Remarks on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2015

Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at a Special Event to mark the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, January 21, 2015

group outside gate (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
People walk through the gate of the Sachsenhausen Nazi death camp with the phrase ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (work sets you free) at the eve of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Oranienburg, about 30 kilometers, (18 miles) north of Berlin, Monday, Jan. 26, 2015. The International

Thank you, and thank you, everybody, for being here. Let me thank you, Ambassador Winid, and the Polish Mission to the United Nations for organizing this important event and for bringing together such a diverse group of speakers to grapple with a question that we cannot ask too often: Why have we failed in preventing genocide? And, how can we do better?

The exhibit that opens today in conjunction with this event, of art made in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, is testament to why this is such a resonant issue for Poland and for all countries.

And we would likely be having a very different conversation today were it not for a Polish Jew named Raphael Lemkin, who in 1920, when he was a 21-year-old linguistics student at the University of Lvov, was first seized by the paradox that while there were laws to punish taking a single life, no law prohibited the annihilation of entire nations, races, or religious groups. Indeed, there was not then even a word to describe the systematic destruction of a people. With the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s, Lemkin’s question became increasingly bound up with his own fate. He fled Poland shortly after the Nazi invasion in September 1939. Forty-nine members of his family were killed in the Holocaust. Eventually, Lemkin himself fled to the United States, where he invented the word “genocide”; and where his personal lobbying efforts, here at the United Nations, almost single-handedly lead to the drafting and adoption of the 1948 Genocide Convention, the UN’s very first human rights treaty.

Lemkin’s efforts laid several foundational pillars of an international system aimed at preventing and stopping genocide – a system that has been strengthened by subsequent generations of advocates like Lemkin. We have created the International Criminal Court and the responsibility to protect doctrine, and we’ve strengthened the civilian protection mandates for – and the capabilities of – UN and regional peacekeepers. Today, we not only have a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, but also a UN Special Advisor dedicated specifically to the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, who is here today and will speak shortly.

In the United States, President Obama has made the prevention of mass atrocities a core national security priority and built new capabilities across our government to anticipate and preempt mass atrocities before they occur, because the earlier we act to stop these crimes, the better the chance we have of saving lives. And we have independent organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, also represented today, which document human rights violations and hold international institutions and governments to account.

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power  (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power addresses the United Nations General Assembly, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015. The U.N. General Assembly is holding its first-ever meeting devoted to anti-Semitism in response to a global increase in violence against Jews, a meeting scheduled even before the recent attack on

In some cases, these structures and institutions have worked to prevent violence. In South Sudan, the UN opened its gates in an unprecedented way to 100,000 civilians fleeing violence, allowing its bases to become islands of protection. Last August, as ISIL encircled Yezidis on Mt. Sinjar, President Obama ordered airstrikes to avert a potential act of genocide. The United States used air drops to deliver 114,000 meals and 5,000 gallons of water during the first week alone, while airstrikes helped many Yezidis flee the mountain and ultimately helped break ISIL’s siege. Just last week, Dominic Ongwen, a top commander in the cruel, vicious Lord’s Resistance Army wanted for nearly a decade by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, turned himself in. And last night, the Central African Republic transferred Ongwen to the Hague.

And yet despite these and other efforts, seven decades after the family members of Raphael Lemkin and millions of other Jews were tattooed with serial numbers and exterminated in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, we have learned that the Assad regime has meticulously documented the torture and killing of thousands of civilians assigning each victim a serial number and a case file. Today, I propose addressing the question posed by Poland by turning the question on its head. What can we learn from the cases where people have succeeded in stopping atrocities? Let me offer two examples.

Captain Mbaye Diagne was a 32 year-old military observer in the UN Mission in Rwanda when the country exploded into violence. It was April 1994, and Hutu militias had taken to the streets with lists of names and addresses of ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutu to kill, including Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana. The Prime Minister and her husband managed to hide their five children before the militia arrived and gunned them down.

When Mbaye and other peacekeepers arrived at the compound, they found the kids huddled together in a bungalow. The youngest was just three years old. Captain Mbaye called for UN reinforcements to evacuate the children, but none arrived. Knowing the kids would be killed if they were left there, Mbaye decided to take them himself, loading them into his car and setting off for the UN compound. On the journey, they had to pass through multiple checkpoints where militia members were searching cars for Tutsi and anyone protecting them. Had they realized who the children were, Captain Mbaye would surely have been killed. But they made it through, and the children were flown out of the country days later and eventually settled in Switzerland. One of the children, Marie-Christine who was 15 at the time her parents were killed, recently said of Mbaye, “If he hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be here now.” She lives in Lausanne with her husband and two children of her own.

