The Holocaust and Human Rights: Dangers and Responsibilities

We will speak up – and act – against racism, against hate, against anti-Semitism, against mass atrocity, against injustice, and against the crime of crimes whose name we should shudder to mention.

Flowers are placed at the "death wall" at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland (photo credit: REUTERS)
Flowers are placed at the "death wall" at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland
(photo credit: REUTERS)
May I preface these remarks with a personal statement. Writing on the Holocaust, or Holocaust-related topic is something I do hesitantly, and with difficulty; for the subject matter evokes for me a sense of awe and reverence - indeed, humility - and I address it with a certain degree of reluctance, and not without a certain measure of pain. For I have neither the wisdom of the scholar nor the experience of the survivor.
I am reminded only of what I was taught while still a young boy - an education that informs my scholarship and advocacy to this day - that there are things in Jewish history that are too terrible to be believed, but not too terrible to have happened; that Auschwitz, Majdanek, Dachau...these are beyond vocabulary. Words may ease the pain but they may also obscure the evil. For the Holocaust, as others have written, is “uniquely unique” - where biology was inescapably destiny - and where, as Elie Wiesel put it “the Holocaust was a war against the Jews in which not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”
As it happens, I write at a historic moment of remembrance and reminder, of witness and warning. For we are on the eve of two historic anniversaries: the 80th anniversary of the Nuremberg Race Laws - that served as prologue and precursor to the Holocaust; and the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials - which served as the foundation for the development of contemporary international human rights and humanitarian law. And so, at this historic juncture of the double entendre of Nuremberg - the Nuremberg of jackboots and the Nuremberg of judgements - we must ask ourselves two questions: What have we learned? What must we do?
Lesson One: The Danger of Forgetting - The Responsibility of Remembrance
The first lesson is the importance of zachor, of remembrance of the victims defamed, demonized and dehumanized as prologue and justification for genocide, and where the mass murder of six million Jews, and of millions of non-Jews, is not a matter of abstract statistics.
As one says at such moments of remembrance, “Unto each person there is a name, each person has an identity, each person is a universe,” recalling that “whoever saves a single life it is as if he or she has saved an entire universe.” And so, the abiding imperative which we must imbibe and act upon: We are each, wherever we are, the guarantors of each other’s destiny.
Lesson Two: The Danger of State-Sanctioned Incitement to Hate and Genocide - The Responsibility to Prevent
The second enduring lesson is that the Holocaust succeeded not only because of the industry of death - of which the crematoria are a cruel reminder - but because of the Nazis’ state-sanctioned ideology of hate. It is this teaching of contempt, this demonizing of the other, this is where it all begins. As the Canadian Supreme Court affirmed, “The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers – it began with words.” Indeed, it is this genocidal incitement - as the Supreme Court of Canada again affirmed in the Mugesera case – that constitutes a crime in and of itself, whether or not genocidal acts follow.
Lesson Three: The Danger of Old/New Anti-Semitism - The Responsibility to Combat
The third lesson is the danger of anti-Semitism, the oldest and most enduring of hatreds and the most lethal. If the Holocaust is a metaphor for radical evil, anti-Semitism is a metaphor for radical hatred.    
From 1941 to 1944, 1.3 million people were murdered at Auschwitz – of whom 1.1 million were Jews. Let there be no mistake about it: Jews died at Auschwitz because of anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitism did not die there. As we have learned only too tragically, while it begins with Jews, it doesn’t end with Jews.
Lesson Four: The Danger of Holocaust Denial – The Responsibility to Repudiate False Witness
The Holocaust denial movement – the cutting edge of anti-Semitism old and new, is not just an assault on Jewish memory in its accusation that the Holocaust is a hoax and the Jews fabricated this hoax; rather, it constitutes an international criminal conspiracy to cover up the worst crimes in history. Simply put, the Holocaust denial movement whitewashes the crimes of the Nazis, as it excoriates the “crimes” of the Jews. And now, in an inversion of the Holocaust, Israel is labelled as a genocidal state, and the Jews are the new Nazis.
