Raoul Wallenberg Day: Freedom of Expression and the Responsibility to Listen

Monday, March 11, 2013

On January 17, 2013, I had the privilege to participate in the Raoul Wallenberg Day program at the Gray Academy of Jewish Education, a Winnipeg school that offers general as well as Jewish academic programs for students from junior kindergarten to grade 12.

Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat stationed in Hungary during the Second World War. He used his diplomatic influence to issue passports to Hungarian Jews, which saved tens of thousands of people from being deported to Nazi death camps. On January 17, 1945, Wallenberg was detained by Soviet authorities. It is presumed that he died or was killed in a Soviet prison although his exact fate remains unknown. Due to his heroic actions, in 1985 Wallenberg was posthumously given honorary Canadian citizenship, the first person ever to be given this homage. In 2001, January 17 was declared Raoul Wallenberg Day in Canada.

In recognition of Wallenberg, each year the Gray Academy hosts a program on human rights for the school’s students in grades 9 to12.  This year’s theme was “freedom of expression.” The day began with a panel discussion, chaired by lawyer and Queen’s Diamond Jubilee recipient Howard Morry.  The panelists were Professor Bryan Schwartz, Wadood Ibrahim (the CEO of Protegra), and myself.  During the panel, Bryan spoke about what it means to say that freedom of expression is a human right. Wadood spoke about his experience growing up in an environment where citizens did not enjoy freedom of expression. 

During my portion of the panel, I discussed how the strict control of expression in Nazi Germany was intimately bound to the Nazi regime’s systematic erasure of human rights and human dignity before and during the Holocaust; from Jews being targeted for economic persecution in 1933 through boycotts or restrictions on employment, to the perpetration of genocide by Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War.

After the panel, the students broke into smaller groups for a series of sessions.  In my session, the students and I considered freedom of expression as a human right, and as a tool to promote and protect human rights.  We used Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a starting point, and thought about how it identifies the freedom to express one’s own opinions, as well as the right to hear the opinions of other people.  As a group, we explored this through two case studies.  The first compared free expression in 1930s and 1940s Canada, where both pro-Nazi and anti-Nazi ideologies proliferated in the Canadian press, and the case of Nazi Germany, where information was strictly controlled and expressing dissent was severely punished.  

The second case study looked at the other side of the freedom of expression coin – the right to hear, which I asked the students to think of as the “responsibility to listen.”  To illuminate this, we considered media coverage of the 1932-1933 Ukrainian famine-genocide (the Holodomor) by two different journalists – one who tried to expose the truth (Gareth Jones) and one who tried to hide it (Walter Duranty). The session ended by returning to Raoul Wallenberg, someone that heeded the responsibility to listen to those who were crying out for help.

The students engaged in spirited discussion and debate about topics like whether expression should be limited at all in a democratic society, and the role that social media has played in the democratization of free expression. I was extremely impressed by their critical thinking and high-level discussions and I was happy to have been invited to take part in the day’s program. Once the Canadian Museum for Human Rights opens its doors in 2014, it will be a place where conversations such as these will be encouraged  so that our youth remains engaged in the dialogue on human rights. 

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