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UN: General Assembly To Mark Auschwitz Liberation For First Time

UN Security Council (file photo) The UN General Assembly on 24 January will hold a special session commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz by Soviet Red Army troops. UN officials say the event is an occasion for reflection on the UN's founding principles and a reminder of the need to revive respect for human rights. Israeli's UN ambassador says the session is a welcome gesture after decades of difficult relations between Israel and the General Assembly.

United Nations, 20 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations was founded in the final days of World War II with a promise in its charter to spare succeeding generations the "untold sorrow" unleashed by war.

But the United Nations has never commemorated events most closely associated with that war's horrors -- the liberation of Nazi Germany's death camps. On 24 January, the UN General Assembly will hold a special session marking the liberation of the most notorious of the camps, Poland's Auschwitz, where an estimated 1.5 million Jews were killed.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday that the event is deeply significant for the organization. "It is essential for all of us to remember, reflect on, and learn from what happened 60 years ago The evil that destroyed 6 million Jews and others in those camps is one that still threatens all of us today. It is not something we can consign to the distant past and forget about it. Every generation must be on its guard to make sure that such things never happen again," Anna said.

Underscoring the importance attached to the session, the foreign ministers of Israel, Germany, Poland, and France will be attending.

The session was requested by the United States, the European Union, Russia, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. More than 150 of the UN's 191 members have expressed their support.

The General Assembly's president, Jean Ping of Gabon, told reporters yesterday the session should resonate especially well in Africa. The continent has experienced the Rwandan genocide, as well as charges of rampant rights abuses currently alleged against officials in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"It's our duty to remember and say loudly 'never again.' I hope also it will give us the opportunity to renew our commitment to the objectives and the principals of the United Nations Charter and also renew our commitment to human rights," Ping said.

That commitment has been sharply questioned by human rights watchdogs in recent months. They point to a general decline in effectiveness of UN human rights bodies and the inability of the Security Council to bring an end to abuses in Sudan's western Darfur region.

Annan has appointed a panel to investigate genocide allegations in Darfur, and its findings may become known soon. He has pressed the Security Council in the past on Darfur, but it has failed to go beyond a threat of economic sanctions. Annan acknowledged the difficulties in responding to the crisis in Darfur, which has killed at least 50,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

"Of course, we are grappling with the situation in Sudan, and the [Security] Council has considered all sorts of options and is fully seized of it and, in fact, we are still seeking for other actions the council may take," Annan said.

Annan also said the most logical place to prosecute those suspected of committing atrocities in Darfur is the International Criminal Court, but U.S. opposition to the court has complicated that option.

The 24 January session is expected to strike a note of sympathy for Israel, a rare occasion in the General Assembly. The assembly frequently adopts measures condemning various aspects of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories.

Israel's relations with the United Nations reached a low point in 1975 when the General Assembly voted to categorize Zionism as a form of racism. That resolution was struck down in 1991 with the help of a lobbying campaign by the United States.

Until recently, Israel was the only UN member not to belong to a regional group, thereby blocking membership of Israelis in UN bodies. Arab nations have repeatedly blocked Israel's admission to the Asian group, where it should be situated geographically. It has been a member of the Western Europe and Others group since 2000.

Israel's UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, noted the new hopes for peace in the Mideast and said the United Nations may also be undergoing a change. "Seeing as [the session] does in a very special way touch upon Israel and the Jewish people, maybe that atmosphere has made it possible for over 138 countries, including many countries who normally may not have supported such an initiative, to come aboard, and we are very gratified that this is happening," Gillerman said.

Roman Kent is a survivor of Auschwitz and vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee. He told RFE/RL during a visit to UN headquarters this week that the General Assembly session is an important moment for the United Nations.

"After all, it was the United Nations that voted Zionism is racism and so on, and this is very detrimental to the spirit of the United Nations. So maybe they can start to undo the damage which was done in the United States by statements like this by bringing to the attention that tolerance is important, hatred is always bad," Kent said.

The actual anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp is 27 January. On that date, about 2,000 survivors are expected to gather with world leaders at the site in southern Poland to mark the camp's liberation by Soviet Red Army soldiers.

Nazi occupiers renamed the Polish town of Oswiecim before setting up the infamous camp.