"Cultural and physical genocide must be opposed wherever it occurs."

It is high time we recognized the preservation of endangered peoples for what it is: not simply an act of commiseration, but, above all, an act of self-preservation. For, among those peoples, everything our industrialized, utilitarian age has taken from us is preserved, at least in vestigial form. If we wish to become truly human, then we need development aid from those we - in our blind arrogance - call "underdeveloped.

Robert Jungk

The "Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker" (GfBV), today's foremost German human rights organization after Amnesty International, came into being in 1970. The group emerged from the movement "Aktion Biafrahilfe," which had been founded in 1968 by two Hamburg students as a reaction against the genocide committed against the Ibos.

After decolonization, the Biafra crisis provoked a new type of minority conflict: the revolt of ethnic groups within "Third World" states, most of which were arbitrary creations by colonial powers. The "Third World solidarity movement" was not prepared to cope with conflicts of this type. The young French doctor, Bernard Kouchner, now international renowned as the founder of the "doctors across borders" movement, criticized this failure on his return from Biafra in 1970: "The Left has closed its eyes against the extermination of the...Biafrans, Kurds, South Sudanese, Indians of Mato Grosso...; the only point of interest to them is whether the dying belong to the Left or not."

From the beginning, the GfBV, like Amnesty International, has opposed political bias of all kinds; as a human rights organization, it supports endangered and persecuted ethnic, racial, and religious minorities in numerous states and political systems. It interceded on behalf of Tibetans during the Chinese cultural revolution (which, at the time, was widely glorified in our hemisphere), on behalf of Crimean Tatars resettled by force in the USSR, on behalf of Indians of both Americas, on behalf of Eritreans, Kabyles of Algeria, the Saharwis, and Australian Aborigines. Condemning, as it does, both the US threat to Nicaragua and the suppression of Miskitos by the Sandinistas, the GfBV has "established itself in the appropriate position for that kind of organization: between all possible schools," the Süddeutsche Zeitung has commented.

One of the GfBV's main tasks is the battle against both cultural extermination ("ethnocide") and physical extermination ("genocide"). To this end, it has always placed particular importance on genocidal crimes against peoples "no one speaks of," i.e. West Papuans of New Guinea, the Hill Tribes and Biharis of Bangladesh, Nagas and Mizos in India, and many others. The crime of genocide was defined, in the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention as an act "with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as such." The crime of ethnocide is defined by the GfBV as follows: "Ethnocide is the annihilation of the cultural, linguistic, and ethnic character of a national group, or its assimilation by force, in other words the destruction of national identity."

Some of the methods used to bring about ethnocide are:

1. resettlement of a national group by force (deportation; settlement in areas outside the group's home region);

2. suppression of cultural activities and of the use of the native tongue, in spoken or written form (penalization of use of the native tongue outside private houses; non-acceptance of the language for official use or in the mass media; alteration of family and place names by force; compulsory use of particular alphabets, etc.);

3. demographic and economic manipulations (deliberate impoverishment of the indigenous population leading to its emigration, with simultaneous economic incentives to attract immigration of alien elements);

4. destruction of traditional economic systems, particularly of tribal peoples

- by settling vagrant or nomadic peoples by force

- by destroying their ecological resources (particularly through the exploitation of natural resources, deforestation, building dams, etc.);

5. enforced missionization (enforced Christianization, Islamization, etc.).

The focal points of the GfBV's work are:

1. distributing information (with the help of about 30 regional working groups, the specialized magazine and pocket book series Pogrom, each with about 3,600 subscribers, and by regular public campaigns in the German-language media);

2. protest actions against human rights violations (by way of the "action leaflet" Vierte Welt aktuell (German) and "Actions for endangered peoples" (English, French, Spanish);

3. supporting self-administration projects, cooperatives, newspapers, and civil rights movements of endangered minorities;

4. promoting tours, press conferences, and the establishment of contacts, for minority group spokesmen in the Federal Republic of Germany;

5. assisting political refugees by providing expertise and documentary material for lawyers and courts, and, in some cases, individual aid;

6. providing expert advice to journalists, authors, publishers, and other organizations.

By organizing and implementing numerous human rights actions, often in coordination with a worldwide network of organizations, action committees, and civil rights and peoples' rights movements among the endangered peoples themselves, a number of favorable results have been achieved:

- In conducting research and providing basic information on the approximately 20,000 Christian Assyrians of New-Aramaic idiom living among us, the GfBV was instrumental in gaining recognition as political refugees.

- The wide publicity given in the German media to the genocide committed against Armenians in 1915-18 was made possible by four hitherto unmatched GfBV documents. These also were published and acknowledged internationally.

- From 1970 until 1976, the GfBV was the only German institution doing "pioneer work" on behalf of Kurds, of whom no less than 300,000 are now living among us.

- By organizing effective publicity tours of the Federal Republic for spokesmen of Indian civil rights movements from North, Central, and South America it has been possible to awaken continuous interest and attention among the churches, humanitarian organizations, and Third World groups. This has led to the formation of a large number of action groups in support of the Indian peoples, particularly in Latin America.

- It was the GfBV which stimulated discussion, at national and international levels, about the genocide against the "gypsies" (a taboo subject in Germany until 1978). This resulted in public rehabilitation of this ethnic group as well as the elimination of numerous discriminatory regulations, which were in force in Germany between 1943 and 1979. Since then the proper terms "Roma" and "Sinti" have been widely accepted, and civil rights groups of this German national minority are now subsidized by Federal and "Länder" governments.

In 1983, the dramatic intensification of discriminatory measures by German authorities against so-called "guest workers" ("Gastarbeiter," the German term for foreign laborers), political refugees enjoying political asylum, and stateless Roma, led to numerous GfBV activities on behalf of Assyrians, Kurds, Jesidi, Tamils, South Sudanese, Roma, and others. It is one of the facts of our time that the activity for an organization such as the "Gesellschaft für Bedrohte Völker" is increasing rather than decreasing.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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