Today marks the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp in occupied Poland.
Each year on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I try to make my way to a square in central Stockholm to attend a humble service honouring the victims of the Holocaust. People from all walks of life attend the event, during which candles are lit and placed on and near a set of sculptures – the Raoul Wallenberg memorial.
This year, of course, with the restrictions due to COVID-19, that ceremony will not take place. Instead, a digital event hosted by the Forum för Levande Historia (Forum for Living History) in Stockholm will serve as a remembrance of what was exposed that day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and later at so many other places, where an unimaginable number of lives were lost.
A candle for remembrance and humanity
Right now, I’m here at the Foundation’s office in Uppsala, lighting a candle sent to us by the organisers of today’s events. I’ve been asked to share a picture of the candle on social media, with the hashtag #jagminns (I remember).
This simple gesture reminds me of the enormity of what happened during the Holocaust. We, as humanity, collectively stared down the abyss, realising what we are capable of.
It was in direct response to the Holocaust that the international community recognised and defined crimes against humanity, and genocide.
As time passes, so too the surviving witnesses from the concentration camps are passing away. It is a sad loss that must not go unrecognised. Our collective responsibility to uphold their testimonies must not fail.
The United Nations’ raison d’être
The UN was formed in 1945, as a direct response to World War Two, the Holocaust and the introduction of atomic weapons. The prevention of a future apocalypse comprises the opening words of the Preamble of the UN Charter, in the pledge to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’.
The totality of the violations that the Holocaust entailed was in 1948 codified into international law as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
The UN is instrumental in the development and promotion of international norms and standards – a core part of the three pillars of its work: international peace and security; economic and social progress and development; and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Maintaining international peace and security constitutes the very core of the UN’s mandate. However, we must recognise with regret that the UN has not been able to live up to its purpose of saving future generations from the scourge of war. We have failed the words ‘never again’; we must join together and do more.
A world where conflicts continue and human rights continue to be threatened
The Charter, reflecting the security situation of 1945, assumed that the UN would mainly be dealing with inter-state conflicts. Today, most of the threats to international peace and security are related to increasingly complex intra-state armed conflicts as well as violence perpetrated by non-state actors that transcends national borders with regional and global implications.
Respect for human rights is the foundation for peace and prosperity and all UN Member States bear equal responsibility to respect, uphold and defend human rights. Human rights abuses often lead to the escalation of conflict, putting nations and regions at risk.
There is a strong correlation between the rule of law and the level of peace and development in a society. Transparency, accountability and the rule of law are essential to empowerment and sustainable growth. However, building state institutions that exercise good governance, as well as ensuring basic human rights and equal access to justice for all citizens, remains a challenge.
A reminder of the UN’s importance
Dag Hammarskjöld demonstrated that the Charter can be applied in new and innovative ways to allow for the creation of new instruments and for new actions to more effectively address and mitigate these conflicts.
Hammarskjöld was instrumental in identifying and setting agendas for reform. But he was also acutely aware of the limits and the need for pragmatism in pursuance of reforms.
On 13 May 1954, after only a year in office as UN Secretary-General, Hammarskjöld spoke at a convocation ceremony at the University of California in Berkeley. In his address, he underlined the reason for the UN’s creation:
It has been said that the United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell. That sums up as well as anything I have heard both the essential role of the United Nations and the attitude of mind that we should bring to its support.
—Dag Hammarskjöld, 1954
This quote circulates widely on the Internet, and is usually attributed to Hammarskjöld. But in fact he was paraphrasing Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr, who was the USA’s ambassador to the UN at the time, and who said: ‘This organization is created to prevent you from going to hell. It isn’t created to take you to heaven.’
Whatever the provenance of the quote, the message remains the same. This candle I hold in my hands is a symbol of hope but also of the lives lost in the Holocaust.
Our collective responsibility to remember on this day is matched by our duty to uphold human rights every day, without fail, and to never forget.