Remembering the Holocaust: Why human rights matter
In the current era, with smart-phones streaming news to pockets, TVs in cafes, gyms and waiting rooms everywhere, we are saturated with distressing words and images. We are so used to seeing suffering beamed at us from glowing screens that the emotional impact splashes off, without soaking into our consciousness. We tend to forget that every anguished pair of eyes comes with a story, but we cannot afford to do so: we need to remember.
Seventy three years ago this month, the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was liberated. Shortly afterwards, the BBC interviewed a young Dutch survivor. Hetty Verolme was fifteen at the time, and has been recently interviewed again, as part of the BBC Witness series. Even in our present, desensitised world, her testimony is arresting. If you haven’t heard it, we recommend that you listen. Hetty’s words remind us of what it means to be human, and why it is important to cherish and protect this. The truth is that in legal terms, human rights may not be perfect instruments, but they are precious ones and we must protect them.
Undoubtedly, human rights remain a controversial subject in the UK and the wider world, and social and political debates necessarily return on a constant spin-cycle to the big questions: Which rights are fundamental and worthy of special status? How do we deal with clashes of rights? Is a concept of universally recognised rights compatible with the sovereignty of nation States? There are no easy answers to thorny issues like these, and translating ideological concepts from abstract documents into messy world situations will never be straightforward. Moreover, it must be acknowledged that rights can never exist in a political vacuum or be morally neutral. In fact, by their very nature they encapsulate values, and there will always be voices of dissent from some of the principles which they enshrine. It is also undeniable that our collective understanding of rights evolves as society changes. Significantly, when the European Convention on Human Rights was drafted in 1950, there was widespread acceptance in Europe of beating children with hands, sticks and belts, criminalising homosexual acts and capital punishment. It is fairly certain that the architects of the Convention would not have envisaged that they were undermining any of these practices, but all of them have since been declared incompatible with it. However, this has only been possible because the consensus of social and political opinion has shifted during the intervening decades, and human rights are the legal incarnation of our deepest shared values.
Nevertheless, sometimes human rights are accused of straying beyond this territory, and in the United Kingdom, for example, the Human Rights Act has been criticised by the press for matters as diverse as unreasonably impeding the deportation of foreign criminals, and allowing prisoners to provide sperm for their partners to conceive via IVF. Whilst neither of those situations is as clear as newspaper reports might suggest, there is ample scope for entirely legitimate debate about the remit and interpretation of human rights.
But none of these secondary issues take away the core belief behind the human rights project, or the reality that it was a very conscious rejection of the vile atrocities which Europe witnessed in the mid twentieth century. Holocaust survivors like Hetty Verolme are a powerful reminder that all human lives are of equal dignity and value, and that nobody has less right to live and flourish than anybody else. This is the golden thread which ties all human rights discourse together, and which as a society, we cannot afford to let slip from our grasp again.
The Young Holocaust Survivor Interviewed by the BBC BBC News (19/4/18)
Folly of human rights luvvies Daily Mail (17/3/15)
Cases which undermined the Human Rights Act The Telegraph (22/10/09)