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Remarks at Event marking the 65th Anniversary of the Adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide


Mr. Stuart E. Eizenstat, former Ambassador of the United States to the European Union (1993-1996)


I am honored to be part of this distinguished panel to observe the 65th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, one of the most important accomplishments of the United Nations in its history. Its timeless message to the world that genocide is a crime condemned by the nations of the world, even if imperfectly observed, is dramatized by the presence of the Secretary General of the United Nations at this event, Ban Ki-moon, who has been a shining light in pointing out gross violations of human rights and genocide whenever and wherever they occur.

I want to discuss the role of the Holocaust from 1933 -1945 in catalyzing the UN Convention on Genocide and in establishing mechanisms to deal with future genocides, from my experience as Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State on Holocaust-Era Issues during the Clinton Administration, and now as Special Adviser to the Secretary of State on Holocaust-Era Issues in the Obama Administration.

 While there had been massive murders of civilians in the course of wars and internal conflicts, even up to our era in Cambodia, Rwanda (where President Bill Clinton has publicly said his greatest regret was not intervening to stop the slaughter of over one million innocent Rwandans), the Balkan Wars, and now in Syria, the Holocaust remains unique in multiple ways:

--- It was unique in its dimensions-- the greatest mass slaughter of civilians in history (6 million Jews, including 1.5 million children);

--- It was unique in its goal—the elimination of the Jews in all of Europe, not just in Germany, and it nearly succeeded with two-thirds of what had been the center of world Jewish culture and religion destroyed.

--- It was unique in its organization, mechanization, and determination: even as Germany’s war effort was lagging, resources were devoted to complete the mass killing.

---It was unique in how it could have been prevented or at least substantially mitigated, by Allied action to raise tight immigration quotas on Jewish refugees at the Evian Conference in 1938 or by allowing the German Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis into the U.S., or by ringing declarations against the mass slaughter when it became known, or by special efforts like bombing the railroad tracks to Auschwitz.

But the Holocaust was unique in a very different way: its long-term ramifications:

--The post-War Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders created an entirely new body of international law: “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes”.

This was the first time in recorded history that leaders of a nation state were held criminally responsible for the purposeful killing of civilian non-combatants. The whole concept of genocide as an evil to be confronted came from the Holocaust but was given international meaning from the UN Convention on Genocide 65 years ago.

--The Holocaust led to another novel concept: payment of compensation by a defeated power to civilians through an NGO created for this purpose. While after World War I, punishing reparations were paid by the post-war German government to the Allied nations, now for the fist time individual civilian victims of the Holocaust were compensated. In 1952 the new Israeli government (Prime Minister Ben Gurion) and the government of West Germany (Chancellor Adenauer) agreed to create the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Inc. to negotiate with Germany for compensation payments to Holocaust survivors. In the ensuing sixty years, Germany has paid more than $60 billion in payments to Survivors, in the form of one time hardship payments and monthly payments. In the last several years I have led the negotiations for the Claims Conference, and we have focused on home care for elderly, poor Survivors. Germany also provided property restitution or compensation for property confiscated by the Nazis.

-- The UN Convention on Genocide, and much later the International Criminal Court created 11 years ago, the emphasis on human rights through UN Conventions and annual reports by the U.S. State Department are all outgrowths of the Holocaust.


Yet with the advent of the Cold War soon after the conclusion of World War II, the focus shifted quickly from the Holocaust to combating the Soviet Union. Only Germany continued to focus on the Holocaust, including mandatory Holocaust education and banning any symbols of Nazism or parties proclaiming Nazi philosophy. Justice for victims and a broader remembrance of the Holocaust and its lessons faded into the mists of history, it seemed forever.  But something as monstrous as the Holocaust could not be forgotten, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, it made its way back on the world consciousness.

This occurred because of the dramatic 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem, providing the world the first televised opportunity to confront the Holocaust through the visage of one of its chief perpetrators. Books began to appear using newly declassified records from the Roosevelt Administration, the first by one of my-workers in the 1968 Hubert Humphrey presidential campaign, “While Six Million Died”, exposing the willful indifference of the Administration in the face of clear evidence of genocide. An NBC mini-series “The Holocaust” had an enormous viewership. Claude Lanzmann’s masterpiece “Shoah” was shown to the world, And in 1978, as President Carter’s Chief Domestic Adviser, the President accepted my recommendation to create a presidential commission headed by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, to recommend a memorial in Washington to Holocaust victims, leading directly to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, one of the most visited museums in Washington (some 4000 people a day, three quarters non-Jewish).

