The Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights
Heroes of humanity deserve to be remembered and that remembrance acted upon, for they demonstrate how one person with the compassion to care and the courage to act can confront evil and transform history. As such, they serve as metaphors and messages of the struggle for human rights and human dignity representing hope and inspiration in reminding us that we all have the power to better the human condition. It is therefore a moral imperative, if not a historic responsibility, to learn about, reflect, and act upon the legacies of humanity’s heroes. Among the heroes of humanity that we ought to commemorate and celebrate are Canada’s first two Honorary Citizens: Raoul Wallenberg and Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela.
Today is an important day of remembrance and reminder of the 74th anniversary of the disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg – Canada’s first Honourary Citizen – and whom the United Nations has called “the greatest humanitarian of the 20th century.”
Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat stationed in Budapest in the summer and autumn of 1944 – and a quintessential hero of humanity – immortalized the words, “to me there is no other choice”. By acting upon this maxim during the Second World War, he saved more Jews during six months of the Holocaust than any single government, foreshadowing today’s foundational principles of international humanitarian law and demonstrating the power of an individual with the compassion to care and the courage to confront evil, prevail, and transform history.
Wallenberg is best known for the distribution of Shutzpasses and the establishment of safe houses – diplomatic passports and sanctuary conferring protective immunity on their recipients and inhabitants – affirming the principle of diplomatic protection, a foundational principle of International Law. In his organization of hospitals, soup kitchens, and orphanages– the staples of international humanitarian assistance – Wallenberg provided the vulnerable with a semblance of human dignity, symbolizing the best of what we today would call International Humanitarian Intervention. His last rescue – sending the Nazi Generals threatening to liquidate Hungary’s remaining Jews a warning that they would be brought to justice, if not executed, for their war crimes – was perhaps the most memorable, as he saved 70,000 Jews while prefiguring the Nuremberg principles – what we today call International Criminal Law – while personifying the Responsibility to Protect.
While Wallenberg saved so many, he was not saved by so many who could. Rather than greet him as the liberator he was, the Soviets, who entered Hungary as liberators themselves, arrested him on suspicion of espionage, rendering him a political prisoner. He disappeared into the Gulag, and his family — along with the tens of thousands whose lives he saved — still do not know what happened to him.
While Wallenberg was disappeared, we must ensure that his vision and values do not. The Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights is anchored in and inspired by his humanitarian life and legacy. Through our work, we seek to honour his heroism, and affirm that in a world of rising injustice, pursuing justice is a matter in which “there is no other choice.”
May today not only be an act of remembrance, but a remembrance to always act.
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