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How we stood up for human rights

To learn about our own contributions to human rights protection will strengthen us to contribute more, writes Geraldine Van Bueren, on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Rene Cassin (1887 - 1976), the French jurist, and Deputy Chairman of the NATO committee for Human Rights, with telegrams of congratulation after winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
    Rene Cassin (1887 - 1976), the French jurist, and Deputy Chairman of the NATO committee for Human Rights, with telegrams of congratulation after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. (GettyImages)

    This year is the 70th anniversary of a world-changing document, which Jews had a major role in shaping. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    It is rarely acknowledged but there is a special relationship between Jews and human rights, of which we should be proud. It is not an exclusive relationship but special because many Jews have contributed, some at the cost of their own lives, to the illuminating progress towards equality and dignity. If this was known more widely it might even help against antisemitism.

    Rene Cassin was one of two people who played a significant role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The other was the equally impressive Canadian, John Humphreys. For his contribution to human rights and peace Cassin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968. He said he was happy but would be happier “if there were a little more justice in the world.”

    Cassin was born in France to a Sephardi father and an Ashkenazi mother. His sister Yvonne, her husband and other family members were murdered in Auschwitz. He came to London and offered his services to General de Gaulle who asked him to become his legal adviser: a critical role for a government in exile.

    It was Cassin who contributed the term ‘universal’ to the Declaration. All human rights belong to everyone as an essential aspect of being human. They cannot be taken away or diminished. He wrote that the “universal” came to him in a dream. This was appropriate as photographs show his resemblance to Sigmund Freud.

    A core of universality is that human rights are indivisible. Everyone is as entitled to social rights such as the right to an adequate standard of living and the highest attainable standard of healthcare, as everyone is entitled to civil rights including free speech and religious freedom.

    The civil rights in the Universal Declaration, which Cassin helped draft were included in the European Convention on Human Rights. Cassin served as a judge and was later President of the European Court of Human Rights. The European Convention was incorporated here in the Human Rights Act. There is a link between Cassin’s work and beliefs and the Human Rights Act.

    There could have been even greater Jewish contribution to the Universal Declaration. All countries were entitled to send representatives to the drafting. The most obvious choice for the United Kingdom was Hirsch Lauterpacht. He had already published his book, An International Bill of the Rights of Man, in 1945.

    Eric Beckett, the Foreign Office’s legal adviser opposed Lauterpacht, because Lauterpacht was “a Jew recently come from Vienna”. Ignoring the bitter irony of rejecting a drafter of a universal human rights declaration on the grounds of his religion, Beckett was partially inaccurate. Lauterpacht was originally a Galician Jew but not “recently arrived” having arrived in London in 1923 and acquired citizenship in 1931.

    There may have been additional reasons for the exclusion because neither of these factors prevented his membership of the International Law Commission in 1952 and as judge on the International Court of Justice in 1955. Lauterpacht had called for some social rights such as the right to social security, which were not priorities for the United Kingdom. He also wanted a legally binding Declaration.

    Both Cassin and Lauterpacht drew inspiration from their Jewish heritage. The Universal Declaration enshrines the Talmudic “if I am not for others, who am I for?” Rabbi Hillel’s belief that everyone is obliged to deal with everyone justly is woven into its fabric. This heritage underlays Cassin’s support for rights such as food, housing and clothing.

    There have been other Jewish contributors to human rights, including Sir Nigel Rodley whose work led to the universal prohibition of torture. Even the founder of Amnesty International, Peter Benenson was born Jewish, later converting to Catholicism.

    Jews have also made major contributions to national human rights protection. Louis Brandeis became the first Jew to be appointed to the US Supreme Court. Brandeis also developed a method of proving discrimination. This is now called the “Brandeis Brief”. It allows those who believe they have been discriminated to prove the social context of discrimination. He based this on the Jewish importance of the relationship of the individual, the family and the community.

    Other Jews contributed to the fight against racial segregation. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner from New York were two of the three civil rights workers abducted and killed in Mississippi in 1964. The third, James Chaney, was from Mississippi. Known as the Mississippi Three, the outrage over their murders helped the passing of the US Voters Registration Act 1965.

    In South Africa there is a specific duty in the Constitution to “promote” and “ensure respect” for the Hebrew language. This is partially in recognition of the Jews who fought apartheid, including Albie Sachs, Ruth First, Jo Slovo and Helen Suzman.

    This centrality of human rights in Jewish life led to the Declaration on Judaism and Human Rights adopted in 1974 by the American Jewish Committee, the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Consultative Council of Jewish Organizations the latter co-founded by Rene Cassin.

    This Declaration reinforces the Universal Declaration and originates from the B’tzelem Elohim, that all human beings were created in the divine image.

    This is not to ignore human rights violations including slavery committed by people of all religions and none. It is, however, common to see the Jewish experience through the lens of suffering from the gravest of human rights violations. It was Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word genocide from genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and cide (Latin for killing)

    As essential as it is to remember suffering, it is also important to acknowledge the bright light of other Jewish contributions. To learn about our own contributions to human rights protection will strengthen us to contribute more.

    Professor Geraldine Van Bueren QC is a barrister in Doughty Street chambers and professor of international human rights law at Queen Mary, University of London. She is donating the fee for this article to the charity Rene Cassin.