Ferrero-Waldner: Presseerklärung (englisch)
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Press-Statement by the Austrian Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Benita Ferrero-Waldner
29 July 2003
Mr. Foreign Minister,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This is the first ministerial level Austrian visit to Israel since the visit of the current Austrian Federal Chancellor and then Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schüssel in November 1998, when he held the Presidency of the EU Council of Foreign Ministers.
In February 2000, in an unprecedented move, 14 EU member states imposed unjustified measures on Austria. At the same time, the then Israeli government withdrew its Ambassador from Vienna. As you know, the EU-measures were lifted seven months later. I am glad that the moment of normalization of relations with Israel has come and we close this unfortunate chapter.
I have been looking forward to this day and I sincerely hope that we shall be able to achieve a new quality in the relations between our peoples and our countries.
Golda Meir once said, "One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present."
Some aspects of Austria's past, as many of you will have in mind, do not fit the present. Austria today is - and has been for more than half a century - a pluralistic democracy, a country with social peace and political stability, boasting economic strength and maintaining high humanitarian standards.
Austria - I wish to concede - may have hoped for too long to make the ghosts of the past just go away. The victims of the Holocaust would have wished for Austria to face her past earlier and more generously than this was done during the post war years.
Modern day Austria is aware and must remain aware of the responsibility and co-responsibility many Austrians bore for the tragedy of the Holocaust, even if they were our parents, our grandparents, friends or acquaintances.
Austria had ceased to exist as an independent nation with the Anschluss in 1938. But it has assumed the responsibility, which the wound of memory imposes on us. We know that the wounds of the victims and their families will never heal. And the memory must never die.
Consequently, upholding the lessons learned from the Holocaust and teaching the history of the Shoah forms a basic and integral part of Austria's policy, as does educating our youth in tolerance and humanitarian values.
To confront anti-Semitism in all its manifestations anywhere and anytime is also an important part of the special responsibility deriving from Austria's history. We have learned that we must not stand by when anti-Semitism, hatred and intolerance show their ugly faces, be it in our own country, in other countries of Europe or elsewhere in the world. There must be no tolerance for intolerance!
As you know, Austria has a long tradition of accepting refugees, such as from Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in the 1980s, and since the nineties from the Balkans and other regions, including Afghanistan. Austria has been and remains a safe haven and way station for Jewish refugees as it has been over several decades, particularly for close to a million of Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union.
The Austrian government under Federal Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel has undertaken a serious effort to deal with issues of Austria's past that had for too long been left unattended:
The historic settlements of October 24, 2000 concerning the creation of the Austrian Reconciliation Fund for former slave and forced laborers and the Washington Agreement of January 17, 2001 restitution and compensation issues are an expression of Austria's acknowledgement of her moral responsibility for the dark chapters in her history.
The restitution measures include the creation of a General Settlement Fund to complement measures of restitution and compensation already taken by Austria since 1945 as well as immediate compensation for Holocaust survivors for lost apartment and small business leases. Furthermore social benefits for holocaust victims have been increased and works of art have been restituted. All in all these measures initiated by the government in the year of 2000 amount to almost 1 billion US Dollars.
Permit me to cite from Chancellor Schüssel's Statement of February 9, 2000 to the Austrian Parliament presenting his government programme: "... we will make sure that those victims who are still alive - particularly the survivors of the Holocaust - who were insufficiently or not at all indemnified by the measures implemented so far and who today live in difficult conditions quickly receive the necessary help." (End of quote)
Dr. Schüssel's government works for an Austria in which xenophobia, anti-Semitism and racism have no place. It has been taking vigorous steps to counter every way of thinking which seeks to denigrate human beings, and combats the dissemination of such ideas. It is committed to full respect for the rights and fundamental freedom of people of any nationality - irrespective of the reason for their stay in Austria.
I am proud of a cooperation programme on human rights education that we were able to start with the Anti-Defamation League of B'naih B'rith in the year of 2000. Since then we have been able to draw on the experience of this important Jewish organization in the field of human rights education and education for tolerance and against racism and anti-Semitism.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Austria accepts her responsibility arising out of the tragic history of the 20th Century and the horrendous crimes of the National Socialist regime. Our country is facing up to the light and dark sides of her past and to the deeds of all Austrians, good and evil, as her responsibility. Nationalism, dictatorship and intolerance brought war, xenophobia, racism and mass murder. The singularity of the crimes of the Holocaust which are without precedent in history are an exhortation to permanent alertness against all forms of dictatorship and totalitarianism.
I have dealt with these issues at some length, because I think they lie at the basis of a sustained positive and active relationship between Austria and Israel.
Let me ask you to form your opinion on Austria by her actual performance over the last years and to have confidence in the strength of democracy in Austria as well as in the commitment of the Austrian people to human rights, the rights of minorities, freedom, and tolerance.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is out of moral responsibility and also because we share many aspects of our cultural heritage and values with the Jewish people, that we attach particular importance to our relationship with Israel.
