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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

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New York, 21 June 2004 - Secretary-General's opening remarks at UN Department of Public Information Seminar on anti-semitism

Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to United Nations Headquarters.

In holding this series of seminars, the United Nations is true to one of the most sacred purposes of the world's peoples in whose name the Organization was founded: “to practise tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours”.

No Muslim, no Jew, no Christian, no Hindu, no Buddhist – no one who is true to the principles of any of the world's faiths, no one who claims a cultural, national or religious identity based on values such as truth, decency and justice – can be neutral in the fight against intolerance.

Clearly, our success in this struggle depends on the effort we make to educate ourselves and our children. Intolerance can be unlearnt. Tolerance and mutual respect have to be learnt.

Future seminars will deal with other specific groups against whom intolerance is directed in many parts of the world, notably Muslims and migrants – groups which overlap, but each of which, sadly, encounters prejudice in its own right.

Yet anti-Semitism is certainly a good place to start because, throughout history, it has been a unique manifestation of hatred, intolerance and persecution. Anti-Semitism has flourished even in communities where Jews have never lived, and it has been a harbinger of discrimination against others. The rise of anti-Semitism anywhere is a threat to people everywhere. Thus, in fighting anti-Semitism we fight for the future of all humanity.

The Shoah, or Holocaust was the epitome of this evil. Germany in the 1930s was a modern society, at the cutting edge of human technical advance and cultural achievement. Yet the Nazi regime that took power set out to exterminate Jews from the face of the earth.

We know – and yet we still cannot really comprehend – that six million innocent Jewish men, women and children were murdered, just because they were Jews. That is a crime against humanity which defies imagination.

The name “United Nations” was coined to describe the alliance fighting to end that barbarous regime, and our Organization came into being when the world had just learnt the full horror of the concentration and extermination camps. It is therefore rightly said that the United Nations emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust. And a human rights agenda that fails to address anti-Semitism denies its own history.

Worldwide revulsion at this terrible genocide was the driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the Preamble to the Declaration says, “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”. And it was no coincidence that, on the day before it adopted the Declaration in 1948, the General Assembly had adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

It is hard to believe that, 60 years after the tragedy of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is once again rearing its head. But it is clear that we are witnessing an alarming resurgence of this phenomenon in new forms and manifestations. This time, the world must not, cannot be silent.

We owe it to ourselves, as well as to our Jewish brothers and sisters, to stand firmly against the particular tide of hatred that anti-Semitism represents. And that means we must be prepared to examine the nature of today's manifestations of anti-Semitism more closely, which is the purpose of your seminar.

Let us acknowledge that the United Nations' record on anti-Semitism has at times fallen short of our ideals. The General Assembly resolution of 1975, equating Zionism with racism, was an especially unfortunate decision. I am glad that it has since been rescinded.

But there remains a need for constant vigilance. So let us actively and uncompromisingly refute those who seek to deny the fact of the Holocaust or its uniqueness, or who continue to spread lies and vile stereotypes about Jews and Judaism.

When we seek justice for the Palestinians – as we must – let us firmly disavow anyone who tries to use that cause to incite hatred against Jews, in Israel or elsewhere.

The human rights machinery of the United Nations has been mobilised in the battle against anti-Semitism, and this must continue. I urge the special rapporteurs on religious freedom and on contemporary racism, working with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (which has recently strengthened its anti-discrimination unit), to actively explore ways of combating anti-Semitism more effectively in the future. All parts of the Secretariat should be vigilant. And of course – as always – we look to our friends in civil society to keep us up to the mark. It is very good to see so many non-governmental organizations represented here today.

My friends, next January it will be sixty years since the first of the death camps were liberated by advancing Soviet forces. There could be no more fitting time for member states to take action on the necessity of combating anti-Semitism in all its forms – action comparable, perhaps, to the resolutions they adopted on apartheid in the past, or the admirable recent resolution of the Commission on Human Rights, which asked the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism to examine the situation of Muslim and Arab peoples in various parts of the world, with special reference to physical assaults and attacks against their places of worship, cultural centres, businesses and properties. Are not Jews entitled to the same degree of concern and protection?

[Member states could follow the excellent lead of the Berlin Declaration, recently issued by the Chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Let me remind you that the Declaration condemned without reserve all manifestations of anti-Semitism, and all other acts of intolerance, incitement, harassment, or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief, wherever they occur.

The Declaration also condemned all attacks motivated by anti-Semitism or by any other forms of religious or racial hatred or intolerance, including attacks against synagogues and other religious places, sites and shrines.

And it declared unambiguously that international developments or political issues, including those in Israel or elsewhere in the Middle East, never justify anti-Semitism.

The Berlin Declaration proclaimed those principles, which I hope the broader membership of the United Nations will adopt. Even more important, it must make sure these principles are put into practice, and carefully monitor its own progress in doing so. The fight against anti-Semitism must be our fight. And Jews everywhere must feel that the United Nations is their home too.]*

We must make this vision a reality while we still have survivors of the holocaust amongst us – like my dear friend Elie Wiesel, with whom I have the great honour of sharing this platform. We owe them no less.

Let me conclude by quoting something Elie wrote, which could make a wonderful mission statement for this series on “Unlearning Intolerance”:

“There is divine beauty in learning, just as there is human beauty in tolerance. To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth. Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps. The books I have read were composed by generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and disciples. I am the sum total of their experiences, their quests. And so are you.”

Elie, thank you for that, and for so much else that you have given us. Let me now yield you the floor.

* These paragraphs have been modified to reflect what the Secretary-General intended to say.