The U.N. General Assembly has held a special session marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Foreign ministers and a host of dignitaries joined death camp survivors for the observance.
It was an unprecedented occasion; the first time the General Assembly has held a commemorative session. In his opening remarks, Secretary General Kofi Annan called it fitting that the gathering was dedicated to remembering the evils of the Nazi holocaust. "The United Nations must never forget that it was created as a response to the evil of Nazism, or that the horror of the Holocaust helped to shape its mission. That response is enshrined in our Charter, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," he said.
Death camp survivor and Nobel peace prize-winner Elie Wiesel led the list of ministers and dignitaries addressing the session. In a powerful speech, Mr. Wiesel said the horrors of the death camps defy understanding. He reminded the gathering that indifference to suffering only helps the aggressors, never the victims. "I'm convinced if the world has listened to those of us who tried to speak, and nobody listened, but if the world had listened, we may have prevented Darfur, Cambodia, Bosnia, and naturally Rwanda," he said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom warned the assembly that, despite efforts to stamp out hatred, anti-Semitism is again on the rise. He pointed in particular to the rise of movements aimed at denying the holocaust. "Who could have imagined, 60 years after Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, the Jewish people would be the targets of anti-Semitic attacks, even in the countries that witnessed the Nazi atrocities. Yet this is exactly what is happening," he said.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said the stain of the holocaust makes it his country's duty to banish and combat anti-Semitism, as well as racism, xenophobia and intolerance. "This barbaric crime will always be a part of German history. For my country it signifies the absolute moral abomination, a denial of all things civilized without precedent or parallel. The new democratic Germany has drawn its conclusions. The historic and moral responsibility for Auschwitz has left an indelible mark on us," he said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz led the U.S. delegation. He said the lesson of the Nazi death camps is that peaceful nations cannot sit idly by in the face of genocide.
Without mentioning the U.S.-led military action in Iraq, Mr. Wolfowitz noted that Americans have throughout their history pursued war as a duty when necessary. "Americans have fought often to liberate others from slavery and tyranny in order to protect our own freedom. Cemeteries from France to North Africa, with their rows of Christian crosses and Stars of David, attest to that truth. When Americans have taken up arms, it was believing that, in the end, it is never just about us alone, knowing that woven into our liberty is a mantle of responsibility, knowing that the whole world benefits when people are free to realize their dreams and develop their talents," he said.
A U.N. spokesman said 150 of the 191 member states had written the Secretary-General in support of the unprecedented special assembly session.
Still, there were signs of division. Most Arab countries did not send representatives to the gathering, and the assembly hall was less than half full.
Israel's U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman has in the past fiercely criticized the General Assembly, charging that an "immoral majority" of members have an anti-Israeli bias. But he expressed hope last week that support for the holocaust commemorative session might be a sign that such bias is weakening.