Human Rights Essay

What lessons can be learned from history about how to deal with human rights violations? Your answer should make reference to at least 3 historical case studies. To fully understand what the question is asking we must first define what is meant by ‘Human Rights’ and what constitutes a violation of these rights.

Once this essay has defined what a human rights violation is it shall then go on to describe periods in history where there has been a clear breach of a peoples human rights and describe what society has learned from these events. Peter Baehr, An author and professor of Human Rights from the Netherlands defines human rights as “internationally agreed values, standards or rules regulating the conduct of states towards their own citizens and towards non-citizens…Human rights tell states what they may not do, but also what they are supposed to do.”(Baehr, 1999. P1).

Human rights as we know them came about at the end of World War two as a consequence of the reign of the National Socialists in Germany who killed more than six million Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and political opponents. It was the greatest scale of fundamental human rights violations in modern times. The acts committed in this period of time helped permanently etch into the minds of the world the true meaning of what ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ meant. (Freeman, M. 2002). The UN then created a universal document to state what human rights where; some of the most important are as follows; “The right to life, liberty and security of person (article 3), The prohibition of slavery (article 4), The prohibition of torture (article 5),

The prohibition of arbitrary arrest, detention or exile (article 9), The right to a fair trial (article 10), The right to freedom of movement (article 13), The right to property (article 17), The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (article 18), The right to freedom of opinion and expression (article 19), The right to freedom of assembly and association (article 20) and The right to participate in the government of one’s country (article 21)” (United Nations,2008). The declaration also mentions other human rights that are to do with social and economic rights. Following on from the formation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we can look at instances when these human rights have been seriously violated.

After the Second World War, the United States of America, the United Kingdom and its allies were involved in a succession of criminal trials. One of the most famous trials linked to human rights was the Nuremberg trial that involved the sentencing of the military officers of the Third Reich. The doctor’s trial which was part of the Nuremberg trial is probably the most disturbing chapter of Nazi ideology. How could medical healers have turned into murderers? The trial took place in Nuremberg Germany. The majority of defendants were found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity because they had carried out a number of unimaginable acts including horrendous experiments on prisoners clearly without the subjects consent.

The experiments started as racial hygiene experiments and later developed into different forms of experiments based on human progression by changing the human being into a superior race. The racial hygiene experiments would combat the disproportionate breeding of ‘inferiors’, the celibacy of the upper classes, and the threat posed by feminists to the reproductive performance of the family. This was the fore runner for the following era of the now famous Nazi eugenics experiments.

By 1942 more than 38,000 doctors, 50% of doctors in Germany had joined the Nazi party. On July 14,1933, the Nazi party passed the ‘Sterilisation Law’ which allowed forcible sterilisation of anyone suffering from ‘genetically determined’ illnesses. These illnesses included feeblemindedness, Schizophrenia, manic depression, epilepsy, blindness, deafness and severe alcoholism. This resulted in 350,000 to 400,000 people being sterilised and was carried out in the guise of racial hygiene. The Nazi party based its sterilisation law on past work the United States had already carried out. By the late 1920’s the USA had sterilised some 15,000 people who were mostly made up of prisoners and the mentally ill. A lot of the German scientists were worried that America would become the world’s racial leader.

This programme was followed in 1939 by the ‘mercy death’ programme that decided to euthanise anyone who suffered from a severe mental illness. By 1941 70,000 patients had been killed and this has now been seen as the rehearsal for the subsequent destruction of Jews, Homosexuals, Communists, Gypsies, Slavs, and prisoners of war. The euthanasia programme was planned and administered by leading figures in the German medical community. When the war was over a lot of the medical documents were destroyed but most put the estimated death toll between six million and twenty million people (Annas, G. Grodin, M. 1992).

The Nuremberg trial was a very important process in how human rights were developed. It shows us how to look at the wrongs of the past and put into practice ways and laws to curtail and stop these wrongs being inflicted on ‘mankind’ again. As gruesome as these events where, they were an essential part of history that lead to the creation of the human rights declaration. It gave us a blueprint of how this way of thinking can manifest itself by looking at the German people of the time and what actions made it possible for the following events to happen.

The resulting Nuremberg trial is what has now defined the crime known as genocide. “The concept of the “crime of genocide” emerged in the context of the Second World War prosecutions. Raphael Lemkin’s concept easily meshed with the agenda of the international prosecutor’s like Robert Jackson who prepared the Nuremberg trial, but anxiety of the major powers about the possible scope of crimes against humanity led them to impose a dramatic limitation.

They were concerned that persecution committed against their own subject peoples might also become justiciable at an international level” (Schabas, W. 2008). This shows that most countries have to play a juggling game of balancing what is the best form of protection for ‘mankind’ against what acts they have committed in the past that they could find themselves in trouble for. A good example of this can be seen in the sterilisation programme that was started by the United States and then followed by the Nazi party. When the United States admits that this practice was illegal it therefore opens itself up to international ridicule and legal ramifications. On the 11th of September 1973, General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratic president, Salvador Allende.

