Discussion Papers Series
Why we need the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance
by Dr. Mario Silva, 2013 Chair, International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)
The Holocaust was an unprecedented crime against humanity and a defining historical moment, one that fundamentally altered how the world views and treats acts of genocide. As such, it provides us with many important lessons that can help prevent such crimes from happening again. The challenge is to ensure that those lessons are remembered, shared and applied. In this way, the world can honour the memory of those we failed to protect.
It was with this goal, conceived in 1998 by then Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson – as the Task Force for International Co-operation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research – that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) came into being.
IHRA is a unique international body, with country delegations that include government officials and non-governmental Holocaust experts – academics, museum professionals, educators and researchers. The Chair of IHRA rotates annually between member states and Canada is proud to Chair from March 2013 to March 2014.
Prime Minister Persson was motivated by a number of factors. One of them was his personal experience of visiting the site of the former Nazi concentration camp at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, and reading about the Jewish children who were murdered there. Another was a poll that suggested a worrisome lack of Holocaust knowledge amongst Swedish youth.
Prime Minister Persson invited President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair to join him in this venture. In Stockholm, on January 27-29, 2000, 46 governments – represented by Heads of State, Prime Ministers, Deputy Prime Ministers and Ministers – unanimously adopted the Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust.
The commitment of the international community to the principles of the Stockholm Declaration was the starting point for many countries to begin a public debate on their national history and to acknowledge their role during the Second World War related to the Holocaust. What happened during the war? What did our country do? What did it not do? And what are the lessons for us to learn to ensure it never happens again?
Today, IHRA has expanded from its three founding members to an international network of experts on the Holocaust and related issues, and strengthened political co-operation among its 31 member countries, which work together in a consensus-based framework.
Member states that join IHRA commit to the principles of the Stockholm Declaration, which states that “the unprecedented character of the Holocaust will always hold universal meaning,” and that in a world “still scarred by genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antisemitism and xenophobia, the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight those evils.” Governments must pledge to strengthen efforts to promote Holocaust education, remembrance and research.
Since the Stockholm Declaration, international organizations such as the United Nations, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Council of Europe, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have made Holocaust remembrance a fundamental part of their mission. IHRA works collaboratively with these organizations, which have status as Permanent Observers.
The seeds of this collective effort were sown sixty-five years ago, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 260, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide on December 9, 1948. Furthermore, in November 2005, the United Nations declared January 27 – the date in 1945 when Russian forces liberated Auschwitz – as the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. United Nations General Assembly “Holocaust Remembrance” resolution 60/7 recalls the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reaffirms that “the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of one-third of the Jewish people along with countless members of other minorities, will forever be a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice”.
Knowledge about the background, purpose and significance of the Holocaust is essential to raise public awareness and mobilize forces to push back against the prejudices and stereotypes that led to it. Hate crimes, be it based on xenophobia, antisemitism or Holocaust denial, are a global phenomenon. Individually and collectively, we have an obligation to fight discrimination that leads to the exclusion of groups of people and spreads hatred.
As Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated in 2010, “remembering the Holocaust is not merely an act of historical recognition. It must also be an understanding and an undertaking: an understanding that the same threats exist today, and an undertaking of a solemn responsibility to fight those threats”.
In recent years, youth in particular have become increasingly exposed to discriminatory views through the Internet and social networks. However, the answer is not censorship but education, which is an important part of the mandate of the IHRA. IHRA’s international network of educational experts has developed a series of documents to help educators teach both the Holocaust and its relationship to other genocides.
Studying the Holocaust helps students think about the uses and abuses of power, and the roles and responsibilities of individuals, organizations and nations when confronted with human rights violations. It can heighten awareness of the potential for genocide in the contemporary world. Furthermore, a study of the Holocaust can help students develop an understanding of the ramifications of prejudice, racism, anti-Semitism and stereotyping in any society. It helps students develop an awareness of the value of diversity in a pluralistic society and encourages sensitivity to the positions of minorities.
As students gain insight into the many historical, social, religious and political factors that resulted in the Holocaust, they gain awareness of the complexity of the historical process. They gain perspective on how a convergence of factors can contribute to the disintegration of democratic values. Students come to understand that it is the responsibility of citizens in a democracy to learn to identify the danger signals and to know when to react. Through academic institutions or involvement in civil society, students have the opportunity to increase their understanding and raise awareness with others.
Over the past ten years, IHRA has undertaken significant efforts to promote the development of civil society through an annual grant program of approximately €500,000. The goals of the IHRA’s Grant Programme include:
- Increasing government involvement in creating programmes and infrastructure that will focus awareness on the Holocaust and contribute to combating antisemitism and xenophobia;
- Creating sustainable structures for Holocaust education, remembrance and research and, to that end, co-funding large-scale projects targeting multipliers;
- Funding multilateral projects and thereby stimulating the international exchange of expertise and a shared culture of remembrance.
