Genocide neglect

SAM DE BRITO
Last updated 05:00 22/02/2014
Kim Jong Un
Reuters
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OPINION: This week we got a glimpse of how the world would have responded to Nazi death camps if the Holocaust happened in 2014; a couple of hundred shocked news items, a few thousand outraged tweets, then back to the business of the Winter Olympics and what everyone's wearing at the Brit Awards.

One of the most astonishing aspects of the news from North Korea of mothers forced to drown their newborns, prisoners fed to dogs and tens of thousands starved and brutalised to death is how little news it's made.

There's been no 'rolling' coverage by TV networks, no impassioned monologues from radio shock jocks or screaming front page headlines; not even been a tastefully art-directed Facebook campaign from concerned hipsters.

There was even a handy local news angle to the crimes against humanity, with Australian former High Court judge Michael Kirby heading the UN Commission of Inquiry that took the evidence from 80 experts, victims and witnesses of Pyongyang's insane Kim dynasty, producing a 372 page report - with cartoons!

Kirby gifted us the headline, himself drawing the comparison to the atrocities of Nazi Germany and saying the transgressions being committed against the North Korean people had "no parallel in the contemporary world".

However, a dispassionate metric of media traffic - Google's Newsmap - yesterday reflected the world's preoccupation with everything except North Korea. Soccer, Sochi, Ukraine and Pussy Riot were all of more interest to the public than the enslavement, extermination, torture, rape, starvation and abduction of tens of thousands of people whose only significant difference to us is where they were born.

As one of the few, truly incensed news items prompted by the report put it: "The response is shock, then a collective shrug."

While it is difficult to dwell on horrors enacted halfway across the world, it is still profoundly unsettling a good portion of humanity gets more worked up about a giraffe euthanised and fed to lions in a Danish zoo, as happened a couple of weeks ago.

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The equally disturbing abominations being perpetrated in Syria, which have caused millions to flee the country - including the now famous four-year-old boy Marwan - are instructive.

After it came to light little Marwan was in fact trailing a huge group of refugees escaping the war and had not actually crossed the desert by himself, Karl Schembri of Save The Children, told Fairfax's Ruth Pollard: "Such is our ignorance of what these children go through that the moment poor little Marwan no longer fits our media narrative he becomes just one of thousands again."

Schembri's moral intuition is spot on, yet the "psychic-numbing" he describes has been noted by academics for decades, with the psychologist Paul Slovac coining the term "genocide neglect" to describe the fact most people are more distressed by the suffering of a single child or animal than a body count of millions.

"If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will," said Mother Teresa, a quote Slovac has used to highlight this "deeply unsettling insight into human nature".

Such are the workings of the human brain that Thursday, two days after the UN's report landed, the biggest headline out of North Korea in this country was about a South Australian missionary detained for allegedly distributing religious materials.

In one report, the horrors of the North Korean gulags were actually used as a backdrop to Christian evangelist John Short's detainment, the intent, seemingly, that we should be more fearful for him because, crikey, look what else they get up to over there.

Reading about the Holocaust, I've often wondered if any of the millions who died could have been saved if the light of global comprehension had pierced the Nazi shadows and the rest of the world knew what was happening.

This, perhaps, is something Michael Kirby asked himself this week when he said of North Korea: "Now the international community does know. There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn't know."

Now we do know, I'm convinced it's something of a mercy the vast majority of the North Korean population lives in ignorance of the wider world under a savagely controlled state-run media.

Imagine starving in a freezing gulag, watching your parents murdered or your children mutilated and raped, and knowing every government on earth was totally aware of your fate but simply couldn't be bothered doing anything about it?

- Sydney Morning Herald

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