Jan. 25, 2005
'It is not too late for today's children'. UN session marks death camp liberation


Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel joined world leaders on Monday in asking whether the United Nations is ready to prevent a future genocide, as the UN General Assembly convened a first-of- its-kind session to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.

"We know that for the dead it is too late," Wiesel said of the Holocaust's victims. "But it is not too late for today's children, ours and yours. It is for their sake alone that we bear witness."

"The Jewish witness that I am speaks of my people's suffering as a warning," Wiesel said. "He sounds the alarm to prevent these tragedies from being done to others. And yes, I am convinced if the world had listened to those of us who tried to speak we may have prevented Darfur, Cambodia, Bosnia and naturally Rwanda."

For several hours, representatives of the UN's member states - including many Arab countries - sat and listened as speaker after speaker ascended the podium to talk about the horrors of the camps, the Allied victory over Nazi fascism and the need to never again let genocidal campaigns go unanswered.

The special session was scheduled earlier this month after a majority of the world body's 191 members voiced their support for a first-ever commemoration of the Holocaust, in the form of a session marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

The session was part of a week or so filled with Holocaust commemorations, including the official opening of an exhibit on Auschwitz situated just inside the entrance to the UN building and co-sponsored by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The UN was founded in the wake of World War II, partly to ensure that no such horror could ever again take place.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said the lessons of the Holocaust are crucial today because Jews and other minorities are again being subjected to some of the same xenophobic sentiments that gave rise to Nazism.

"It is not too late to recommit ourselves to the purposes for which the United Nations was founded," Shalom said. "The brutal extermination of a people began not with guns or tanks, but with words systematically portraying the Jews and others as not legitimate, less than human."

Shalom switched from English to Hebrew at the end of his speech to swear, in the name of the victims, the survivors and the Jewish people, that a Holocaust of the Jews would never again be allowed to take place.

Other speakers at the special session included German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and representatives of Poland, the European Union and Russia.

Monday's special session also served another purpose: to give nations an opportunity to justify everything from Russia's crackdowns on local skinheads to US interventionism in the Middle East - all in the name of the victims of the Holocaust.

"War is not something Americans seek," said US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who is Jewish. "Peaceful nations cannot close their eyes and stand idly by in the face of evil."

Paraphrasing Wiesel's remarks from earlier in the day, Wolfowitz said, "Neutrality is a sin."

Several speakers brought up the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the campaign of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and the ongoing violence in the Darfur region of Sudan as examples of the UN falling short of its commitment to protect people from genocide.

"Terrible things are happening today in Darfur, Sudan," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the assembly. "All that is needed for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing," he said, quoting the late philosopher Edmund Burke.

For many Jewish and Israeli officials, the mere fact that the UN had agreed to hold a special session on Auschwitz - and in the great hall in which Israel is so often vilified - constituted a significant triumph.

"Maybe they're trying to correct the damage the United Nations did, not only to the Jews but to the world at large, to call Zionism racism," said Roman Kent, chairman of American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, referring to the infamous 1975 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism. That resolution was invalidated in 1991.

Kent said he met last week with Annan and his wife, Nane, a niece of Raoul Wallenberg - the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during the Nazi era - for nearly an hour after the opening of the UN exhibit on Auschwitz.

Israel's ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, told The Jerusalem Post, "This is no doubt a very major achievement for the Israeli Foreign Ministry as well as for Israel, but this goes far beyond that. This is not an Israeli event. This is a universal event.

"The Holocaust and the Second World War are really the raisons d'etre that this organization exists," Gillerman said.