Remembering the Holocaust must prompt us to challenge today’s human rights abuses
An independent tribunal’s finding of genocide in China is a reminder that the promise of ‘never again’ has yet to be fulfilled
Last month, the independent Uyghur Tribunal found that the Chinese government’s “deliberate, systematic and concerted policy” of population reduction – through forcible sterilisation and forced abortions – amounted to a genocide against the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim groups in China.
I was there, in Westminster’s Church Hall, as Geoffrey Nice read out the tribunal’s judgement.
I remember thinking to myself, ‘what if…?’ What if a similar tribunal had taken place 80 years ago, in 1941, as millions of Jews were rounded-up and marched to their death as part of the Nazi regime’s ‘final solution’ to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population. What if a ruling was passed then, pressuring governments to – in the words of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention – “use all means reasonably available to ensure the cessation of ongoing genocide, including conducting due diligence to ensure it is not assisting, aiding, abetting or otherwise allowing the continuation of genocide”.
While we will never know whether such a ruling would have made a difference then, we know it holds the promise of making a difference today, because of the framework that emerged from the horrors of the Holocaust. The first response was the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. Described as “the most significant tribute power has ever paid to reason”, the trials introduced the principles of crimes against humanity and genocide, developed respectively by Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, lawyers from Polish-Jewish backgrounds. Under both principles, the rights of individuals and that of the group they belong to were placed centre-stage, holding individual perpetrators to account for their actions.
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The Holocaust also motivated the French-Jewish lawyer René Cassin, the namesake of the human rights organisation I run, to become involved in the slow but determined effort to turn the tide on inequality, intolerance and hate, and to assert a vision of a better world.
Cassin co-authored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the first global expression that “all members of the human family” had “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights”. This was to become a fundamental part of the international human rights framework. It was both an act of remembrance; a response to the horrors of the Second World War, and a practical expression of determination to ensure a new world order based on justice and peace.
The declaration itself was not a law. Instead, it was something perhaps more powerful – a clear statement of overarching principle. That human beings were more important than states; that each and every person murdered at Auschwitz mattered more than the Nazi regime; that never again would the world stand aside and allow governments to slaughter and oppress their own people. And it inspired the development of human rights laws, including the Genocide Convention quoted above.
Holocaust Memorial Day, which takes place in the UK on 27 January, is an occasion to reflect on how far these principles have been fulfilled. This year’s theme, ‘one day’, evokes the hope that one day, there will exist the checks and balances that were desperately needed when the Holocaust was happening – and during the genocides that have since followed, including in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. A day when there would be no more oppression. The Genocide Convention was meant to do that. Human rights were meant to do that.
However, the reality is different. Since 2017, more than three million Uyghurs and other Turkic people are held in concentration camps known as ‘re-education centres’ in the Xinjiang region of China, where they are subject to routine torture, sexual abuse, forced labour and forced sterilisation. Across the region, the Chinese government has constructed a system of mass surveillance to curtail the Uyghurs’ religious freedom, erase indigenous cultural practices and forbid political dissent. Families are torn apart, with children separated from their parents and no communication allowed with relatives in exile for fear of retribution.
It is not only the Uyghurs. Millions of individuals fleeing war, oppression and exploitation around the world are denied the protections human rights are designed to provide them. The pandemic has exposed long-existing inequalities that literally determine life or death. People lack access to the fundamental necessities of human existence – food, clothing, housing, medical care, education and employment – that the declaration was designed to guarantee. The protections and ethical principles exist, but the will to apply them is wanting.
When Cassin set out the foundations for the human rights framework as we know it today, he created a legacy. With that legacy comes responsibility: the responsibility to remember what the lowest points of humanity can look like and the responsibility to act to prevent us from reaching them.
We each have a role in fulfilling this responsibility; to speak out, to stand in solidarity and to challenge decision-makers. It is up to governments to take a tougher stand against the Chinese government, through sanctions, for example, or the rest of us to ensure the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing will forever be remembered as the #GenocideGames. It is about challenging the hostile environment created by policies that dehumanise and discriminate against the most vulnerable in our society, such as refugees and asylum seekers or victims of slavery and trafficking. And it is about remaking the case for human rights so that the price paid during the Holocaust, and the circumstances that led to it, are never repeated.
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