Hillel Neuer
International human rights lawyer, writer & activist

As Ban Ki-moon visits Auschwitz, time for U.N. to get serious on anti-Semitism

As Ban Ki-moon today makes the first official visit of a UN secretary-general to the Auschwitz death camp, it is a time for the world body to recall its promise to meaningfully address anti-Semitism.

In 2004, former secretary-general Kofi Annan held a historic UN gathering on anti-Semitism where he called on the Geneva-based human rights machinery of the United Nations to become “mobilized in the battle against anti-Semitism.” This appeal has largely gone ignored.

Few if any of the UN human rights mechanisms—including those experts specifically charged with addressing racism and discrimination—have addressed anti-Semitism  in any meaningful way.

While there are constructive events through a relatively new UN Holocaust educational program based out of New York, these have not found an echo in the substantive reporting of the UN’s vast international human rights apparatus.

In 2007, UN Watch published a comprehensive report card on the UN’s record in combating anti-Semitism. The study revealed inaction—and, worse, the aiding and abetting of anti-Semitism through an infrastructure of manifestly one-sided and irrational UN measures designed to demonize the Jewish state.

When the UN General Assembly’s 4th Committee last Thursday adopted nine resolutions on Israel, and none on the rest of the world, the ambassador of Syria, co-sponsor of the resolution on the Golan, used the occasion to accuse Israel of being a Nazi state and acting like Hitler. The chair thanked him with not a word of rebuke.

The same occurs repeatedly at the UN Human Rights Council. When UN Watch’s updated report card comes out, the world body’s grades will sadly be no better.

That said, in principle the secretary-general’s visit today is a welcome development for the leader of an organization founded in 1945 on the ashes of the Holocaust, with the aim to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights and in the dignity and worth of the human person.

It was the Holocaust they had in mind when, under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt and René Cassin, the UN in 1948 adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose second sentence speaks of the “disregard and contempt for human rights” that “have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.”

The deafening silence and moral indifference that allowed Auschwitz to happen must serve as remembrance and reminder of the moral imperative for the United Nations—founded as the anti-Hitler alliance—to speak out and take action in the face of all acts of genocide and atrocity, as well the incitement to hatred that over history have been the warrant to crimes against humanity.

When discussing the Holocaust, however, the UN too often makes sure to draw only abstract and universal lessons, overlooking what the Nazi crime was all about.

Many welcomed the UN’s 2005 decision to hold an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. Disappointingly, however, UN statements on this day refuse to draw the obvious lessons about the need to confront the genocidal antisemitism of our own time, be it the poisonous words of the Hamas charter, weekly sermons across the Middle East, or statements by regime leaders in Tehran—let alone the terrorism and catastrophic nuclear weapons program that are justified and fueled by those words of hate.

A typical example was the annual message published this year by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. She carefully omitted mention of even the word antisemitism.

UN officials such as Pillay appear to be comfortable discussing the Holocaust—so long as it can be invoked to support the organization’s own politicized and highly problematic agenda on racism, all of which is carried out under the rubric of texts and mechanisms that emerged from its infamous 2001 Durban conference, a notorious spectacle of anti-Israel vitriol that included mass street rallies shouting anti-Semitic slogans.

Eleanor Roosevelt would be ashamed to find that the UN she helped create has today become the leading global force behind a new human rights culture that tends to see racism everywhere—and anti-Semitism nowhere.

The secretary-general and other UN officials should recognize, in addition to all the perfectly legitimate universal lessons, that Auschwitz was the product of anti-Semitism, a cancer that continues to metastasize. The death camp Mr. Ban is seeing today was the most deadly instrument in the Nazis’ deliberate murder of six million Jews, part of Hitler’s publicly stated goal to achieve the “annihilation of the Jewish race.”

Mr. Ban’s visit also comes ten days after the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights released a major poll showing an alarming rise in anti-Semitism. A survey of nearly 6,000 self-identified Jews in eight European Union countries showed that two-thirds of respondents found anti-Semitism to be a major problem in their countries, while more than 75% said the situation had become more acute over the last five years. Jews in Europe cannot even pray in synagogue without the protection of intense security.

Let us hope that today’s visit will cause the United Nations to reflect on its history and founding purposes, and to reaffirm its solemn commitment to fight atrocity and racial discrimination—and anti-Semitism.

About the Author
Hillel Neuer is executive director of UN Watch, a non-governmental human rights organization in Geneva, Switzerland. An international lawyer, Neuer has been described by the Tribune de Genève as a human rights activist who is “feared and dreaded” by the world’s dictatorships. Israel's Ma’ariv newspaper ranked Neuer as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential Jewish People in the World.” Hillel Neuer is a renowned speaker who has published widely, testified before the United Nations and the U.S. Congress, and appeared on CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera. On September 14, 2016, the City of Chicago adopted a resolution declaring “Hillel Neuer Day” in recognition of his work as “one of the world’s foremost human rights advocates.” In June 2018, McGill University awarded Neuer with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, citing his work as “an innovator” in “creating global platforms for courageous dissidents and champions of human rights from around the world,” and for being “a passionate advocate for human rights, fighting tirelessly against discrimination, torture, and injustice."