six years to pay their respects to the survivors. In Germany, as the trial continues against Beate Zschäpe and the National Socialist Underground, families of victims have been the targets of suspicion and investigation, and were repeatedly ignored in their pushing the government look into the potential far right motives behind this string of murders. This is still visible in the courtroom as the trial proceeds.

There are a number of ways we can and should move forward from these tragedies and ensure these voices have a place. Objectivity is often valued in expertise, and researchers are among the first consulted when governments seek ways forward from violent incidences. However, objectivity only gets us so far when planning how to move forward from the collective trauma of extremist violence. Survivors' voices must be recognised as the experts they are, and should be integral in preventing and confronting violence, and its aftermath.

However, this is not simply about giving survivors a seat around the table. Bringing survivors' expertise to the table will involve adjusting the way we engage with expertise surrounding extremism and violence. Just as their voices will be different to those of academic and practitioner experts, so will their needs in joining the discussion.

This must begin with governments taking responsibility for institutional failings which impact victims and survivors, including police negligence, institutional racism, or systematic underestimation of far-right extremism. It must also involve long-term practical support - financial, social and psychological. Those who have experienced violence will also require support to direct themselves into activism, which can be a trying transition. There are some networks, like the Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network, that help specifically to facilitate activism for those whose lives have been affected by far-right violence, but this support needs to be scaled-up.

We need to amplify the voices of those whose lives have been touched by far-right extremism. These are the voices that can show the human impacts of far-right violence. This means not only those who have survived far-right violence, but those who have spent time within these movements and left them behind. These are the voices that will be most credible with those that are vulnerable to these ideologies and susceptible to violence. After all, far-right extremists are humans with human stories too.

We need to live with these stories as part of our future, rather than try to erase them as part of our past. These stories need to shape our response. And if we are going to ensure that survivors can play an active role in helping society move forward from far right violence, the field needs to change to allow for sustainable activism for those affected by it.

Next week, we are coming together with survivors, former extremists, and activists to launch Europe's first initiative to offer practical guidance on managing the threat of the far right, The FREE Initiative, for those working for a Europe free of far-right violence and intimidation. Those that have the courage to share their stories to prevent attacks like 22 July from happening again deserve not only to be listened to, but to shape how we move forward.

Bjørn Ihler is a writer, filmmaker, activist, and survivor of the 22 July attacks in Norway. Vidhya Ramalingam runs an advocacy programme on tackling far-right extremism at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.