Text size

"The brutal extermination of a people began not with guns or tanks but with words systematically portraying the Jews and others as not legitimate, something less than human," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, as the UN member states gathered to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.

Shalom said one would never know if the United Nations, created after World War Two, could have prevented the Holocaust. But he said the United Nations as well as each individual member state needed "to rededicate ourselves to ensuring that it will never happen again."

Speaking ahead of Shalom, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told those at Monday's session in New York that the UN must not forget that it was created as a result of the evil of Nazism.

"The camps were not mere concentration camps," said Annan as he opened the session. "Let us not use the euphemism of those who built them. Their purpose was not to concentrate a group in one place so as to keep an eye on them, it was to exterminate an entire people."

"Only gradually did the world come to know the full dimension of the evil those camps contained," Annan told the Assembly. "The discovery was fresh in the minds of the delegates in San Fransisco when this organization [the UN] was founded.

"The United Nations must never forget that it was created as a response to the evil of Nazism, or the horror of the Holocaust helped to create its mission. That response is enshrined in...the universal declaration of human rights."

Annan also mentioned gypsies, prisoners of war, mentally and physically handicapped people, homosexuals and artists who were all killed by the Nazis "in cold blood."

"To all these we owe respect, which we can show by making special efforts to protect all communities that are similarly threatened... now and in the future," Annan said.

Annan described the Jews who were killed as a nation who contributed far beyond its numbers to the cultural and intellectual riches of Europe and the world.

He asked how could such evil happen in a cultured and highly sophisticated nation-state in the heart of Europe whose artists and thinkers had given the world so much. "All that is needed for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing," he said, quoting 18th century English philosopher Edmund Burke.

"The purveyors of hatred, were not always and may not be in the future, only marginalized extremists," Annan said.

The UN chief quoted Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, saying, "Not all victims were Jews but all Jews were victims."

Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, also questioned the actions of the Nazis. "How could intelligent educated men, or simply law-abiding citizens, ordinary men, fire machine guns at hundreds of children every day" and "in the evening" read Schiller and listen to Bach, he said.

Speaking immediately after Annan, Wiesel mourned the loss of life and loss to humanity caused by the Holocaust. Who knows, he asked, whether one of the million and a half Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust could have won a Noble Prize of his own, or discovered a cure for cancer.

"When speaking about that era of darkness, the witness encounters difficulties... for there are no words to describe what the victims felt when death was the norm and life a miracle," he said.

"If the world had listened we may have prevented Darfur, Cambodia, Bosnia and naturally Rwanda," Wiesel told the assembly.

"We know that for the dead it is too late. For them, abandoned by God and betrayed by humanity, victory did come much too late," Wiesel said. "But it is not too late for today's children, ours and yours. It is for their sake alone that we bear witness."

The author drew attention to the indifference of the West during the war to accept more refugees, allow more Jews to go to Israel, or bomb the railway lines to the large Auschwitz-Birkenau camp site where more than 1 million people - most of them Jews - were gassed to death or died of starvation and disease.

"In those times those who were there felt not only tortured, murdered by the enemy but also by what we considered to be the silence and indifference of the world," Wiesel said. "Now, 60 years later, the world at least tries to listen."

The special all-day session, defined Sunday as an historic event, was attended by the representatives of 30 senior UN member states and leading intellectuals.

The event had been meticulously planned to ensure the international community would rally around it and be fully represented at the session.

Among the participants are the foreign ministers of European countries, including German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and the foreign minister of Luxembourg, Jean Asselborn. Luxembourg is now serving as president of the European Union. The foreign ministers of France, Canada, Argentina and others have also announced their participation.

The special session, held in the UN building in New York, was the product of extensive diplomatic efforts on the part of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Israel's UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman said Monday that the special session was the most meaningful UN event which involves Israel since the state was founded in 1948.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom is representing Israel, while U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz is there on behalf of the United States.

The speakers were also to include U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos, who was saved by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary.

The climax of the session was expected to be a cantor chanting the Hebrew prayer mourning prayer "El Malei Rachamim" - the first time a Jewish prayer has been uttered in the General Assembly. The cantor was also to sing Israel's national anthem, "Hatikvah."

In an extraordinary step, Annan called a special press conference together with General Assembly President Jean Ping from Gabon and Gillerman. The press conference is viewed as a special effort on Annan's part to stress the importance of the General Assembly session and the reason for holding it, "since the United Nations was founded as the world was learning the full horror of the camps."

"This solemn and highly significant occasion should be seen as an expression of our commitment to build a United Nations that can respond quickly and effectively to genocide and other serious violations of human rights," Annan said.

Commentators noted the importance of the occasion in spite of its purely symbolic nature. "Let us not forget that this General Assembly hall that will hear 'El Malei Rachamim,' and 'Hatikvah' will be heard is the same hall that the resolution was passed by a large majority that compared Zionism to racism, which was seen as the international community questioning Israel's right to exist," one Jewish leader involved in preparing the program said.