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For the first time in its history, the United Nations on Monday marked the liberation of Nazi death camps during World War II, in an event attended by Holocaust survivors and the foreign ministers of Israel and Germany.
Germany's Fischer (l) and Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom
In a speech before the UN commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said it was his country's historical-moral duty to fight all forms of anti-Semitism and racism.
The official remembrance ceremony for the more than 6 million people killed during the Holocaust was the first in the UN's existence. Survivors and foreign dignitaries, including Fischer and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom addressed the United Nations General Assembly.
"We cannot look away when synagogues are vandalized or damaged," said Fischer. "And we can't stand by and listen to anti-Semitic baiting."
The motion to hold the observance on Jan. 27 was backed by nearly 150 of the world body’s 191 members. It was sponsored by the United States, Israel, the European Union, Russia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Germans and Israelis address UN
Children at Auschwitz just before their liberation in 1945.
The gathering took place three days before a state ceremony in Poland at the site of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, where more than 1 million people -- most of them Jews -- were killed.
Coming 30 years after the world body adopted a resolution branding Zionism a “form of racism” -- a move that soured UN-Israeli relations -- the special session represents a significant event.
Israeli Ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman, a vocal opponent at times of the body's stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said the organization’s decision to hold the event could be linked to an evolving world.
“Maybe we are at a point in history where the changes in the world are reflecting on the United Nations. We do live in a changing world, in a world which hopefully presents us today with a unique window of opportunity to make peace in our region,” he said.
"Maybe that atmosphere has made it possible for 148 countries, including many countries who normally may not have supported such an initiative, to come aboard and we are very gratified that this is happening,” Gillerman said.
Keeping the memory alive for the future
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan this week said new generations born after the war must not grow up unaware of the lessons of the Holocaust.
Prisoners of war at the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, in April 1945, just before American troops liberated the camp.
“The founding of this organization was a direct response to the Holocaust. Our charter, and the words ‘untold sorrow,’ were written as the world was learning the full horror of the death camps," Annan said.
The memory of the Holocaust’s horrors must be kept alive so future generations can learn from its lessons, the secretary general said.
“The evil that destroyed six million Jews and others in those camps is one that still threatens all of us today,” he added. “It is not something we can consign to the distant past and forget about it. Every generation must be on its guard, to make sure that such a thing never happens again,” he said.
A commitment to preventing genocide
A memorial for victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in Nyamata, south of Kigali
Annan said the UN special session 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.”
The UN was criticized for its insufficient response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 in which at least 800,000 people were killed.
Some 10 years later, the organization hopes it has learned from its mistakes as it prepares to hear from a special commission next week on whether acts of genocide have been committed in Sudan’s war-torn western Darfur region.