One of the darkest and saddest chapters of history began 75 years ago in Spain. It lasted more than 41 years and even now, 34 years of democracy later, it has not truly ended.
In 1936, those who scorned the freedom and democracy of the Spanish Republic began an unjust and illegal war – though perhaps all wars are unjust and illegal. Tens of thousands were tortured, disappeared and executed without trial. About 30,000 children – the “Lost Children of Francoism” – were kidnapped simply because their parents supported the Republic.
But it was not just a domestic war. The fascist regimes in Germany and Italy aided the rebels led by General Francisco Franco, while the Western democracies stood by silently. International solidarity soon stepped up, however. From more than 50 countries, more than 40,000 men and women – including 2,800 from the United States – formed the International Brigades to fight against fascism in Spain. They offered their lives for an ideal.
The American volunteers were called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which was nearly 30 percent Jewish and included 75 women and 90 African Americans. For the first time in U.S. history, white soldiers served under a black commander, Oliver Law. When those who survived returned to the United States, some were persecuted during the McCarthy era as “premature anti-fascists.”
For me, as for so many others, the men and women of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade are a shining example of courage and solidarity: They are the heroes who choose to fight for the promise of freedom and democracy, whose convictions lead them to offer the ultimate sacrifice.
We all have a moral – a legal – obligation to fight against amnesia and indifference, just as much as we must fight against those who instigated or consented to barbaric acts. To do so means to hold high the banner of dignity and human rights and turn away from illegality and those spaces where the rule of law does not exist, even in the name of the so-called “war on terror.”
It is through the rule of law, not through violence, that we must protect and defend the victims of war, of terrorism and of the mass criminals who sow the earth with death and desolation.
As a judge, my duty is to try, with every case, to comply with the law – that universal vision founded on respect for human dignity and the doctrine of human rights. As such, I am one of the many who struggle against the theory that history can only be changed by military force.
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a clear affirmation of international coexistence based on respect for the guarantee of all rights for all citizens, everywhere. Today this declaration still lingers, waiting for action. But in the face of the failure of ideologies that have pretensions to universality, the only language common to all humanity remains the language of human rights, a language to guide us in an era of globalization in which the value of ethics and responsibility has been suspended.
For these reasons we must defend those rights and respond to the illicit activities of international corporations and governments in sensitive areas such as poverty, the distribution of wealth, the development and administration of natural resources and the protection of the environment. For civil society to not confront these new challenges is tantamount to approving the status quo.
In 16th century Switzerland, an epic confrontation took place between reason and power, between conscience and violence, between Sebastian Castellio, a believer in religious tolerance, and John Calvin, the intolerant Protestant reformer. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig described it aptly: “From the point of view of the spirit, the words ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’ acquire a different meaning. And for this reason, we must again and again remind the world – a world that sees only the victors – that those who would raise their dominion over the tombs … of millions of beings are not the true heroes; rather it is those others who, without taking recourse to force, succumbed before power, as Castellio did before Calvin, in his fight for the freedom of conscience and for the final coming of humanity on earth.”
It is up to us to continue the fight for human rights, for human dignity and against impunity.