Out of the carnage of World War Two — the 80 million dead and the worst crime in human history, the Holocaust — a fragile idea emerged which could prevent it all happening again. Three developments in those years advanced the revolutionary idea of universal human rights.
The first was the Nuremberg trials. Immediately after the defeat of Germany, a criminal trial began which set the tone for what followed. Leading Nazis were prosecuted for waging unnecessary war and massacring millions.
US Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson opened the trials by calling them “one of the most significant tributes that power has paid to reason”. David Maxwell Fyfe, the Scottish Tory and British prosecutor, said the trials needed to happen because justice was among the “essential prerequisites of freedom, happiness and comfort”, for without it “no man or woman can establish his or her rights”.
Twenty-two men, including Hitler’s one-time successor Hermann Göring, were tried for novel offences of ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’, the extermination of a racial group. And the concepts were developed by two Jewish men, Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, whose families were murdered in the Holocaust.
The charge of a crimes against humanity emerged from a bigger idea: that all humans, no matter their nationality, race or religion, are entitled to certain basic rights to enable them to flourish and live with dignity.
The simple truth understood by the pioneers of the modern human rights movement was that a society founded on human rights principles could not also be genocidal.
A second key development was the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For the first time, the world came together to agree a set of rights, contained in 30 ‘articles’, which would guarantee the “dignity and worth of the human person”. Recognising that it wasn’t just the Nazi state which had perpetrated crimes, but also the ordinary people who willingly assisted, the responsibility for promoting human rights would fall upon “every individual and every organ of society”.
The Declaration’s preamble recognised its emergence, phoenix-like, from the “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”.
In one sense, the rights were a mirror image of the deprivations visited by the Nazis on Europe’s Jews. Hitler’s movement had imprisoned, enslaved and murdered millions, so Articles 3 to 5 enshrined rights to life, liberty and against torture. Discrimination, visited upon Jews and other ‘inferior races’, was outlawed by Article 7. So that property would not be stolen, Article 17 guaranteed against its arbitrary deprivation.
The Jewish French jurist René Cassin was a key architect of the Declaration. He went on to be President of the European Court of Human Rights, the third and perhaps — in terms of its impact on our lives now — most important post-war development. The court enforces the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), a 1953 treaty which the UK played a huge role in creating. Maxwell-Fyfe applied what he had learned at Nuremberg to chair the ECHR’s drafting committee. The ECHR improves on the Declaration because it binds the states which sign up to it.
Today, over 800 million people live in states which abide by judgments of the court. Many, such as the UK through the Human Rights Act, have developed their own local human rights laws, building a web of protections.
Pierre-Henri Teitgen, French resistance fighter and founding father of the European Court, said that, “Democracies do not become Nazi countries in one day. Evil progresses cunningly… one by one freedoms are suppressed”. This is the lesson which we must remember. It is by protecting human rights in the small places, closer to home, that we prevent the most serious abuses becoming possible.
Those who lived through the Holocaust saw clearly that human rights could be the blueprint for a free and equal society. Seven decades later, it is up to each of us to build it.
Adam Wagner is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and the Chair and founder of RightsInfo.org. He tweets as @adamwagner1