How can we go about it?
- Austria welcomes the restoration of diplomatic relations in Vienna to ambassadorial level. Austria, as you know, has been present with an Ambassador in Israel all along. It seems to me that this is in line with Austria being an EU country and a friend of Israel with a long tradition of cooperation.
- Proceeding from there we have to bring people together and foster mutual understanding. We can accomplish this by enhancing the exchange of students and teachers as well as of young journalists, writers, and opinion leaders. The Austrian Centre at Hebrew University in Jerusalem could serve as a good starting point for such programmes.
- We have to bring our cultures together. Cultural cooperation between our countries has withstood the test of times. We have to build on this potential.
- We have to bring businesses together. I have asked the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber to look into the possibilities of strengthening economic ties. Austrian businesses are very successful in the markets that particularly the countries of Eastern, Central and South-Eastern Europe present. I see many opportunities here for cooperation. I have also asked the Austrian Federation of Industrialists to study in more detail investment opportunities in Israel. There should be possibilities for high tech and other joint ventures.
- Very importantly, we have to bring our politicians together. I am hopeful that more high level visits on government and other levels will follow.
- We should revitalize the Austrian-Israeli Friendship Society, which has never really been able to overcome the loss of its then President Dr. Heinz Nittel who died in a terrorist attack in Vienna many years ago.
- Finally, we have to make our interests meet. For historical reasons, albeit from different vantage points, Austria and Israel have a shared interest in promoting human rights and in fighting intolerance, hatred, and anti-semitism. Our countries subscribe to efforts of countering the scourge of terrorism and the dangers of weapons of mass destruction. This of course entails that we explore ways how we can better cooperate on such fundamental issues on the bilateral level and in multilateral fora.
It is in this context that I would like to note that Austria has been taking an active role within the European Union to point out the importance of relations with Israel. One of the occasions, when I personally did so, was at the EU Foreign Ministers' meeting in Rhodos in May this year, where I suggested that the EU needed to come up with positive signals towards intensifying relations with Israel.
And again, last Monday in Brussels, when you, Silvan, met all the EU-Foreign Ministers, I underlined the importance of developing and improving relations between the EU and Israel, as we in the EU are fully committed to make a substantial contribution to a renewed peace process. Your encouraging words, dear Minister, towards such an active and political role for the EU in the Middle East have been very well received by your colleagues in the EU.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
My visit to Israel takes place at a crucial time for the Middle East, when major changes affect the whole region and in fact the whole world. These developments have opened a new window of opportunity for a peaceful resolution for one of the longest lasting and one of the most dangerous regional conflicts, the conflict in the Middle East.
Austria has always pursued issues of the Middle East peace process with great interest and sympathy for the peoples of the region and has always spoken out in favour of the right of Israel to live within recognized and secure borders, in peace and without fear.
Austria fully supports the "Road Map", because it offers a political solution. Without political solutions we would just simply leave the terrain for the terrorists, extremists and fundamentalists.
While we look with keen interest on the hopeful signs, we also recognize that there is a minority, probably a small one at that, who wishes to torpedo the peace process by acts of violence and terror. My heart goes out to all the innocent victims of terror.
Austria - in the framework of the EU - welcomes the engagement of the United States and the personal involvement of President George W. Bush, something that we have always asked for, knowing fully well that this is necessary for any kind of progress to be achieved.
In any case it will take a long-standing and intensive dialogue, a dialogue of former and still potential adversaries, but also a dialogue of cultures and civilisations.
Austria has experience with such a dialogue. We started a dialogue between Christianity, Judaism and Islam many years ago. The dreadful experience of September 11, 2001 and developments since then have shown that such a dialogue has become ever more important.
One more point in this context that I am very proud of and that - to my knowledge - is unique: In spring last year, when tensions went high in the Middle East, both the leader of the Islamic Community and the Jewish Community in Austria issued a joint declaration underlining mutual respect and tolerance and condemning extremism and terrorism. The document was formulated by the two leaders and their aides right in my office and has contributed immensely to peaceful relations between the two communities, also in comparison to other.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me come to a close by summarizing the major points of my message today:
I visited Auschwitz last year. I visited Yad Vashem earlier today.
Only who has done so can fully understand the importance of the existence of Israel as the home of the Jewish people, where they can live in peace and security.
Only who has done so knows how important it is to fight anti-Semitism, hate and prejudice.
Only if we do not forget, can we achieve a better world.
I have come here to renew this commitment.
On the basis of historical and moral responsibility Austria has, albeit belatedly, faced up to the shadows of her past and has made particular efforts in this context under Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel.
My country attaches great importance to relations with Israel and welcomes the restoration of normalcy to our diplomatic relations.
Simon Wiesenthal once said, "There is no greater sin than forgetting." We shall not forget. The best way of doing this is for Austria and Israel to work together for a future without hate, anti-semitism and intolerance.
Thank you very much for your attention!