The Fate of Raoul Wallenberg

18-01-2005 , by David Matas

(Comments prepared for delivery to the Raoul Wallenberg Symposium, January 18, 2005,

Osgoode Hall, York University, Toronto, Ontario)
by David Matas

The panel I have been asked to moderate is titled « Combatting Racism, Intolerance and Human Rights Violations ». This panel occurs in the context of a symposium titled « Raoul Wallenberg Day International Human Rights Symposium ». The symposium, according to the program, is intended to serve four purposes. One of these is to celebrate Raoul Wallenberg’s extraordinary life and humanitarian contribution. Another is to educate the next generation of Canadian leaders about human rights issues.

We can celebrate Raoul Wallenberg’s life and contribution to humanity by learning from him; by honouring him; by attempting each in our own small ways to imitate him. Yet, if we are to be true to the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, none of that is enough. We must not forget what January 17 commemorates, what this conference commemorates. January 17, this conference, is not the anniversary of his birth, nor of any one of his many achievements. It is the anniversary of his disappearance. January 17, 1945, Raoul Wallenberg vanished into the Soviet Gulag. Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler yesterday called Raoul Wallenberg « the lost hero of the Holocaust ». Today, sixty years later his fate is still unknown.

Raoul Wallenberg, who saved so many from human rights violations, was himself a victim of a human rights violation. Respect for human rights means respecting his human rights, attempting to determine his fate. We owe it to his family who still long to know what happened to him; but we owe it also to all humanity. Part of the struggle against racism, intolerance and human rights violations is the struggle to determine the fate of someone who did so much on his own to combat racism, intolerance and human rights violations.

We must not lose sight of the fate of Raoul Wallenberg in a cloud of forgetfulness. We must equally not lose sight of the fate of Raoul Wallenberg in a cloud of glory. Praising him is no substitute for finding out what happened to him. When we ignore his fate, he disappears a second time. And for this second disappearance, it is we who are to blame.

This is a lesson our co-host Minister Irwin Cotler long ago learned. Irwin Cotler chaired an International Commission of Inquiry on the fate and whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg which reported in May 1990. He chaired a follow up Soviet International Joint Commission on Wallenberg which reported in September 1990. My own work on the fate of Raoul Wallenberg began with help I tried to give to Irwin Cotler for these two commissions of inquiry. These commissions released valuable information; they created a small opening in the Iron Curtain hiding the fate of Raoul Wallenberg. But they did not tell the whole story.

Between 1996 and 1998 I worked on and produced a report on the fate of Raoul Wallenberg financed by the Department of Foreign Affairs, then under Minister Lloyd Axworthy. Though the report was long and detailed, with a wealth of recommendations, it had one simple conclusion: the fate of Raoul Wallenberg is knowable but not yet known.

There have been other reports on the fate of Raoul Wallenberg both before and since by private researchers, as well as by both the Swedish and Russian governments. Private reports and the Swedish reports all come to that same conclusion: the fate of Raoul Wallenberg is knowable but not yet known.

The Russian conclusion, regrettably, is different. The Soviets always had an answer to what happened to Raoul Wallenberg, although their answer kept on shifting over the years. The Russians now state that they do not know what happened to Raoul Wallenberg. But they add that this is information that can never be known; they contend that the fate of Raoul Wallenberg is an unsolvable mystery.

The trouble with this Russian answer is that it is made without all necessary investigations. Once every possibility has been exhausted, once we have travelled down every avenue, the Russian conclusion may be our own. But to say this now, even sixty years after Wallenberg’s disappearance, is too early, because there is still more to do.

The core problem is the inaccessibility of Russian archives to qualified researchers. All trails leading to the fate of Raoul Wallenberg end at locked doors. Behind those doors are Russian archives which only Russian archivists get to see.

To get an insight into the nature of the problem, allow me to quote from a report by John McCamus, a professor of this law school. He wrote a report for the Government of Canada in 1998 under the title « Report to the Deputy Minister Concerning certain allegations of antisemitism ». The allegations were made against Peter Kremer, then head of the War Crimes Unit of the Department of Justice. McCamus, in a detailed report, exonerated Peter Kremer.

The stewardship of Peter Kremer as head of the Justice War Crimes Unit was troubled; during his five year tenure not one new case was launched. A case that had been launched by his predecessor, William Hobson, against Stephen Reistetter, was dropped. The McCamus report gave us a fascinating glimpse what went on under the surface of this apparent inactivity. A primary problem was dealing with the Soviets.

This is what John McCamus quotes Peter Kremer as saying:
« From the start of the (war crimes) project until July 30, 1990, 42 requests for assistance were sent to East Bloc countries and the USSR…of the 42 requests, only 20 responses were received, 2 of which where negative and many of which contained limited information concerning the Canadian suspects. Normally, there was a time lag of at least six months and up to two years from the delivery of a request to the receipt of a response. Unofficial and official enquiries about the status of the requests did little to expedite responses. Access to archives in the USSR by Justice historians was restricted to authenticating documents for court purposes and research on cases before Canadian courts …Twenty seven of these (42) requests for assistance were set to the USSR. There were eleven responses… Because there was no way of evaluating the thoroughness of the methodology employed by the Soviet Procurator’s Office in identifying and tracing witnesses or locating relevant historical documentation, it was not possible to make a final assessment on the investigation. »

This has all been true of Raoul Wallenberg research. Requests for information to Russian archivists go unanswered. Those that are answered contain limited information. The time lag between requests and answers is several months and can be years. Inquiries about the status of requests do little to expedite responses. Because there is no way of evaluating the thoroughness of the methodology employed by the Russian archivists in locating relevant documents, it is not possible to make a final assessment on the investigation.