Lesson Five: The Danger of Indifference and Inaction in the Face of Mass Atrocity - The Responsibility to Protect
The fifth painful and poignant lesson is that these Holocaust crimes resulted not only from state-sanctioned incitement to hatred and genocide, but from crimes of indifference, from conspiracies of silence – from the international community as bystander. What makes the Holocaust, and more recently the Rwandan Genocide, so unspeakable, is not only the horror of the genocide itself - which is horrific enough - but that these genocides were preventable.
Let there be no mistake about it: Indifference and inaction always means coming down on the side of the victimizer, never on the side of the victim. In the face of evil, indifference is acquiescence, if not complicity in evil itself.
Lesson Six: The Danger of Impunity - The Responsibility to Bring War Criminals to Justice
If the last century – symbolized by the Holocaust – was the age of atrocity, it was also the age of impunity. Few of the perpetrators - including in the Nuremberg Trials - were brought to justice. Just as there must be no sanctuary for hate, no refuge for bigotry, there must be no base or sanctuary for these enemies of humankind. Impunity only emboldens and encourages the war criminals and war crimes.
Lesson Seven: The Danger of La trahison des clercs - The Betrayal of the Elites: The Responsibility to Speak Truth to Power
The seventh lesson is that the Holocaust was made possible not only because of the “bureaucratization of genocide,” as Robert Lifton put it – and as the Nazi desk murderer Adolf Eichmann personified – but because of the trahison des clercs, the complicity of the elites, including physicians, church leaders, judges, lawyers, engineers, architects and educators.
Nuremberg crimes, were also the crimes of the Nuremberg elites. It is our responsibility, then, to speak truth to power, to hold power accountable to truth. The double entendre of Nuremberg – of Nuremberg racism and the Nuremberg Principles – must be part of our learning as it is part of our legacy.
Lesson Eight: The Danger of the Assault on the Vulnerable and Powerless - The Responsibility to Intervene
The eighth lesson concerns the vulnerability of the powerless and the powerlessness of the vulnerable. Indeed, it is revealing, as Prof. Henry Friedlander pointed out in his work titled, “The Origins of Nazi Genocide”, that the first group targeted for killing were the Jewish disabled.
It is our responsibility, to give voice to the voiceless and to empower the powerless, be they the disabled, poor, elderly, women victimized by violence, or vulnerable children – the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.                
Lesson Nine: The Danger of the Bystander Community - The Responsibility of Rescue
The ninth lesson is the remembrance and tribute that must be paid to the rescuers, the Righteous Among the Nations, of whom Raoul Wallenberg is metaphor and message, who demonstrated that one person with the compassion to care and the courage to act can confront evil, resist, and transform history. Tragically, the man who saved so many was not himself saved by so many who could have. We have a responsibility to help discover the fate of this great hero of the Holocaust, whom the United Nations called the greatest humanitarian of the twentieth century, and where an International Scholars Roundtable, in May 2016, will attempt to do precisely that.
Lesson Ten: The Legacy of Holocaust Survivors
We must always remember – and celebrate – the survivors of the Holocaust, the true heroes of humanity.
For they witnessed and endured the worst of inhumanity, but somehow found, in the depths of their own humanity, the courage to go on, to rebuild their lives as they helped build our communities.
Together with them, we must remember – and pledge – that never again will we be indifferent to incitement and hate; never again will we be silent in the face of evil; never again will we indulge racism and anti-Semitism; never again will we ignore the plight of the vulnerable; and never again will we be indifferent in the face of mass atrocity and impunity.
We will speak up – and act – against racism, against hate, against anti-Semitism, against mass atrocity, against injustice, and against the crime of crimes whose name we should shudder to mention: genocide.
Irwin Cotler is Professor of Law (Emeritus) at McGill University and Founding Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. A former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and long time Member of Parliament, he is Co-Chair with Professor Alan Dershowitz, of the forthcoming international legal symposium: “The Double Entendre of Nuremberg: The Nuremberg of Hate and the Nuremberg of Justice.”
The 28th March of the Living will take place on May 5th.  The live stream of the main ceremony can be seen at: