NEW YORK - "The evil that destroyed 6 million Jews and others in those camps is one that still threatens all of us today." This statement by Kofi Annan at a press conference at the weekend is the main message of today's special session of the General Assembly commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auchwitz. "The global community must ensure that such horror never occurs again," Annan said.
The special all-day session, defined yesterday as a historic event, will be attended by the representatives of 30 senior UN members and leading intellectuals.
The event has been meticulously planned to ensure the international community would rally around it and be fully represented at the session.
Among the participants will be 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.
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom will represent Israel, while Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will represent the United States.
Among the speakers will also be Congressman Tom Lantos, who is a Holocaust survivor, as well as Nobel Peace Prize winner Eli Weisel.
The climax of the session is expected to be a cantor chanting the Hebrew prayer mourning prayer "El malei rachamim." This will be the first time a Jewish prayer has been uttered in the General Assembly. The cantor will also 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 Israel's UN ambassador, Dan 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.
The initiative for the special assembly to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz came from the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. However, after the proposal was transmitted officially to the secretary general, Israel kept a low profile in efforts to draft a majority in favor of the special session of the General Assembly, as required by the world body's charter. "We wanted to avoid creating the impression that the session was exclusively an Israeli interest," said an Israeli diplomat in New York.
Secretary General Kofi Annan, the U.S. and the European Union countries were the first to support the proposal. They were subsequently joined by other pivotal member states, among them Russia, Japan, Canada and Latin American countries.
The last date for members to state their approval of the special session was set for January 13, and a month ago there were still difficulties in obtaining the requisite majority. It was believed the initiative was in danger of failure, as the Arab bloc and the PLO observer in the UN, Nasser al-Kidwa, had joined forces against approval of the special session. Subsequently it appeared that the Arabs were working to reduce the significance of the session, defining it as a commemoration ceremony for those killed in the camps.
However, the determination of the secretary general and the U.S., in addition to quiet diplomacy on Israel's part, eventually led to a majority of 138 members out of 191 supporting the decision. Some of the Arab countries also joined the supporters of the move. Nasser al-Kidwa, known for never missing a chance to needle and isolate Israel, telephoned ambassador Dan Gillerman to announce he was supporting the session, a possible indication of his desire to join the new spirit between Israel and the PA following the death of Yasser Arafat.
Senior Jewish leaders, some of whom have fostered good relations with UN ambassadors, were actively involved in getting the session off the ground. The Anti-Defamation League distributed a letter to all UN members urging them to ensure the requisite majority for the session.
However, some Jewish leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they had mixed feelings about the significance of the event. The head of one major organization told Haaretz Kofi Annan had gone to great lengths to mollify the Jewish people and Israel, because "the UN and Kofi Annan are in trouble."
"In Washington and especially in Congress, there is political opposition to the UN. The success of the organization in bringing the horrors of the Holocaust and the memory of the 6 million Jews murdered into international discourse may improve its image and prevent further deterioration of Kofi Annan's image."
This evening a special exhibit, sponsored by the Foreign Ministry and curated by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs and Heros Remembrance Authority, Jerusalem, will open in the visitors lobby at UN headquarters. The exhibit, entitled "Auschwitz - the Depth of the Abyss," presents photos from the Auschwitz Album, the only surviving visual evidence of the process of the mass murders at the death camp taken by SS personnel. The other part of the exhibit is a series drawings by Ukrainian artist Zinovii Tolkatchev, who painted scenes from the Majdanek extermination camp in the fall of 1944 as the official artist of the Russian Army.
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