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Some disputes will always be subjective

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Re: The war against the Holocaust (April 2). There's been enough said by now about the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association campaign against the permanent Nazi Holocaust gallery to justify characterizing UCCLA -- on this topic at least -- as a marginal group partially blinded by resentment.

However, I take issue with one passage of Catherine Chatterley's article, where she states: "Subjective feelings are influencing content and design choices (of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights) rather than objective historical and legal reality and this does not bode well for the international reputation of this institution."

I agree with Chatterley about the Nazi Holocaust. There is nothing subjective about the view that the genocide perpetrated upon the Jews by the Nazis was a unique historic low for human dignity and rights. Only historical relativists might think otherwise.

But the notion that disagreements about whether particular actions constitute violations of human rights are always resolvable on the basis of "objective historical and legal reality" is questionable.

For example, I doubt very much the debate about whether certain actions by the Israel Defence Forces in the Gaza Strip are part of a pattern of human rights violations by Israel against the Palestinians can be objectively resolved by scholarship.

Certainly there are live disputes about real history that are relevant and objective research may resolve such disputes. But what also looms large are the particular commitments of the historical actors and observers.

In the conflict between Israel and Palestinians, proclamations by some that certain actions are violations of international law are viewed by others as untrue or beside the point for a group whose very survival is at issue. A purportedly objective legal opinion will not end this disagreement.

While all reasonable people may, in light of the history of the last 2,000 years, affirm that a gallery commemorating the Nazi Holocaust obviously fits with a museum for human rights, the consensus of the reasonable will evaporate when you get down to the particulars of living conflicts.

There is a political element to conversations about human rights. That doesn't mean that everything is reduced to subjective feelings. Ideals of human freedom and dignity form a very real and objective shared context to guide particular debates.

However, it seems doubtful that historical scholarship can always lead from these general, inspiring ideals to answers as to whether -- to continue with the example -- the experience of Palestinians should be a theme for an exhibit (and if so, what kind of exhibit) in the CMHR.

The pretensions of human rights scholarship to rise categorically above the politics of human rights should be rejected. Those who direct the CMHR should accept that political conversations will be part of their future even if the politics result in unease and doubts about the viability of a human rights museum.



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2011 A11

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