Projects funded under the Grant Programme involve:
- Training for teacher trainers;
- Raising Holocaust awareness amongst key groups, like the diplomatic corps in many countries;
- Instituting best practices in Holocaust commemoration and approaches to Holocaust remembrance days; and
- Fostering new research through seminars and academic conferences.
This work takes place both in IHRA member states and in important non-member countries affected by the Holocaust, such as Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation.
Today, IHRA is pursuing a multi-year work plan formulated by experts and advanced under the leadership of the former Dutch and Belgian Chairs, with priorities in the following areas:
- Locating, commemorating and preserving the “killing sites”, places where mass shootings took place and which are still relatively unknown;
- A review of existing research on Holocaust education to allow for a strategic and coordinated approach to teaching and learning about the Holocaust; and
- Research into the accessibility of Holocaust-era archives across IHRA member states, in line with the Stockholm Declaration’s commitment to “throw light on the still obscured shadows of the Holocaust”. Archival access is particularly important, given that anecdotal evidence suggests that hundreds of millions of documents related to Holocaust history are currently inaccessible in private and state archives around the world.
- Support of meaningful Holocaust Memorial Day events that serve an educational purpose and contribute to general awareness-raising in member countries and beyond.
Special committees of experts also work on other issues, such as the Holocaust and other Genocides, Roma Genocide, Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial, and Special Challenges in Education, while three larger working groups on education, remembrance and research exchanges ideas on how to support Holocaust activities more broadly in member countries and around the world.
With its new name, following a decision in December 2012, IHRA is also seeking to improve the availability of information on the Holocaust through an updated Web site and social media. This reflects its evolving mandate, from its’ origins as a networking forum to a collective of experts developing resources for political and social leaders around the world.
Canadian Chair Year
As IHRA Chair, in addition to supporting ongoing activities, Canada will seek to improve co-operation with international organizations, with a view to coordinating efforts to prevent genocide and combat antisemitism, xenophobia, hate crimes, and other forms of extremism. We will work with Permanent Observers, and also explore other possible partnerships.
I will visit IHRA observer countries, Portugal, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey, to encourage their ascension to full membership, and continue outreach to non-IHRA states such as Ukraine. Canada believes that the international community shares a responsibility to learn from the Holocaust and that IHRA provides an important platform to help prevent future human rights abuses.
I will also encourage greater transparency and communication of IHRA priorities and progress, through an annual report to highlight initiatives in member states, IHRA-funded projects and efforts of expert working groups.
With the support of active community partners, the Government of Canada has invested significantly in Holocaust education, remembrance and research, including major projects such as the creation of a National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa and a Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg. In conjunction with the Chair year, Canada will support a number of new initiatives aimed at increasing the understanding of the Holocaust across Canada.
The Government of Canada will provide funding to help preserve survivors’ testimony. Our country has been profoundly shaped by the 40,000 Holocaust survivors who settled in Canada after the war. Survivors have been a vital component of Holocaust education in Canada and preserving their testimony is crucial as we move to a post-survivor environment.
In acknowledgement of the vital contributions teachers make, the Government of Canada will present a national award to an educator who demonstrates best practices in Holocaust education.
Canada is also participating in an international poster competition on the theme of “Keeping Alive- Journeys through the Holocaust”, inviting students in graphics, or art and design to compete with others around the world. Held in partnership with the Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme and other institutions, a number of United Nations information centres in various countries are taking the lead in organizing regional participation in the contest. The winning posters will be unveiled on the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust on 27 January 2014 and exhibited at the United Nations Headquarters in Vienna.
In addition, Canada will continue its efforts to commemorate Jewish Canadian experiences under Canada’s restrictive immigration policies. Throughout 2013, travelling exhibits will bring attention to the internment of Jewish refugees in Canada during World War II and the tragic story of the MS St. Louis.
An international academic conference at the University of Toronto in October will focus on young scholars and emerging scholarship. And our national institution, Library and Archives Canada, will develop a research guide on their Holocaust-era records and how they can be accessed.
These initiatives are being developed with the support of government and community partners, including a National Advisory Council, co-chaired by Canadian Senator Linda Frum, with academics, museum directors, CEOs, and leaders from the Jewish, Ukrainian and Polish communities.
As Chair for 2013, I will work to raise awareness of the Holocaust in Canada and around the world, and to demonstrate the relevance of IHRA. As long as discrimination based on ethnic, religious and other grounds exists in the world, there is a role for education, research and remembrance of the Holocaust. To this end, IHRA will continue to play a major role as an intergovernmental body dedicated to learning from and sharing the lessons of the Holocaust with political and social leaders around the world.
- How did the IHRA come about and what is its main goal?
- What kind of support does IHRA provide to students and educators?
- What are the priorities in IHRA's current workplan?
- What is Canada's main goal as Chair of IHRA?
- What role can the IHRA play in helping to promote human rights around the world?
The discussion papers series provides a forum for individual scholars on the Holocaust and the averting of genocide to raise issues for debate and further study. These writers, representing a variety of cultures and backgrounds, have been asked to draft papers based on their own perspective and particular experiences.
The views expressed by the individual scholars do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.