Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,
We meet in the General Assembly today to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, to remember the six million Jews and many others who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust, and to re-commit to preventing any repetition of those crimes.
I extend a special welcome to the survivors here with us today. We are all deeply grateful to them and to all Holocaust survivors, who inspire us with their strength and their example.
Our solidarity in the face of hatred is needed today more than ever, as we see a deeply worrying resurgence in antisemitic attacks around the world, including here in New York.
Just thirty miles from here, less than a month ago, a knife attack on a Hannukah party left five people injured at a rabbi’s house in the small community of Monsey. That came just a few weeks after the killing of four people at a kosher supermarket in New Jersey.
New York saw a 21 percent rise in antisemitic hate crimes in 2019, part of a trend in cities across the United States.
And the situation for Jews in Europe is, if anything, worse.
France saw a 74 percent increase in antisemitic attacks in 2018. In the United Kingdom, antisemitic attacks rose by 16 percent to a record high.
An attack on a synagogue in the German town of Halle during Yom Kippur last October left two people dead. In Italy, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor was provided with an armed escort after she suffered a torrent of antisemitic abuse.
Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,
We need to name this phenomenon for what it is: there is a global crisis of antisemitic hatred; a constant stream of attacks targeting Jews, their institutions and property.
Almost every day brings new reports of hate crimes. Many of the perpetrators are inspired by previous attacks, glorifying the assailants and creating a self-reinforcing vortex of violence.
Neo-Nazis and white supremacists are resurgent, organizing themselves and spreading their poisonous ideology and iconography online. The internet, from social media to online gaming platforms and the dark web, is their playground and their recruiting office. They manipulate video content and poison young minds.
This upsurge of antisemitism cannot be seen in isolation from an extremely troubling increase in xenophobia, homophobia, discrimination and hatred in many parts of the world, targeting people on the basis of their identity, including race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, disability and immigration status.
Attacks against religious minorities are a particular concern. Around the world, we have seen Jews murdered in synagogues, their gravestones defaced with swastikas; Christians killed at prayer, their churches torched; and Muslims gunned down in mosques, their religious sites vandalized.
As the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks, has said: “The hate that begins with Jews never ends there.”
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Seventy-five years ago today, when the soldiers of the Soviet army entered Auschwitz, they were stunned into silence by what they saw. The Nazis’ efforts to hide their crimes were undermined by the clear evidence of millions of pieces of clothing and tons of hair. To quote Primo Levi, the liberators felt “guilt that such a crime should exist”.
Like the soldiers, we are revolted by the horrific details of Auschwitz. But it is our duty to look and to continue looking; to learn and to relearn the lessons of the Holocaust, so that it is never repeated.
The most important lesson is that the Holocaust was not an aberration committed at a particular moment in history by a few unspeakably sick people.
It was the culmination of millennia of hatred, from the Roman Empire to the pogroms of the Middle Ages. My own country, Portugal, committed an act of utter cruelty and stupidity by expelling its Jewish population in the fifteenth century.
European Jews were excluded from almost all areas of economic activity; scapegoated if they succeeded; and defined as inferior. One scheme put forward decades before Hitler’s rise to power involved shipping all eastern Europe’s Jews to the African island of Madagascar.
When I visited Yad Vashem two years ago, I was appalled once again by the ability of antisemitism to reinvent itself and reemerge over millennia.
It may take new forms; it may be spread by new techniques; but it is the same old hatred. We can never lower our guard.
And far from being the project of a few insane individuals, the Nazi attempt to exterminate Jews and other vulnerable people involved architects, scientists, doctors, lawyers, engineers, drivers, bureaucrats, soldiers. Millions of ordinary people were desensitized to crimes against humanity taking place around them, often described by euphemisms like “special measures”.
As the great writer Hannah Arendt said, most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.
Holocaust was a complex operation arising from long-held prejudices and required the corruption of society from top to bottom; the corruption of language; of education and political discourse.
As we work to live up to the promise of “Never again”, we need to examine our own prejudices; guard against the misuse of our own technology; and be alert to any signs that hatred is being normalized.
Prejudice and hatred thrive on insecurity, frustrated expectations, ignorance and resentment. Populist leaders exploit these feelings to whip up fear, in pursuit of power.
When any group of people is defined as a problem, it becomes easier to commit human rights abuses and to normalize discrimination against them.
Combating prejudice requires leadership at all levels that fosters social cohesion and addresses the root causes of hatred.
It requires investment in all parts of society, so that all can contribute in a spirit of mutual respect.
Promoting social cohesion and human rights, and addressing discrimination and hatred are among the overriding aims of the United Nations, through our efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The Decade of Action I launched last week is aimed at stepping up support for countries around the world to build inclusive, diverse, respectful societies that provide lives of dignity and opportunity for all.
Education is a critical part of the solution. Ignorance creates fertile ground for lies and revisionist history. “Never again” means telling the story again and again.
As Holocaust survivors grow older, we must carry their testimony forward from generation to generation. We must also cherish those whose very lives are a rebuke to the forces of hatred and evil. Many survivors live in difficult circumstances; it is incumbent on us all to provide them with dignity and security during their final years.
Museums have an important role, and I have been impressed by the innovative use of interactive technology to preserve the testimony of individual survivors. The current exhibition in the Visitors’ Lobby, “Some Were Neighbours”, shows how circles of collaboration and complicity rippled through societies in Germany and under Nazi occupation.
The United Nations Holocaust Outreach programme and UNESCO provide written and video materials that inform, raise awareness and spur action against hatred and discrimination worldwide.
We are working to promote the responsible use of technologies including social media that are supercharging the spread of hate speech and false narratives.
Efforts to address this have so far been utterly inadequate, but I am encouraged by some recent initiatives.
The United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech that I launched last year represents our commitment to act as one against this phenomenon. I intend to take the discussion forward at an inter-ministerial conference later this year.
I have also launched a United Nations Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites, which offers concrete recommendations to support governments so that their citizens can observe their religious rituals in peace.
New surveillance technology can also be abused by both governments and corporations to enable discrimination and deny people their rights. The High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation has recommended actions to safeguard human rights in the digital age, and we are carrying these recommendations forward with all stakeholders. This will include working with partners to develop standards for fair, accountable and transparent artificial intelligence.
We must come together to protect people in this unregulated environment.
Our prevention efforts must also guard against the corruption of language. Euphemisms and coded expressions cannot be allowed to hide bigoted ideas or crimes. Words can kill. The Holocaust began with words.
We must be alert to words and expressions echoing Nazi concepts like “blood and soil” that are, incredibly, making their way back to the mainstream in some countries. We cannot tolerate the normalization of poisonous, corrosive rhetoric.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau — and the establishment of the United Nations.
Out of the incalculable horror of the death camps, the world made a new start, founded on mutual respect and our common humanity.
Today, as our values come under attack from all sides, we reaffirm them with greater conviction than ever.
We will never forget.
We will stand firm every day and everywhere against antisemitism, bigotry and hatred of all kinds.
We stand united, for human rights and dignity for all.