Remarks at Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony, Park East Synagogue
by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, New York (USA), 24 January 2009
Thank you very much, Rabbi [Arthur] Schneier, for that kind introduction.
I especially appreciate you for calling me a mensch. With apologies to those of you who do not speak Yiddish, I have to say: thank goodness he didn't call me meshugenah.
To all, I wish you Shabat Shalom.
Excellencies, distinguished Ambassadors to the United Nations,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today we mark the International Day of Commemoration honoring victims of the Holocaust. This is a most important and solemn occasion.
As you know, my friend, the late Tom Lantos, died shortly after last year's observance. Some of you may have met him when he came to this Synagogue. He was dear to me, as he was to you. He made an extraordinary journey from a Nazi labor camp to the halls of Congress. He became a leading champion of truth and justice. Like those of you who also lived through the Holocaust, he was never defeated by the unspeakable horrors that he survived.
I can only imagine what he endured. Yet I, too, have witnessed man's inhumanity to man. I have seen it as Secretary-General, traveling in places torn by war. And I saw it as a six-year old boy fleeing to the mountains to escape fighting in my own country.
The UN helped South Korea to recover. Like Tom Lantos, like many of you, I came to believe in the transformative power of the United Nations.
Today, the UN is on the cusp of a great transition. Never have global challenges been so large. Climate change, terrorism, the global financial crisis - these troubles transcend borders. They affect all countries, rich and poor. They will be overcome only when all countries come together in response. That's why we have a United Nations.
Yes, the UN has its imperfections. It's not perfect. Because of this, from day one since I took office, I have pushed to change it. I have insisted on a new culture of transparency and accountability. I have worked to make the UN more efficient, effective, modern. In short, we have tried to make it a better instrument to serve mankind.
We are here to mark the Holocaust. Like you, the United Nations is determined to tell its timeless lessons.
Precisely two years ago, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning, without reservation, any denial of the Holocaust. I quote: "Ignoring the historical fact of those terrible events increases the risk they will be repeated."
With you, I stand in saying: never again. Never. When I paid tribute to Holocaust victims at Yad Vashem, I wrote in the book there, "Never again. Never."
Memory speaks. That is why it must be preserved and passed to future generations.
Our Holocaust Outreach Program sponsors exhibits, workshops and panel discussions. The aim: to confront deniers, or those who would minimize the importance of the Holocaust.
When President Ahmadinejad of Iran declared that Israel should "disappear," or be "wiped off the map," I strongly condemned his remarks - twice.
We at the United Nations stand for human rights.
We stand for democracy and the rule of law. By working for economic and social development, we build the foundations for peace.
We have a new instrument in our hands. It is called the Responsibility to Protect - the idea that every nation has a legal obligation to protect its people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Where nations fall short, the international community has the right to take collective action.
Yes, it is difficult in practice. But I assure you. This is a major advance in safeguarding mankind from crimes against humanity.
Today is not simply a time for remembering. The Holocaust has lessons for us, here and now. Let us heed them.
My job can sometimes be terribly painful. I see unbelievable hardship, the worst human suffering. You are familiar with the grim catalogue of names and places: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur, Somalia and, of course, the Middle East.
I am just back from the region. I went to push for a cease-fire. More, I went in search of a lasting peace.
The recurring violence between Palestinians and Israelis is a mark of collective political failure - by both sides and by the international community.
I saw first-hand what most people saw on television. I met a child and his parents in Sderot, southern Israel, traumatized by falling rockets. Never for one moment have I forgotten that a million people in southern Israel live in a daily state of terror and fear.
In Gaza, I saw the most appalling devastation. I saw the UN compound, still burning.
I said to all I met, on both sides: This must stop.
I left the region more determined than ever to work toward a world where two States, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace and security. War can never be an answer. We need to strengthen the forces of peaceful coexistence and dialogue.
No one sees this more clearly than your own Rabbi Schneier. He has devoted his life to overcoming hatred and intolerance.
You all know him as the founder and president of the Appeal for Conscience Foundation. What you may not know, and what I am very grateful to him for, is his pioneering work for the UN's Alliance of Civilizations.
He knows first-hand that no one man or nation has all the answers. He knows the sacred value of tolerance. He has survived the greatest trials that life can hurl at a man or a woman and emerged not only with his humanity and spirit intact but stronger. He survived the Holocaust. Like others among you, he never lost sight of man's essential humanity, our capacity for good, our inherent dignity.
So, let us be frank. We must recognize the limits of power and goodwill. We here know that we can never entirely rid the world of its tyrants and its intolerance. We cannot turn all extremists to the path of reason and light. We can only stand against them and raise our voices in the name of our common humanity.
Tom Lantos was fond of saying that even the littlest actions, the smallest of our daily deeds, can do much to leave this earth better, less evil, less selfish, less monstrous than we found it. And he stressed that doing these things, even in a modest way, gives you the energy to keep moving forward. On this day of days, that seems to me to be good advice.
As we remember the victims of the Holocaust, let us reaffirm our faith in the dignity of humankind and our extraordinary resilience - our moral strength - even amid history's darkest chapters.
Thank you very much.