The International Committee of the Red Cross, the world’s foremost humanitarian organization, and the World Jewish Congress commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps today in Geneva. Ahead of the gathering, an exhibition showcasing relevant material from the ICRC archives opened to the public at Geneva’s Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum.
The conference “Remembering the Shoah: The ICRC and the International Community’s Efforts in Responding to Genocide and Protecting Civilians” reflected on how legal and political responses to mass killings have developed since the Holocaust. The event was attended by 200 senior members of Geneva’s diplomatic corps and also featured a panel discussion with Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University Deborah Lipstadt and former International President of Médecins Sans Frontières James Orbinski.
In his keynote address at the event, ICRC President Peter Maurer said: “The ICRC failed to protect civilians and, most notably, the Jews persecuted and murdered by the Nazi regime. It failed as a humanitarian organization because it lost its moral compass.”
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“World silence and indifference to the fate of the Jewish people led to the Holocaust. The Red Cross chose silence as well, ” said WJC President Ronald S. Lauder. “In the face of a human catastrophe, silence is not a moral alternative. As one of the most respected international organizations in the world, the ICRC has an important obligation that goes beyond relief work. Today, this is more important than ever because of what we see throughout the Middle East, Africa, and even right here in Europe.”
During World War II, the ICRC, headquartered in Geneva, was the principal humanitarian institution maintaining communications with both the Allied and Axis powers. While the ICRC did provide assistance and protection to Allied prisoners of war held by Nazi Germany, it could not do the same for Jewish deportees as Berlin refused all humanitarian requests to help Jewish victims. At the same time, the ICRC did not publicly denounce the deportation of Jews to concentration camps.
Maurer: ‘Never again’ resonates with difficulty
Peter Maurer said: “The ICRC did not see Nazi Germany for what it was. Instead, the organization maintained the illusion that the Third Reich was a ‘regular partner’, a state that occasionally violates laws, not unlike any army during World War I, occasionally using illegal means and methods of warfare.”
The ICRC president stressed that his organization had learnt from past failures: “We have chosen to confront our past and to embrace transparency. Our public archives are proof of our acknowledgment of the past and our continued effort to confront uncomfortable truths.”
He emphasized that “for the ICRC, somehow, ‘never again’ resonates with difficulty because of what we see and experience on the ground every day. We cannot guarantee that a humanitarian catastrophe of the extent of the Holocaust will not happen again. On the contrary, we witness a catalogue of atrocities, every day, in wars across the globe.”
He suggested that solutions could be to turn “trauma and bare instinct for survival into productive energy to build institutions, strengthen accountability and legal frameworks and thus open spaces for more humane societies.”
Lauder: ‘ICRC needs to lead in struggle between good and evil’
WJC President Ronald Lauder said in his speech: “I believe the International Red Cross has an important obligation that goes beyond relief work. The ICRC is one of the most respected international organizations in the world and as such, its opinion carries great weight.” He commended the organization for learning from the past mistakes: “You have already proven your moral authority because you have opened up your historical records. You have admitted that you could have and should have done more.”
Lauder said the world was “in desperate need of leadership in the ongoing debate between right and wrong. And that is exactly what this is a struggle between good and evil. There is no ambiguity when marauding armies kill everything in their path, beheading men, women and even children. This could not be clearer, just as it was clear 70 years ago when the concentration camps were liberated.
“The world today faces its greatest challenge since the end of World War II. Nothing could be more important in 2015. The International Committee of the Red Cross must show the world the way, ” he pointed out.