Speech at the Conference "Remembering for the Future"

Speech in occasion of the conference on holocaust and human rights education "Remembering for the future", jointly held in Copenhagen on 26-27 April by the FRA, European Commission and Danish Institute for International Studies.

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear colleagues, friends,  

A warm welcome to all of you, to our conference Remembering for the Future. Along with the European Commission and the Danish Institute for International Studies, the Fundamental Rights Agency stands, in partnership, behind this conference.

Let me begin by asking you:

  • We have seen human rights advance since the Second World War, yet, the link between past events and today’s human rights remains obscure?
  • What do we remember from history and what do we forget – and why?
  • What do we need to remember and how should we honour, and learn, from that past?
  • Lastly, why are we even bothering to remember at all? In essence, what do we want to teach each other and our children and our children’s children about human rights, and about our shared history and identity?

Ladies and Gentlemen,

To mark 60 years since the 1938 Pogroms, the Fundamental Rights Agency launched a project on Holocaust Education and Human Rights Education in 2008. This project explored the link between Holocaust education and human rights education. Several important insights were gained. Let me highlight two:

First - the links between what happened during the Holocaust and learning about human rights today is made across European countries.

Most EU Member States have institutions in place to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and its victims. Many of these institutions offer educational programmes that extend beyond the Holocaust itself and allow visiting groups, particularly young people, to reflect on contemporary human rights issues. Holocaust remembrance days, both internationally and nationally, recall the importance of paying respect to victims and of learning from past atrocities. 

However the practical tools and systematised approaches are still lacking.

Second insight: It is possible and worthwhile to incorporate human rights education into the teaching of history at memorial sites and museums.

Visits to memorial sites can provide a broader understanding of what human rights are: They underline how important it is to create a world in which everyone is respected. 

There is great potential for raising rights awareness, responsibility, citizens’ solidarity, respect for minorities, the need to combat racism, antisemitism, slavery etc. which are woven into the fabric of our societies today.

For example: The former concentration camp at Mauthausen in Austria, nestles among small pretty Austrian villages in a beautiful landscape. The presence of the camp was very visible and transparent, so the question asked by people working at Mauthausen today is: what did the neighbours think of the place? What sort of mental construction did they create to cope with the presence of this horror next door to them? What sort of narrative was created by the Nazi regime? And so on.

This is also obviously important for us working on human rights today. We have to ask ourselves: what sort of atrocities are we blind to today? What stories do we create to make unpleasant human rights problems fade from our radar?

One obvious example is the present day slavery in Europe - whether it is Nigerian women gravely misused in prostitution or men slaving away in our fields, factories or building sites. How often do we hear that these people “are probably better off here than at home”, as an excuse for not reacting to their extreme exploitation or slavery? Of course, this is only one example. But a worthy one. It illustrates how greater understanding of human rights through history can empower us to act and try to make a difference to the lives of those who live close to us today.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Why we are here today and what do we hope to achieve?

We have united here a wide variety of professionals – teachers, human rights education specialists, holocaust education specialists, experts on memory, historians, policy makers, researchers, employees of museums and memorial sites, and project participants from the Fundamental Rights Agency, the European Commission, and the Danish Institute for International Studies.

We hope that our diverse approach can foster new insight and new ways forward. So, let’s take today and tomorrow to move forward on issues, topics and projects as a community of practitioners. Let’s use this time together to suggest follow up actions on the various developments and initiatives taking place at EU, national and local levels.

Let’s keep in mind that this is not a one-off event, but part of an ongoing discussion and process, linked to EU initiatives. For example, I am very pleased that the European Commission will open up funding that could be used for staff exchanges, mutual learning and programme development related to the use of history to address the human rights situation today.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

History has taught us: to look forward we must look back. Therefore raising awareness about the Holocaust is closely linked to educating about human rights, and combating racism and antisemitism today. This will help to build a more inclusive society based on respect for and understanding of fundamental rights and European values.

Let me end with the words of William Morris, A British craftsman, poet and utopist from the 19th century. He said: “The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.”

Thank you.