Special U.N. Session Seems Likely to Mark Liberation from Nazi Camps

With Kofi Annan’s backing, the United Nations appears poised to host its first commemorative session on the Holocaust. The U.N. secretary-general is sending letters to all member states asking for their support for a special emergency session on Jan. 24 in honor of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.

A majority of member states, or at least 96, must answer with a letter of support for the event to take place.

Many observers expect it to happen.

“It’s a no-cost opportunity,” said Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights at the American Jewish Committee.

Countries will be able to show their opposition to genocide without having to look for balancing language on other issues, she explained.

The move comes amid a major lobbying effort led by the United States, with the backing of B’nai B’rith International.

“We believe that it is important that the United Nations, an organization that rose out of the ashes of World War II and the Holocaust, mark this important occasion in a manner fitting its historical significance,” the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Danforth, wrote in a Dec. 10 letter to Annan.

Annan has lent his own outspoken support for a commemoration of the liberation.

Six months ago, the United Nations hosted its first daylong conference to address growing worldwide anti-Semitism. Annan introduced the event and spoke about the concentration camp anniversary.

“My friends, next January it will be 60 years since the first of the

death camps were liberated by advancing Soviet forces. There could be no

more fitting time for member states to take action on the necessity of

combating anti-Semitism in all its forms,” Annan said.

He referred to a recent resolution adopted by the Commission on Human Rights to protect Muslims and Arabs, asking, “Are not Jews entitled to the same degree of concern and protection?”

The special session would address the liberation anniversary with speeches. At the same time, a Holocaust exhibit, sponsored by Israel, is slated to open in U.N. halls on Jan. 24 and will last through early March.

Another exhibit of photographs taken by youth who have visited camps will be mounted at the United Nations next month by the International Auschwitz Committee.

Along with Danforth’s letter last week came appeals from Canada, the 25 member states of the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Israel.

On Monday, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the only Holocaust survivor in the U.S. Congress, met with Annan to press for the session.

Lantos and B’nai B’rith said Arab countries privately had opposed the session. Several calls seeking response from Arab U.N. delegations were unsuccessful.

Lantos cosponsored a letter with Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) in the U.S. House of Representatives calling on Annan to hold a special session on the occasion.

A similar letter in the Senate was sponsored by Sens. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Christopher Dodd (D-Ct.). Both are expected to be sent to Annan this week.

For its part, the American Jewish Committee is not lobbying yet on the issue, thinking it won’t be necessary to ask countries for their support, Gaer said.

B’nai B’rith is a bit more tentative.

“We at B’nai Brith are not taking any country for granted,” said Amy Goldstein, the group’s director of U.N. affairs.

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