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Auschwitz and Unfulfilled Responsibilities

Remarks by Richard N. Haass prepared to be delivered in the United Nations on January 27, 2015 to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of Auschwitz

Normally liberation is a word associated with joy, but not today, because we mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the site of one of history’s greatest mass murders. More than one million men, women, and children, most but not all of whom were Jewish, were killed not for anything they did but simply because of who they were. Auschwitz claimed no less than one of every six victims of the Holocaust.

Today is also International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This too makes for a somber day, not just because of what happened amidst the Second World War, but for what has not happened and happened since.

When I speak of what has not happened, I refer to a meaningful commitment by the international community to prevent new genocides. The truth is that there is no international community if by community we mean people and the governments who represent them being both willing and able to act in the face of possible or actual mass slaughter. This was the lesson of Rwanda; it is the lesson of Syria.

What makes it all the more frustrating as it was but a decade ago that the United Nations put itself on record as embracing the Responsibility to Protect, the idea that sovereignty rather than being absolute and unconditional was in fact conditional, and that governments who failed to live up to the obligation to protect their own citizens forfeited the right to act uncontested within their own borders.

In the decade since, though, we have seen that governments are mostly unwilling to fulfill this responsibility that they signed up to. In some cases this is because of what it would take; in others, there is what might be described as the diplomatic equivalent of buyer’s remorse: there is no longer real support for the notion that there is a responsibility to protect that in extraordinary circumstances trumps sovereignty. The result is that hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives and many many times that number their homes.

I should be clear here: I have argued elsewhere that the responsibility to protect might be unrealistic, and that in many cases what is called for is a responsibility to react. Either way, though, outrage and good intentions are not enough; as Libya shows, bad situations can be made worse. Action must be preceded by a careful judgment that the situation warrants intervention of one sort or another, that those doing the intervening are prepared to see it through, and that the affected people would as a result be better off.

I said toward the beginning of my remarks that this day is a somber one for another reason, for what has happened. Here I refer to the re-emergence of anti-Semitism. The most recent and violent example came just days ago in a Paris market singled out for attack simply because it was frequented by Jews who came to buy its kosher food.

It would be comforting to say this was an exception, but it was and is not. The statistics are all too clear about the trend: 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, anti-Semitism is on the rise.

Why this is the case can and will and should be debated. It may have something to do with the prolonged economic misery that has become the norm in much of Europe. It is clearly linked to the rise of violent extremism of the sort practiced by groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic state that are a threat not just to Jews but to people of every faith and tradition in the Middle East and beyond.

Attempts to dignify anti-Semitism by linking it to Israeli policy are unpersuasive. Anti-Semitism existed long before the Jewish state and does not ebb and flow in lockstep with Israeli actions. Indeed, Israel is irrelevant to much of what is behind some of the most violent protests and actions we are seeing in Europe and the Middle East. No amount of Israeli compromise would make such extremism disappear.

I find it most useful to equate anti-Semitism to disease. It is all but impossible to eradicate. Even when it fades it comes back.

But the metaphor of disease is useful as well for providing some direction as to what is to be done. Anti-Semitism is a disease and must be fought as one. We must do all we can to prevent it, which more than anything requires education. We must attack it when it manifests itself. We must take steps to reduce our vulnerability to it. And we must make ourselves resilient, for on occasion those who are motivated by it will cause harm.

It is sad that seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz we need to have this conversation, but the passage of time is not to be equated with progress. Nor should we ever assume that anything that happened, no matter how large in scale or great in import, will be forever much less accurately remembered.

To the contrary, keeping history alive and accurate takes much work. It takes teaching and writing and speaking and images. And here we are fortunate to have the images of Yuri Dojc. His photographs manage at one and the same time to capture detail as well as big things, to be realistic as well as abstract. In so doing, they remind us of what was and what the anti-Semites of their day could never destroy.

Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.


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