During a memorial service in honour of victims of the Holocaust at the Park East Synagogue in New York today, Deputy-Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said that preventing genocide required efforts to understand the forces behind it.
“The Holocaust did not start with Auschwitz,” said Mr. Eliasson in his speech. “It started with bias, discrimination, looking down on people, the anti-Semitic slogans and laws that preceded Kristallnacht, and with rallies which provided both an identity and a cause, however perverted, for people who evidently needed both.”
Mr. Eliasson related his own experience as a child seeing images from Nazi death camps and responding with the thought that such suffering should never be allowed to happen again.
The same “Never Again” response to the horrors of the Holocaust was a major part of the UN's formative experience, paying tribute to all Holocaust survivors, including those present at the memorial.
“We are grateful and humble, and we are inspired by your example of the resilience of the human spirit,” he said, adding that “disbelief and incomprehension” surround the Holocaust and genocides committed since, including those in Rwanda and Srebrenica.
“Every time we say 'never again,' we are in fact admitting failure to prevent,” he said, noting that a gap remained between international rhetoric and action and point to “terrible acts of inhumanity” in Iraq, Syria, the Central African Republic and Nigeria.
“The seeds of discrimination, racism and hatred are planted and often allowed to grow. People too often turn away instead of up-rooting these seeds,” he said calling for earlier action to prevent situations escalating to violence and the point of no return. “Preventing genocide must not begin when we are witnessing atrocities that fit the definition of genocide.”
Stressing the importance of vigilance, the Deputy-Secretary-General underlined the importance of trying to understand the forces behind genocide. He said that was a major component of the UN's important and demanding mission on genocide prevention, adding that the Secretary-General appointed a Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng of Senegal to assist him in the work.
The UN was determined to prevent genocide and other atrocity crimes and doing so was a key objective of the Human Rights Up Front initiative, launched by the Secretary-General in 2013 to ensure a system-wide approach to protection. The initiative is based on responding to early warning signs of human rights violations that can turn into atrocities, aiming to reinforce the centrality of human rights in the UN's work.
“Human Rights Up Front has begun to make a difference,” Mr. Eliasson said. “One example is South Sudan, where the initiative provided the basis for the decision by the leadership of the mission to open the gates of UN premises to protect some 75,000 civilians who were desperately seeking safety in December 2013.”
Alongside that initiative, he said the UN used its Outreach Programme to reach teachers and students around the world, warning about the Holocaust and other genocides, and against discrimination, while the Alliance of Civilizations, which the UN launched 10 years ago, also promoted tolerance and reconciliation.
Stressing the need to face up to the past to learn lessons to apply in the future, he called for decisive action to prevent genocide and other atrocity crimes in the future.
“It is time for us all to stand up proudly and unfailingly for our common values and our common humanity,” he said.