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Fighting over exhibit size no way to advance debate

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The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is still more than two years away from opening, but the fires of controversy are already burning bright.

Last week, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress expressed outrage that the Holodomor, the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians by Russia in the early 1930s, will not be given permanent exhibition status in the museum. In a report delivered to Ottawa last week, the UCC demanded the Holodomor be given "coverage" equal to the Holocaust, the slaughter of six million Jews and millions of others by Nazi Germany, which will have a permanent exhibition.

Although it made news just last week, this is a fight Ukrainians have been waging for decades. Ukrainians all over the world have protested the fact the Holocaust has a higher profile than the Holodomor, that it is the subject of more memorials, museums, study centres, and even films. Many Ukrainians believe the aggrandizing of the Holocaust has marginalized the Holodomor and dishonoured its victims.

It is important to note this brooding grudge is not a new challenge for the museum. From the moment the CMHR was unveiled by the late Izzy Asper, it has been dogged by allegations it would focus on the Holocaust to the exclusion of other atrocities. For much of the last seven years, a coalition of ethnic lobby groups led by several Ukrainian organizations lobbied Ottawa to ensure that this project would not become "just another" Holocaust museum.

For dispassionate observers, the debate over which is the worst atrocity, or even whether one atrocity has been given too much emphasis while others have been marginalized, is awkward, even discomforting. It is, in essence, an attempt to measure and compare human suffering. For Ukrainians, this is about being marginalized, adding an insult to the injury inflicted on them in the early 1930s. For many Jews, the debate itself is anti-Semitic, a bid to diminish the importance of the Holocaust as part of an ongoing war against the Jewish people.

The greatest irony in all this is that Ukrainians and Jews, bitter enemies in this debate, actually share this capacity for maddening comparisons of the magnitude of atrocities. Some even believe matters of great gravity can be measured in square footage.

Jewish Post and News editor Bernie Bellan wrote an editorial last month complaining that in 2003, museum officials envisioned a Holocaust gallery of approximately 13,000 square feet. Bellan then quoted an anonymous source that indicated the Holocaust gallery had been reduced to somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,500 square feet. "Given the original size of the gallery... this represents a diminution of 67 per cent," Bellan wrote, the comment dripping with concern and disappointment.

It would be constructive if the UCC and the Jewish Post were to acknowledge the pointlessness of debating whether any single atrocity was the "worst" of all time. All mass atrocities are tragedies of incalculable magnitude, especially when viewed from the perspective of the victims. The CMHR has been very open about the fact it intends to acknowledge as many mass atrocities as possible, including the Holodomor. Then why give the Holocaust special status in a museum mandated to examine human rights?

For the lawyers and scholars who study human rights, the Holocaust represents the most systematic, most premeditated, most calculated mass murder in history. A nation-state used legitimate means to legally declare some of its citizens subhuman. It is this event that prompted the world to forge a legal framework for human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) asserted that every human being has fundamental rights that cannot be extinguished by a national law. The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, as the name suggests, defined the crime of genocide and gave it a legal context in which it could be prosecuted. Both were direct results of the Holocaust.

In the history of the world, these are great accomplishments. They are not perfect accomplishments, to be sure. Cambodia, Rwanda and Serbia are evidence enough that while we have acknowledged the fundamental nature of human rights and the legal need to pursue and prosecute the perpetrators of genocide, we're still struggling with the mechanisms necessary to ensure compliance. But the effort to define human rights, and create a framework to enforce those rights, is an example of the human race at its best, proof that we do have an overriding interest in seeing good triumph over evil.

And no matter how we look at it, quarrels over the size or status of museum exhibits do not honour those higher ideals and good deeds.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2010 A4

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