President Reuven Rivlin cautioned the UN General Assembly that frivolous misuse of the word “genocide” in political discourse diminishes the significance of the term, but also said the world body wasn’t doing enough to prevent modern atrocities.
Speaking Wednesday at the organization’s ceremony marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Rivlin said that it was the duty of the international community to lay down a bottom line when defining genocide and to make clear that crossing that line means intervention.
“We must remember that definition of the red lines requires putting an end to the devaluation and the cynical, supposedly objective usage in rhetoric on human rights of concepts such as ‘genocide’ for political purposes,” Rivlin said.
“[I]s our struggle, the struggle of this Assembly, against genocide, effective enough?” Rivlin asked. “Was it effective enough then in Bosnia? Was it effective in preventing the killing in Khojaly? Of Afghans by the Taliban? Is it effective enough today in Syria? Or in the face of the atrocities of Boko Haram in Nigeria? Are we shedding too many tears and taking too little action?
“I am afraid that the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide that came into force as long as 64 years ago has remained a merely symbolic document.”
He stressed that humanitarian and moral considerations needed to take precedence over economic, political interests in the fight against genocide.
“Nations cannot be saved and must not be saved as an afterthought or from considerations of cost benefit,” Rivlin said. “Unless the moral fire burns within us, the lessons of the Holocaust will never be learned.”
Rivlin recalled the “brutal,” “perverted” extermination of six million Jews during the Holocaust “in the most horrifying crime ever committed in the history of the human race.”
Rivlin also defended Islam, and said that “neither the West, nor the Christians nor the Jews are at war with Islam.”
Said the president: “Right now, Islam encompasses, under its enormous wings, victims of persecution and of terrorism, while at the same time it also serves as the banner of the attackers,” he said.
Rivlin noted that his father, Yosef Yoel, who created the first Hebrew translation of the Koran, believed “in the importance of dialogue and the cultural significance of the Koran for all the children of Abraham.”
Rivlin also pointedly mentioned the 1915 genocide of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during and after World War I.
A one-time outspoken advocate for Israel’s recognition of the Armenian genocide, Rivlin has distanced himself from the campaign since being elected president in mid-2014. Israel, which once had close ties with Turkey, does not officially recognize the killing of 1.5 million Christian minorities as genocide.
In introductory remarks in English before he switched to Hebrew, Rivlin cited current violence across the Israel-Lebanon border as underlining Israel’s fight against the growing global phenomenon of terrorism.
“I stand before you at a time of great tension in our region. My heart and my thoughts are with my people in Israel,” he said, speaking hours after two Israeli soldiers were killed in a cross-border Hezbollah missile attack. “Terrorism does not distinguish between blood. In this war, all of us, all the nations united, countries of the free world, must form a united front,” he said.
Rivlin cut his US itinerary short on Wednesday, announcing that he would fly back to Israel as soon as possible following the missile attack, in part to meet with the families of the victims.
He was first to meet with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a staunch pro-Israel advocate and potential Republican candidate for president in 2016.