On 19 January, the atmosphere of the great hall of the Residence Palace in Brussels was characterized by a tense but also cordial excitement. Seated around one long table were ministers and representatives of 35 countries, as well as international organizations. Behind them, without the restrictions of social distancing now so commonplace, aides and advisors occupied every chair in the room.
There was good reason for the excitement. Not only had 35 governments been brought to the table under the auspices of the Luxembourg Chairmanship, headed by Ambassador Georges Santer. They were also meeting with the express purpose of adopting a document that for years to come would guide their work in Holocaust remembrance, education and research, and against antisemitism, antigypsyism and other forms of discrimination. The result was the 2020 IHRA Ministerial Declaration.
Holding governments accountable
Since 2000, the work of the IHRA has been guided by the commitments first set out in the Stockholm Declaration. Considered the founding document of the IHRA, this declaration was the result of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, which brought together heads of state and other representatives of 46 countries.
But since all IHRA Member Countries already pledge to uphold the commitments of the Stockholm Declaration, why was there a need for another declaration? Of course, 2020 represents an important memorial year as the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camps and the end of the Second World War in 1945. However, as Professor Yehuda Bauer, the IHRA Honorary Chairman who was present at the adoption of both declarations, explains:
“The Stockholm Declaration became a political statement mainly because it was a first breakthrough on an issue that occupied the minds of many. The 2020 IHRA Ministerial Declaration was intended from its inception as a political statement, providing an inter-governmental umbrella for efforts in education, remembrance, and research.”
True to his well-known direct and honest approach, the IHRA Honorary Chairman underscores the importance of the updated and more detailed pledges made in the 2020 IHRA Ministerial Declaration: “In 2000, the commitment of governments to the implementation of the principles embodied in the Stockholm Declaration was vague,” says Professor Bauer. “A new declaration made by governments created a much more serious commitment.”
Facing growing threats
In the two decades after the breakthroughs achieved by the Stockholm Declaration, the role of the IHRA has only grown in importance. Part of the reason for this is the passing of time and the very real consequence this has within the field of Holocaust remembrance.
In 2000, when the Stockholm Declaration was adopted, approximately 800,000 Holocaust survivors were still living, able to give testimony and share their story. The words of the Stockholm Declaration reflected this, stating that the Holocaust “remains an event close enough in time that survivors can still bear witness to the horrors that engulfed the Jewish people.” Today, according to estimates from IHRA Permanent International Partner the Claims Conference, only about half the number of survivors remain, a fact explicitly recognized in the opening lines of the IHRA Ministerial Declaration.
Professor Bauer, who himself was forced to flee Czechoslovakia in 1939, points to two other developments that over the past 20 years have loomed as an ever-greater threat to Holocaust remembrance, education, and research.
“[The Stockholm Declaration] was tied to the situation as it was then, and in the meantime mainly two developments have made another major diplomatic effort necessary: First, the development of Holocaust distortion, against the background of a revival of antisemitism, and second, difficulties encountered in the sphere of education, both in schools and for adults at universities,” says Professor Bauer.
While a number of solutions to the challenges faced by educators and teachers were presented in the IHRA’s 2019 Recommendations for Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust, the growing threat of Holocaust distortion remains among the most urgent issues still to be addressed. As a consequence, a Task Force Against Holocaust Denial and Distortion has been formed to combat this worrying trend.
To the IHRA Honorary Chairman, all these efforts constitute a natural next step for the IHRA and its Member Countries. And in his opinion, the new declaration is key to this work.
“Over the last 20 years, the IHRA has developed a series of tools, contacts, and principles embodied in a number of definitions, which represent a complete change from what had been done before.” Through these efforts, Professor Bauer elaborates, “the IHRA became a serious player on the international scene, with its 34 Member Countries committed to Holocaust education, remembrance, and research, and this had to be embodied in the new 2020 IHRA Ministerial Declaration, which did not supersede the one of 2000, but developed its major statements.”