by Kieran Murphy

During a visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, I noticed a consistent difficulty in representing human rights objectively. How do we define a genocide, an ethnic cleansing, or a refugee? And who do we rely on to define these terms—The UN? The Canadian government? The general public?

Kendall McLean, a Museum employee who gave us our tour, said that the Museum struggled with communicating human rights in a way that everyone accepted. McLean explained that the Museum started out viewing its role as an objective conveyor of facts. She emphasized that she doesn’t think that the role of the Museum is to define words, but to educate the public about human rights, mostly through government and academic sources.

The Museum quickly ran into issues with “objectivity”. For starters, there is no source that is the “official” voice on human rights. The Museum didn’t know whether to use official Canadian sources or sources from the UN, a particular NGO, or groups of people.

The problem was demonstrated in the exhibit on genocide and mass atrocities, only the five cases officially labelled genocide by the Canadian government: the Armenian Genocide, the Holodomor, the Holocaust, Rwanda, and Srebrenica.

When I asked McLean about why only these were included, she noted that to become recognized by the Canadian government, significant lobbying is necessary. Thus, in McLean’s view, the exhibit is more about the importance of breaking the silence on genocide.

To any observer without a guided tour, these five genocides seem like the only ones that fit the definition of genocide. In reality, there are dozens more that have taken place in the last several hundred years alone. There is no indication in the exhibit that these are special because people lobbied the Canadian government. In fact, it seems strange to emphasize genocides recognized by the government. Why not focus on genocides in which no victims have been taken in as refugees by Canada, such as the Timor or Creek genocides? Genocide is too important and all-encompassing an issue to be portrayed in such Canada-centric light.

Another point of questionable objectivity stems from the Museum’s exhibit on Honorary Canadian Citizens. The honor has been bestowed upon only six people, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who the Museum says is “known internationally as a champion of peace, democracy, and non-violence in Burma.”

Aung San Suu Kyi gets more media attention today as the Burmese ruler who is all but condoning the genocide of the Rohingya people in western Burma. She is certainly not acting like a “champion of peace, democracy, and non-violence” in her current capacity.

When I asked curator Jeremy Maron about why Suu Kyi is still featured, he said her picture is meant to “spark a discussion” about her legacy. Her picture, standing proudly between Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai, and labelling Suu Kyi a “champion”, suggests that the discussion is closed. Though the Museum did post on Facebook asking readers about her legacy, anyone reading about Suu Kyi for the first time in the Museum would think she is a champion for peace.

In general my frustration stems from the fact that the curators gave me arguments that were perfectly reasonable, but that were not reflected in the content of the Museum itself.