What began as a reflexive act of humanity became a daily routine for Captain Mbaye. A devout Muslim who did not drink, he drove around Kigali with the back of his pick-up loaded with beer, whisky, and cigarettes – currency for buying goodwill from hostile militia members. He made multiple trips a day, shuttling Tutsi and Hutu at risk to safe areas. Every trip required passing through multiple checkpoints, where it was not uncommon for passengers to be yanked from their cars and hacked to death with machetes on the mere suspicion of being Tutsi. In less than two months, he saved hundreds, or perhaps even a thousand, civilians – in trips of twos and threes.

In one of his daily rounds, Captain Mbaye stopped at Sainte Famille church, where Concilie Mukamwezi, a Tutsi, had gone with her family to seek refuge. When Mbaye arrived, Concilie had been stopped by an armed priest, who accused her of being a rebel collaborator, pointed a gun at her, and threatened to shoot her on the spot. Mbaye ran over and put himself between the priest and Concilie, saying “Why are you killing this woman? You must not do this because if you do, the whole world will know.” The priest let her go, and Concilie survived. Mbaye, however, did not. He was killed on May 31, 1994, when a mortar struck his car on one of his countless trips through a checkpoint.

Twenty years later, in 2014, a Catholic priest from Togo named Father Bernard Kinvi found his community caught in a vicious cycle of violence in the Central African Republic. Father Bernard runs a mission in the northeastern town of Bossemptele, consisting of a church, a hospital, and a school. As many of you know, the violence in the Central African Republic began in 2012. In March of 2013, Muslim rebels known as Seleka toppled the government and swept across the country, committing widespread abuses, including against Christian communities. In early 2014, Christian militia – the so-called anti-Balaka – rose up and crushed the Seleka government, then embarking on a series of revenge attacks against Muslim civilians. The anti-Balaka arrived in the Catholic Priest Bernard Kinvi’s town in January 2014. They massacred more than 80 Muslims, and burned and looted their homes, and hundreds of Muslims fled into the bush around the village.

With a pushcart and a stretcher, Father Bernard and nuns from his mission searched the bush and burnt out homes for wounded Muslims, and brought them to a hospital for treatment. On one of his trips, he came across a disabled teenage girl who had been abandoned by her family and could not walk; so he put her on his back and actually carried her to his compound. Another time, he was bringing a 13-year-old Muslim boy to the compound when he was stopped by anti-Balaka forces. They demanded he hand over the boy, saying, “We need to kill him, because he will grow up to be Seleka.” Father Bernard refused and, eventually, the anti-Balaka let them pass. At the peak of the crisis, more than one thousand Muslims sought refuge in his compound.

Now, what do the stories of Captain Mbaye and Father Bernard teach us about stopping mass atrocities? We often – and we especially here at the United Nations often – speak about the failure to prevent genocide in terms of structures and institutions; and of course, structures matter a great deal. But whether they work or not ultimately comes down to the efforts of individuals. And our greatest failures in preventing genocide have come not when individuals have tried to save lives and failed. No, our greatest failures have come when – whether out of fear or feelings of futility or political considerations – people have not tried in the first place.

The impact made by Captain Mbaye and Father Bernard demonstrates just how much can be achieved when people are willing to take risks to defend the lives of others. For while it is true that their individual efforts did not, and could not, stop the massive atrocities being committed in Rwanda or today in the Central African Republic, together, two individuals saved thousands of lives. Just two men, whose only weapons were their courage and a commitment to helping people in their greatest time of need. A Senegalese peacekeeper saving Rwandans, international journalists, and aid workers; and a Togolese Catholic priest saving Muslims. As Father Bernard has put it: “It’s not that we made a specific decision to help Muslims. It’s that our mission is to protect the weakest and most vulnerable.”

Of course, this lesson is not unique to Rwanda or the Central African Republic. It is the lesson of Raphael Lemkin’s life and of the gentiles across Europe who hid Jews from the Nazis, and of the Allied troops who liberated the camps, as Red Army soldiers did in Auschwitz. It is the story of Croats who saved Serbs and Serbs who saved Croats and Muslims who saved members of these groups and were saved by them in the unspeakable ethnic cleansing that occurred in Bosnia.

Whether it was the Polish countryside in 1944, Sarajevo in 1992, Kigali in 1994, or the Central African Republic in 2014, it was individuals who stopped atrocities. The lives Captain Mbaye and Father Bernard saved give us reason to hope. They are a reminder of how little we need to stop atrocities if we can muster the will to live up to our principles. Captain Mbaye and Father Bernard encourage us to ask more of ourselves – to risk more when people like them are risking everything. Because if two men can save thousands of lives, just imagine what we could do with a fraction of their determination and courage.

Thank you.