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Simon-Skjodt Center Director Kikoler Addresses International Religious Freedom Summit

Remarks delivered on June 27, 2022, by Simon-Skjodt Center Director Naomi Kikoler at the International Religious Freedom Summit. 

On behalf of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, it is a deep honor to be able to participate today and in this week’s IRF Summit and today’s event. Thank you Amjad, and thank you Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett and Ambassador Brownback for your steadfast championing of these issues.

As we gather here today: 

There are hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs detained, with their loved ones yearning to find them.

Close to one million Rohingya live in crowded and dangerous refugee camps, unable to safely return home.

Yezidi mothers and fathers are longing for their kidnapped girls and boys.

And Hazara families are wondering if they can go to a mosque or hospital without being killed in an attack.

What binds each is that they have been targeted on the basis of their ethnic and religious identity. 

Our institution serves to preserve the history of Katrina and my family, and the six million other Jews’ experiences of what happens when religious persecution goes unchecked.

Our institution is a symbol of the resilience of survivors.

We stand humbled by the courage of the survivors joining us here today, our good friends Wai Wai, Rushan, and Pari.

But we are also an institution that seeks to ensure that future generations do not face similar persecution.

Sadly. Too many do today.

The purpose of this week cannot be about mere rhetoric. The survivors have been given enough false promises.

This week must be about action. A few points in this regard: 

One: We know that prevention is possible. That early engagement to respond to emerging warning signs is a cost effective alternative to waiting until mass atrocities have started. When you wait until the warning signs are glaring, or the crimes have started, you have fewer tools available to prevent and halt and the cost of using them has risen dramatically. 

We know that having processes and individuals within governments tasked with prioritizing protecting religious freedoms matters. These positions, which the US has as well as a robust office, should be tasked to look for the early warning signs of atrocities and escalate civil societies concerns to the highest levels. In the US, Congress played a critical role in strengthening early warning through the Elie Weisel Genocide and Atrocity Prevention Act, it serves an is an example of how legislatures can play an important role in prevention.

Two: Many of you are on the frontlines, you see the worrying trends, you live with the repercussions of a failure to protect. Your warnings, be it of crackdowns on freedom of assembly, sharing one’s culture with your children, discriminatory practices and persecution, dehumanizing language against you, can be warning signs of more ominous things to come. They should help trigger policy focus and resources.

It has been the honor of a lifetime to work with Pari, Wai Wai, and Rushan. You bear the weight of your communities on your shoulders. Your voices must be heard, prioritized, and made central to strategies to protect and crucially advance justice, and support be given to you as individuals and your organizations for what will be a long road ahead.

Three: To act requires political will, and so often individual leadership of those in government. To advocate for vulnerable communities against those within your own bureaucracies who argue that other interests, be they political or economic, take precedence over preventing mass atrocity crimes, or crucially seeking accountability for them when prevention has failed or was never tried. This is a false narrative. Atrocity crimes endanger our security and economy, as well as our values. Preventing mass atrocities will reinforce, not counter, our political and economic strength, and remain a moral imperative.

Four: We know that when religious freedom is denied, when anti-Semitism, extremism, Islamaphobia, and a myriad of other forms of discrimination against religious communities is allowed to fester, other vulnerable communities also will be at heightened risk, and a state’s prosperity and stability undermined.

During the Holocaust the persecution began with the targeting of the disabled, then focused on the Jews, the Roma, Jehovah’s witness, LGBTQ communities, and innocent others.

We can’t allow apathy or indifference to prevail. As Museum founder, Holocaust Survivor and Nobel Prize Winner, Elie Wiesel, who said “Let us remember: what hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander.” May this week deepen our resolve to combat the cruelty and silence.

Five: My grandmother’s tombstone included her Hebrew name: Miriam Bat Gedaliahu V'e Esther Dvora, and the name that the Nazi’s gave her. Though it is not a name. It is a number. 48145. An attempt to destroy her identity, and deny her existence.

They did not succeed.

Her tombstone says that she was a woman of “unshakeable faith and indomitable courage.” Irrespective of whether you are a person of religious belief or not, may we all have faith that we can build a better world, and the courage to understand that it is in each of our government’s national security interest to act on behalf of the persecuted. For the survivors in the room and who will be joining us this week, time is of the essence.