MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Looking away is a betrayal of who we are

In today’s world of instant and global communication we can’t pretend that we don’t really know what’s going on when crimes against humanity are being committed just a click away, writes Michael Clifford

A Syrian child, evacuated from Aleppo, sits in a field hospital bed near Idlib, Syria. Picture: AP

THE faces look out in desperation, showering guilt on anybody who looks in.

They appear baffled at our apparent indifference to the slaughter.

For the most part, their pleas or testimonies are delivered in low voices.

Maybe they are resigned to their fate, or maybe those who would kill them are not too far away.

And there is always the noise in the background, more mortars blowing off limbs, more bombs rained down from a black sky. More terrifying death.

The social media images that emanated from Eastern Aleppo earlier in the week will in time enter the annals of history.

Once more the charge will be levelled that the world looked on as thousands of people were slaughtered.

We have been here before in Rwanda; in Srebrenica; in Kosovo; all the way back to the concentration camps of Germany and Poland in the 1940s. The first instinct would appear to be to look away.

Can you imagine if social media existed during World War II?

There would have been faces, white European faces, bearing live testimony to the Holocaust. Would that have changed anything?

Would the rest of the west have looked away, justifying indifference by referencing the “other” religion of those being massacred? Or would the images, as is the case in some instances today, be dismissed as propaganda?

Never before has the killing been relayed to an outside world in real time. The tweets and videos sent out were from people who believed they were in the last hours or minutes of life as a noose is tightened around their necks.

The noose was the image used during the week by Samantha Power, the US’s Irish born representative at the UN.

At an assembly meeting, she delivered a powerful speech which included the following passage.

“To the Assad regime, Russia and Iran, your forces and proxies are carrying out these crimes, your barrel bombs and mortars and air strikes have allowed the militia in Aleppo to encircle tens of thousands of civilians in your ever tightening noose. It is your noose, three member states contributing to a noose around civilians. It should shame you. Instead, by all appearances, it is emboldening you. You are plotting your next assault. Are you truly incapable of shame. Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that doesn’t get under your skin, creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?”

Some have pointed out that Ms Power, as the US representative, has a brass neck delivering such condemnation.

Down through the decades, America has had its share of proxies who engaged in extreme brutality, far from the glare of social or any other kind of media.

In fact, in another theatre of the wider Iraq/Syria conflict, US personnel are playing a crucial role.

Can we be confident that the Americans fighting Isis in the Iraqi city of Mosul are not wantonly committing the kind of crimes that were condemned at the UN.

It has also been noted that Ms Power would have been constrained in her outrage if she was not, as part of the Obama administration, on her way out the door.

But to be fair to the woman herself, she has a long record in calling out human rights abuses, and if her office is tarnished then at least she personally voiced the kind of sentiment that should be representative of any society that describes itself as civilised.

Don’t expect her successor to call out such abuses.

All the indications are that whatever moral authority the USA might possess in dealing with Russia will be quietly shelved under Donald Trump.

In this country, the slaughter has made little impact on public consciousness.

The protest against Russia’s involvement has grown, but is still small.

Finally, there is an acceptance that it’s ok to protest a war being waged by a superpower other than the USA.

The over-riding sentiment, however, would appear to be cautious indifference. If the public were to confront the full horrors of what is afoot, that would inevitably lead to the most uncomfortable question of all — what can we do about it?

The obvious answer is to provide refuge to those who have escaped their bombed out homes or a bullet to the head. And there, an increasing number of people do not want to go.

On Monday’s Claire Byrne Live on RTÉ1 television an opinion poll returned a result that 58% of people believe that this country cannot cope with a planned intake of 520 refugees next year.

The country took in about the same number last year with a pledge to accept around 4,000 in total.

Only around a third of respondents said we could cope, with the remainder not expressing an opinion.

In another part of the poll, 59% responded that we are taking in enough refugees while just 23% said we were not.

Have we come to this in a nominally wealthy country of more than 4 million people?

The majority of citizens feel that we are simply not equipped to provide refuge to a tiny number of desperate souls fleeing for their lives?

The discussion on the programme probably reflected conversations up and down the country, with one particular train of thought emphasising that we shouldn’t be encouraging these people to flee the bombs.

This argument has it that the refugees are pawns of criminal traffickers rather than desperate people running for their lives.

As long as forces like the Irish navy save refugees from drowning, the traffickers will continue to point them in our direction.

The argument is convenient, eliminating any responsibility that we might have to towards basic human empathy.

If only the traffickers could be tackled, the poor refugees would stay at home and die conveniently.

During the week, the ESRI pointed out that this country has operated a relatively positive refugee resettlement programme, but there is much room for improvement.

“In the context of the (refugee) crisis, Ireland and the EU continue to be criticised for pledging to resettle such a small proportion of those in need of refuge,” the institute reported.

“The forthcoming restriction on family reunification in Ireland will impact negatively on the ability of refugees, including resettled refugees, to reunify with family members left behind.”

Are we doing all we can? Has our elevation in the developed world over the last two decades erased the sense of empathy with the oppressed for which this country was well known?

Looking away is no answer.

Keeping the head down is no answer either.


More on this topic

IS fighters bring hundreds of civilians up from tunnels to use as human shields in last stand

Syrian troops enter flashpoint town after Turkey threatens offensive

22 Syrian families, including 58 children, resettled in Ireland

Mattis resigns as US defence secretary following Syria withdrawal


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