British Ambassador to Sweden’s speech on upcoming British IHRA Chairmanship

Paul Johnston, British Ambassador to Sweden gave a speech on 24 February on the priorities for the upcoming British IHRA Chairmanship.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Paul Johnston

Tomorrow, 25 February, the United Kingdom has the honour to take over the Chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. It is a great privilege for the UK to succeed Canada as Chair. Canada, like its predecessors Belgium, the Netherlands, Israel and Norway, has been an active and dedicated leader. We intend to respect and build on that legacy.

It is appropriate for me to talk about the UK priorities for our Chairmanship in Stockholm. The UK was one of the founding members of the Alliance, together with Sweden and the US. And Raoul Wallenberg, was one of Sweden’s greatest sons, and an inspiration to so many. It is wonderful that his sister is here with us today. I shall never forget the impression Alex Kershaw’s book about him, “To save a people made”, made on me. And I shall never forget listening to Judith Weiszmann today.

Sadly, it is also appropriate to talk about Holocaust remembrance today, as we heard this morning of the death in London, at the age of 110, of the oldest known survivor of the Holocaust, Alice Herz.-Sommer.

The achievements of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Canada over the last three years enable us to take over the Alliance in a strong position. But we realise we need to continue our shared efforts towards our common goal of seeing the principles of the Stockholm Declaration implemented in as many countries as possible, and to do so, particularly, in challenging situations around the world.

Thanks to the excellent chairmanship of Dr Mario Silva, Canada has made substantial progress in the last year. The Canadian Chair continued to enhance the communications efforts of the IHRA, not least by starting to use Twitter, writing frequent blogs and publishing a monthly newsletter: all developments which the UK shall be proud to continue.

The UK has played a leading role in the IHRA since the beginning. We have many academics and historians working on Holocaust Issues, for example Sir Ian Kershaw, Professor Sir Richard Evans, Professor David Cesarani, Professor Dan Stones and many others, not least Sir Martin Gilbert, author of one of the landmark histories of the Holocaust.

In Gilbert’s 1986 book on the Holocaust, he acknowledges that with the Allied victory in 1945 the Holocaust became “history, increasingly distant, remote, forgotten: a chapter, reduced to a page, shortened to a paragraph, relegated to a footnote. “Yet” he says “it must still be remembered in each generation for what it was: an unprecedented explosion of evil over good”.

In the UK, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is the inspiration behind over 2000 events each January. Prime Minister David Cameron has convened a special Commission in the UK to report on how to create a more permanent Holocaust Memorial and Educational Resource in the UK. The Commission has been tasked with making its recommendations by July 2015 - the 70th anniversary of the British liberation of Bergen-Belsen, when the horrors of the camps were first broadcast to millions by the BBC reporter Richard Dimbleby who entered with the camp with the first Allied troops, beginning his famous broadcast with the words “I passed through the barrier and found myself in the world of a nightmare”. 70 years on it still makes heartbreaking listening and reading.

The main events of the UK chairmanship of the Remembrance Alliance will be two week-long meetings, in London in May and in Manchester in December. More details will be given in London by our Chair, Sir Andrew Burns, when the UK takes over formally tomorrow. The meeting in May will be preceded by a two day Conference on the Holocaust of the Roma and Sinti organised by the Centre for Holocaust Education at London’s University’s Institute of Education and by the Anne Frank Foundation in Amsterdam.

The UK Chair sees it as one of the crucial goals of our chairmanship to engage with an even broader range of governments and civil society than the Alliance does now.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is dealing with a subject of universal meaning and importance. What started out as an initiative of three countries in 1998 has grown into a intergovernmental body of 31 full member countries and five observers.

Most European countries are now engaged with the Alliance in one way or another, though there is much still to be done in promoting education, research and remembrance and contacts with countries still not formal Observers let alone full members. As part of that, the UK Chair is planning to continue the efforts of Canada and try to start formal cooperation with the Ukraine.

So we are determined to utilise the UK Chairmanship year to reach out and widen the influence of the Alliance. Our goal is to start including more countries who would benefit from our network and who will share our commitment to the Stockholm Declaration.

Looking ahead, we detect a growing consensus within the Alliance membership that in the first quarter of 2015, 15 years after the Stockholm Declaration and 70 years after the liberation of the camps and the end of World War II, it might be time for a high-level political reaffirmation of the Stockholm Declaration.

This would ensure that Holocaust education, remembrance and research remains central to our mission, and that International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance continues in particular to fight Holocaust denial and distortion wherever it may be found.

The UK emphasises the role of education in remembrance. The Holocaust is a mandatory subject in the National Curriculum in England and the Holocaust Education Trust takes 2 students from every school in England and Wales each year to Auschwitz.

In our view, the Alliance needs to address the future and the “solemn responsibility” accepted in Stockholm to fight the evils of genocide, ethnic cleansing, antisemitism and xenophobia.

It is not for IHRA to take on the UN mantle of “responsibility to protect”, but, in recent years, the Chair has been invited to share the Alliance’s insights at conferences on genocide prevention where we can offer advice on early warning measures and how to preserve and protect societal values when they come under pressure.

If I may intrude a personal note, one of the highlights of my career was negotiating on behalf of the EU the language on the responsibility to protect adopted by the UN World Summit in 2005. Canada’s efforts on that issue over the preceding decade and in the UN negotiations themselves were critical.

As the Stockholm Declaration asserts, it is an obligation on all of us to encourage the study of the Holocaust, the paradigm of extreme genocide, so that future generations can understand its causes and reflect upon its consequences. The UK will be proud to uphold this obligation as Chair of the IHRA.

Published 25 February 2014