As the global community gathered to commemorate the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi extermination camp 71 years ago, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed that the most effective way to stand up for human rights, fight xenophobia and prevent new genocides is by educating new generations about the horrors of the Holocaust.
“Today, with a rising tide of anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry and other forms of discrimination, we must do even more to defend these rights for people everywhere,” Mr. Ban told hundreds of people at UN Headquarters in New York, attending a memorial ceremony.
Noting that “violent extremism, sectarian tensions and hate-filled ideologies are on the march,” the UN chief underlined that civilians are in the crosshairs, and that international humanitarian law is being “flouted on a global scale.”
“The international community is failing to hold perpetrators to account,” he warned. “Today, we see actions of Da’esh [also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL] that may amount to grave crimes against minority groups such as the Yazidis. And the conflict in Syria has generated the worst humanitarian crisis of our time,” he said.
Meanwhile, recalling that the Holocaust was a “colossal crime,” Mr. Ban said those who deny it only perpetuate falsehoods and make a mockery of the pain.
“I was profoundly disappointed to learn of another so-called “Holocaust cartoon contest” being planned this year in Iran,” he lamented. “At this time of sectarian tensions, mutual respect must be foremost in our minds. Spreading hatred and toying with historical facts only leads down the dead-end of discord and danger,” he stressed.
In his remarks, the President of the UN General Assembly said evidence suggests that lessons from the past have not been put into practice, noting that the world still sees hate speech and actions by governments which incite hatred of others.
“All of us, therefore, at the United Nations and beyond, have a responsibility to take greater steps to promote tolerance, human rights and human dignity,” insisted Mogens Lykketoft, noting that this includes “The Responsibility to Protect” or R2P – a doctrine which recognizes the vulnerability of populations in many regions of the world, and calls on the international community to intervene to protect them.Mr. Lykketoft also called on all present to listen carefully to the stories and music of those speaking and performing at today’s event, hosted by the UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Cristina Gallach.
The ceremony featured a video tribute to Sir Nicholas Winton, who at age 29, rescued 669 children from the Holocaust on the Czech Kindertransport. He passed away at the age of 106 last July. Speaking to the audience, his daughter, Barbara Winton, explained that her father had kept a scrapbook of all those he had managed to save, with the names and addresses of the families who had took them in.
In the early 1980s’, he decided to find an organization that would be interested in housing the scrapbook. Several years later, he was called by a BBC television show called “That’s Life.” Producers told him they wanted to do an item on the book and invited him to come watch in the audience.
The clip shown to the General Assembly today showed Sir Winton at the taping; the anchor informs him that he is sitting next to one of the children he has saved, at which point they hug in an emotional embrace. The journalist then asks everyone in the room who was saved during the war by Mr. Winton to stand up. The whole audience then proceeds to rise.
Taking the floor as keynote speaker of the event, Beate Klarsfeld, who dedicated her life to bringing Nazi criminals to justice, said history is unpredictable. “Only the United Nations, provided it is powerful and effective, can master the unpredictability of history and safeguard the dignity of every human being,” she stated.
Meanwhile, the Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations said this day of commemoration is an occasion to reflect on the past and to consider the message of the Holocaust to the present.
“I planned to come here to speak to you today about the importance of memory,” Danny Danon told the audience. “I wanted to discuss the critical lessons we’ve learned from history – that we must never bury our head in the sand in the face of extremism and antisemitism. The main message of the speech I had prepared was that in order to remember, we must listen to the stories from the survivors themselves.”
Personal testimonies were delivered by Holocaust survivors Marta Wise and Haim Roet, and by Mr. Zoni Weisz, a Sinto survivor. The event also included a performance by the United States Military Academy at West Point Jewish Chapel Choir.