The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has formalized its role as a voice against genocide and mass murder around the world.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which serves as the museum’s board, last week voted to establish a permanent Committee on Conscience to raise public awareness against acts of genocide and their precursors.
In voting to establish the committee, the council said it was fulfilling part of the original charge given to it by the presidential Holocaust Commission, which in 1979 urged the museum’s creation.
The commission called for the creation of a Committee on Conscience to “alert the national conscience, influence policy-makers and stimulate worldwide action to bring acts of genocide to a halt.”
“It is a moral mandate on our part” to speak out if genocide and mass murder is about to take place, said Miles Lerman, chairman of the council.
“Had the world spoken up, had public opinion been more aggressive, the Holocaust wouldn’t have taken place, and had it taken place, it would have been with a lesser ferocity and more people would have been saved,” said Lerman.
The absence of a formal committee did not stop the Holocaust council from raising its moral voice until now.
The situation in Bosnia was highlighted in speeches at the opening of the museum in 1993, and in its first temporary exhibition.
The council also issued a statement about Rwanda, where tribal conflicts escalated into mass murders last year.
But those actions “didn’t have the full effect that a more formal structure like the committee on conscience will have,” said Hyman Bookbinder.
Bookbinder, the former Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, served on the task force that drafted the proposal to form the conscience committee. He was a member of the original Holocaust Commission set up by President Carter.
The new committee will be appointed by the council chairman, but will include both members and non-members of the council.
Bookbinder attributed the delay in organizing the committee to “bureaucratic, technical” reasons.
Eighteen months ago, not long after the museum opened on the Mall in Washington in April 1993, the council appointed a task force to look into establishing a conscience committee.
The basic decision to establish a committee “was made very early on,” said Ruth Mandel, who headed the task force and is vice chairwoman of the council.
“It is a confirmation of the museum as a living memorial and an institution that has relevance,” she said of the committee.
The task force heard from representatives of human rights groups, and delved deeply into the history of the United Nations Genocide Treaty of 1951.
As recommended by the task force and approved by the council on June 14, the Committee on Conscience will operate under the definition of genocide used by the U.N. treaty. That focus will be primarily on acts of genocide committed by governments either overtly or by aiding and abetting others in such acts.
In remarks to the June 14 meeting of the council, Bookbinder noted the crucial role the former chairman of the Holocaust council, Elie Wiesel, had played in securing American ratification of the genocide treaty in 1986.
After Wiesel’s testimony as the sole witness at a Senate hearing, treaty opponent Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) let it be known that even though he would not vote for the treaty, he would no longer block it, according to Bookbinder.
The committee is expected to have a staff, charged with investigating reports of genocide.
“We do not plan to become a perennial fire hose that runs to every fire,” said Lerman. “We do not plan to become a shadow State Department,” making specific recommendations for action.
“We are above politics. We deal with morality only,” he said.
“Will it be a very sensitive area? Yes. Will we be walking minefields? Without any question,” said Lerman.