But in the Clinton Administration a new phase was opened.  The Cold War was over, Communism imploded, permitting those behind the former Iron Curtain to travel; archives were opened; energies were released to explore the forgotten part of World War II.
While serving as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union in Brussels in 1993, I was asked by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, at the request of President Clinton, to undertake a dual assignment of encouraging the restitution of religious-owned communal property—churches, synagogues, schools and community centers—confiscated by the Nazis and nationalized by the Communists, so the Christian and Jewish communities would have the infrastructure to rebuild their shattered lives.

Class action lawyers in the U.S. brought lawsuits in U.S. courts, initially against Swiss banks for hiding Holocaust-era bank accounts, later against German and Austrian slave labor companies, French banks, and European insurance companies who had failed to pay the families of victims. Then events unfolded like peeling back the layers of an onion, on discovery led to another, one negotiation to another. Issues long suppressed, like the massive amount of artworks looted by the Nazis (some 600,000 pieces) were suddenly the subject of negotiations. I negotiated in 1998 the Washington Principles on Nazi-looted Art, agreed to by over 40 countries, to publish looted artworks and return them to their original owners. This has led to hundreds of paintings being restituted. Even today, in the startling case in Munich in which over 1400 pieces of so-called “degenerate art” confiscated by the Nazis from German museums and Jewish owners were discovered in the home of a former dealer who sold the art on behalf of the Nazis, is being examined in the light of the Washington Principles.

I led this whole process in the Clinton Administration, negotiating $8 billion in benefits to victims of Nazi tyranny between 1993-2001, including to former slave and forced laborers, the majority for non-Jewish victims. This opened up yet another novel feature. In 1952 Germany committed itself to pay civilians Nazi Germany had injured. Now, private companies, from banks and insurance companies to manufacturing firms, from Switzerland to Germany, from Austria to France, paid civilians they had caused them during the War, more than 50 years before.

The work we did goes well beyond monetary compensation, which in individual cases is small.

First, one of the most lasting legacies will be to encourage the emergence of truth from genocide situations. We encouraged over 20 countries to create commissions to examine their activities in World War II related to the Holocaust. The most searching was the Bergier Commission created to their credit by the Swiss government. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission created by the late, great Nelson Mandela in South Africa is a similar model.

Memory not money should be the last word on the Holocaust. That is why I persuaded the president of Germany and Austria to offer apologies for their countries’ mistreatment of forced and slave laborers. It is why we held international conferences attended by over 40 countries in Paris, London, Washington, Stockholm and Vilnius, during the Clinton Administration, and three in Prague in the Obama Administration, to explore aspects of the Holocaust. It is also why, at the initiative of then Swedish Prime Minister Persson, we created the Holocaust Education Task Force, initially with only a handful of countries, now with over 30 nations, to teach the lessons of the Holocaust in school systems.

To me the lesson of the Holocaust of enduring importance now as we celebrate the 65th anniversary of the UN Convention on Genocide, is what tragedy occurs when intolerance is unchecked and the rule of law breaks down; when good people refuse to stand up for the rights of their own neighbors and fellow citizens; when countries stay on the sidelines in the face of injustice.

Our work also held elevate the role of Japan in dealing with Korean “comfort women” during World War II, a continuing source of tension between South Korea and Japan. And it led Armenians to sue an insurance company for failing to pay policies of victims of the Armenian genocide in World War I.

Second, our work in providing belated justice to Holocaust victims advanced the cause of human rights by holding private corporations accountable for the first time in the annals of warfare for their participation in the violation of human rights. It was the civil side of Nuremberg’s criminal responsibility. I hope this will serve as a prophylactic for multinational companies investing in countries with difficult regimes and has raised their standards of behavior.

The United Nations has played an important role I raising private sector behavior, through the UN Global Compact.

Third, our negotiations opened the window to a new 21st century foreign policy, with a greater emphasis on human rights, and in which NGOs have played an active role. But so did the UN Convention on Genocide years before.

To the extent the community of nations embodies the lessons of the Holocaust, and undertakes to honor the principles of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, this will be a better world. The fact there are official UN peace keeping missions in scores of countries; that the African Union has troops in several African nations, like the Central African Republic at the urging of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, to prevent future genocides; that modern social media like YouTube can bring mass slaughters to billions of people instantly; that the International Criminal Court is functioning to try leaders who participated in mass slaughters, are all indications that the lessons of the Holocaust and the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide are increasingly being implemented.