The War Crimes Unit of the Department of Justice had a simple, workable answer to this problem, direct access of Canadian war crimes researchers to Russian archives. Canada negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the Soviets and later with the Russians that gave Canadian researchers direct access to these archives.

The current memorandum states
« The parties agree to render assistance in arranging …. access to places containing documents…relevant to an investigation » [paragraph II.6(a)].

Peter Kremer, in the McCamus report, said this about the Canada Soviet agreement:
« A major step forward in the investigation of the East Bloc and USSR cases was the ability of Justice historians to conduct primary research in all government archives ».

As a result of this example, I wrote first to Minister Axworthy and then to his successor Minister Bill Graham, suggesting Canada amend its current memorandum of understanding with the Russians or negotiate a new understanding for Raoul Wallenberg research. Canadian researchers who already have access to all Russian government archives for war crimes research should be able to use that access for Raoul Wallenberg research.

I did not suggest that those currently working on war crimes research be diverted from that effort. But there are plenty of alumni of the Canadian Justice war crimes unit research effort who could do Wallenberg research without weakening the Canadian war crimes effort.

Minister Bill Graham wrote back to me by letters date November 17, 2003 and May 28, 2004. He indicated that he had raised my suggestion with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and that Mr. Ivanov had offered access to all Foreign Policy Archives. Minister Graham wrote that he realized that this was « not exactly » the response I was looking for, and indeed it was not. There is a big difference between access to Foreign Policy Archives and access to all archives. Minister Graham hoped that this would get us started on the right track.

The Minister also referred in one of his letters to « Sweden’s natural right to take the leadership in this case », a principle I accept. Accordingly, I decided to see if I could get the Swedish government to propose to the Russian Government jointly with Canada this suggestion of allowing Canadian government war crimes researchers to expand the mandate of their research to encompass the fate of Raoul Wallenberg.

My first approach was informal. I have a friend working in Stockholm, another Winnipeg lawyer, Brian Gorlick. I suggested he raise this proposal with the person in the Swedish government with primary responsibility for the Wallenberg file, Ambassador Harald Hamrin. Brian Gorlick has done so. The approach generated interest and requests for more information. My next step will be to send a letter to the Swedish foreign minister Laila Freivalds, presenting formally to the Swedish government the proposal Brian Gorlick has already presented informally.

The Canadian Russian memorandum of understanding needs, as I see it, three substantive changes to allow access to Russian archives for Wallenberg research. One is to change its scope. The current memorandum permits investigations against persons
« in Canada or Russia who are suspected of having committed war crimes or crimes against humanity, as defined in international law, during the German National Socialist (Nazi) period in Europe » [paragraph I.1].
This has to be replaced with permission to investigate into the fate of Raoul Wallenberg.

The second is to add Sweden as a party. My suggestion originally was directed to the Government of Canada and not the Government of Sweden in light of the present access that Canadian researchers have to Russian archives for war crimes research which, as I understand, Swedish researchers do not. I presumed that it would be easier to reach an agreement with Russia to expand the mandate of workers who presently have access to the archives, who have earned the confidence of Russian officials, than to introduce new workers into those archives. As well, those who already know how the archives are organized because of having worked in them are bound to be more effective than researchers who are learning the archives for the first time. Nonetheless, on reflection, I accept that it makes sense, in light of both the experience and centrality of Sweden in the investigation into the fate of Raoul Wallenberg, both for Sweden to take the lead in pursuing this request to Russia and to add Swedish researchers to the request.

The third is to amend the confidentiality provision. The Russian Canadian memorandum of understanding has a confidentiality provision. It reads:
« The parties will keep confidential any information received from or given to the other party and will not communicate it to the press or to any other country or person without the prior written consent of the other party, subject to either party sharing information with War Crimes Units in other countries on a confidential basis after informing the other party in writing. » [Article 3]

It would defeat the purpose of Wallenberg research if the results were to be kept confidential. The memorandum must allow researchers to make public any information they discover on the fate of Raoul Wallenberg.

Nonetheless, Wallenberg information is unlikely to be solely in Wallenberg files. Access to all archives means access to security archives, to KGB archives, to presidential archives. Researchers may well end up having to go through files which contain genuine security information that Russia legitimately could claim should not be made public. An amended confidentiality provision needs to remain to generate confidence that researchers who might stumble across unrelated information in their Wallenberg research will not make this unrelated information public.

Well, that is where I am right now. What happened to Raoul Wallenberg sixty years ago? After fifteen years of working on this file, I do not know and am still trying to find out. As we continue to honour Raoul Wallenberg the hero, let us give a moment of thought to Raoul Wallenberg the person. The path I personally am following to try to find out what happened to Raoul Wallenberg is not the only way and not necessarily the best way. I invite us all, as we promote the human rights legacy of Raoul Wallenberg, to remember the human rights of Raoul Wallenberg himself.
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…………………………..David Matas is a lawyer in private practice in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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