The defenders of human rights

A woman’s hands are pictured in this photo illustration depicting the effects of human trafficking. Photo: CNS photo/St. Louis Review

Weimar, Germany. This is a city in central Germany that has had a glorious history marred by a terrible past. At present, it is a small city where the respect and promotion of human rights are celebrated and rewarded. 

On International Human Rights Day, December 10, the city presents the prestigious Weimar Human Rights Award to those recognised and lauded for their commitment and work in defending and promoting the rights of the people most vulnerable and at risk of rights violations around the world.

This year, two courageous women from Africa—Laila Fakhouri of Sahrawi, Western Sahara, and Ihsan Fagiri from Sudan, both advocates for the human rights and dignity of the oppressed women and people of their respective nations—received the award. Laila is working for the liberation of Western Sahara from occupation by Morocco.

The city is celebrating the 25th year anniversary of the establishment of the Weimar Human Rights Award and invited previous winners of the award back, including this writer, who was invited to speak on human rights during the awarding ceremony. He talked about the expansion of the greatest form of human rights violations after war: human trafficking and modern human enslavement.  The speech was well received with prolonged applause.

The greatest historical achievement of the city of Weimar was the cultural heritage formed during a period of enlightenment and the creation of brilliant literature, music and political progress in the 19th century. 

The city which today has a population 65,000, was famous and Martin Luther came and stayed several times. Famous literary figures like Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller lived and worked here. Schiller’s poems inspired Beethoven to write his Ninth Symphony with the Ode to Joy, which, today is the anthem of the European Union.

The great composer and pianist, Frans Liszt, made Weimar his home as did many other famous people. It was the city where the first democratic constitution was proclaimed and signed after World War I in 1918 and Germany as a democracy was known as the Weimar Republic and its capital was Weimar; Berlin being too dangerous. 

However, by 1929, a new, dangerous ideology emerged in the city and it became a centre of Nazism and the home of its National Socialist philosophy and propaganda centre.  This was the beginning of the decline of the city as a beacon of an enlightened cultural heritage.

The Nazis controlled the city and built several death camps in the surrounding area. In 1937, they built the Buchenwald extermination concentration camp eight kilometres away. It was the most notorious. 

As many as 240,000 people were imprisoned there—political opponents, allied prisoners of war, gypsies and people of the Jewish faith. As many as 56,545, were exterminated and burnt in ovens in the basement of the camp extermination building.

Viewing the huge, enlarged photos of the piles of emaciated skeletal bodies, I felt sick. How could people do this to fellow human beings, I asked myself. They did, by shooting them in the head through a hole in the wall where they stood to be measured and by hanging them on meat hooks with wire around their necks. 

Other prisoners were used as slave labour by the Wilhelm Gustioff Werke factory making weapons for the German army.

When the United States Army liberated the camp and discovered the thousands of slaughtered bodies in huge piles and thousands of starved people, they brought the people of the of Weimar to walk through Buchenwald to view the bodies and the starving people; evidence of the Holocaust wherein six million Jewish people were murdered, an unprecedented mass murder of civilians.

The Weimar Human Rights Award was established 25 years ago to honour human rights defenders and to acknowledge the commitment of a new generation of the people of Weimar that such crimes of the past would never be repeated. 

Slavery and abuse continue today in many more countries. In Myanmar, the Rohingya people are suffering genocide and former human rights defender Aung San Suu Kyi, in her statement at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, has turned to support the military in their alleged war crimes of genocide  (Sunday Examiner, December 22). Thousands of Rohingya are exiled in Bangladesh.

The sale of human beings by human traffickers into the bondage of sex slavery is an atrocious form of human rights violation. This modern kind of slavery is not the same as human exploitation of the past but it is very much with us today in our world and it is greater than it ever was. Sex tourism and online child sexual exploitation are contributing to the expanding sex trade. 

This insidious form of human trafficking is evil because it is aided, abetted, and approved by the government itself. The state gives permits, earns money and supports the sex industry and thereby encourages and accelerates human trafficking. Every town has a red-light district with sex bars operating with business permits and licenses issued by the mayor. It is a huge earning of revenue for the town or city.

The human traffickers act with impunity and they keep a steady supply of vulnerable impoverished and needy young girls from the poorest of provinces and city slums that are forced and pressured into prostitution, Prostitution is illegal in the Philippines and yet hundreds of thousands are trafficked and sexually exploited in the commercial sex industry.

Wherever this is happening in the world, let it be known that the salaries of public officials and public services are funded in part by the proceeds of human trafficking and slavery. This, despite strong laws forbidding human trafficking and enslavement, laws which are seldom implemented or enforced.

Human rights defenders oppose this slavery and abuse of women and children, and we must unite together to stand against it and uphold the  rights and dignity of the oppressed and enslaved women and children.

Father Shay Cullen 

Author: SundayExam