From the beginning, the government implemented harsh measures against its political rivals. Many thousands of people were killed, up to 80,000 were interned and up to 30,000 people, including women and children were tortured by the regime. “Virtually the entire political commission, and much of the central committee were disappeared. Then the foot soldiers of its supposed central force were sought and killed. Few MIRistas were killed in firefights, fewer still in firefights initiated by the MIRistas. The vast majority of them were abducted, taken to one of a series of detention sites, tortured, murdered, and disappeared” (Ensalaco, M. 2000.p.70).

The human rights violations here are vast. Specifically in article five it states that people should be free of torture and in article ten it states that a person has a right to a fair trial. Both of these rights have been violated. When you look at the way that the foot soldiers were detained, tortured and eventually killed you can see that this breaks what is perceived to be the greatest right of all, this right is found in article three in the universal declaration of human rights, the right to life. Around this time a lot of human rights abuses were happening in South America. When the view that human rights can be abused, without repercussions, it can lead to other regimes gaining confidence themselves to pursue their political goals using similar tactics.

“Policies of overkill resulted in the detention and trial by military tribunal of over 7,400 Brazilians between 1964 and 1979. In Argentina, it took a form of dirty war which claimed the lives of as many as fifteen thousand individuals. Some ten thousand Chilean citizens were thought to be murdered shortly after the 1973 coup”

(Bushnell et al. 1991. P136). The laws of impunity were annulled by the Supreme Court on June 14, 2005 using the concept of crimes against humanity, after on April 19, 2005 the Third Chamber of the Spanish National Court sentenced the naval officer, Adolfo Scilingo, for crimes against humanity. Adolfo was later found guilty by the Spanish Supreme Court on October 1, 2007. The fact that these judgements recognise the application of this concept of international law in ordinary courts is a milestone in the history of international human rights. (Vivanco, J.2005)

Human rights are a great idea but the greatest downfall of human rights is in the title, ‘human’. There is something animalistic in human beings and repeatedly throughout history man has attacked and tried to overrun man in organised and well planned attempts to completely wipe out what they grow to perceive as ‘the enemy’. “In sum, the argument for a Universalist approach to human rights rests on the universality of human wrongs; the latter are universal social facts that derive from our animal nature and social character to date” (Booth, K et al. 1999, p.64).

This means that in order to fully end human rights violations, we must change the mental build-up of man and the way man views the world around him. Until very recently human rights have not been viewed internationally with as much validity or importance as people view them today. “Until the 1980s, the majority of academic commentators and policy makers were not convinced that human rights concerns or ethical considerations were an appropriate subject for study when assessing a state’s foreign policy.

Only during the 1990s did the ethical and moral dimension of international policy-making become treated as a legitimate factor, which could and, in fact, should influence and shape national and international policy-making” (Chandler, D. 2002. p.89). This shows that the world has changed and is today a more civil society where even at times of war it agrees that no matter what side a soldier or any person is on, they have the right to a certain amount of respect and are entitled to be treated humanely. A good example of when the charter has been enforced can be seen in NATO’s use of force in Kosovo.

Chapter seven of the human rights declaration was used to demand an end to the military action by Serbian forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army. “The security council had at this time five NATO members on it and all these governments justified their use of force… in a deliberate move to invoke the key wording in Resolutions 1199 and 1203, the five states claimed that NATO’s action was necessary to avoid a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’”(Caney, S. Jones, P. 2001. P148).

To conclude this essay we shall look at all the previous violations and determine if the creation of the Human Rights Declaration has played any part in the outcome of these events. Hind sight is a great thing to have and after World War two, with the Nuremberg trials and the emergence of the Universal declaration, the world now views the past events that created the declaration so brutal that it wanted to put a stop to it. Human rights violations have still occurred but we can see as time goes on the strength and value of the declaration has grown. Kosovo is a great example where the declaration has been put into action and averted what could have been a far greater ‘Humanitarian catastrophe’.

The world is therefore a better place and we have learnt that facing human rights violations with all the power available and within the guidelines is the right path to be on.

Annas, G. Grodin, M. (1992). The Nazi doctors and the Nuremburg code: Human rights in human experimentation. New York: Oxford University Press

Baehr, P (1999). Human rights: universality in practice. London: Macmillan press. p1-3.

Booth, K in Dunne, T Wheeler, N (eds)(2006). Human rights in global politics. Cambridge: Cambridge university press. P64.

Bushnell, T in Shlapentokh, V. Vanderpool, C. Sundram, J (eds) (1991). State organised terror: the case of violent internal repression. Oxford: Westview press.

Caney, S. Jones, P (2001). Human rights and global diversity. Essex: Frank cass publishers. p147-151.

Chandler, D (2002). From Kosovo to Kabul: human rights and international intervention. London: Pluto press.

Ensalaco, M (2000). Chile under Pinochet: recovering the truth. Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Freeman, M (2002). Human rights : an interdisciplinary approach. Cambridge: Polity Press

Schabas, W (2008). Origins of the genocide convention: From Nuremberg to paris. case western reserve journal of international law. 40 (1), p50.

United Nations (2008). The universal declaration of human rights. Available: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/. Last accessed 11th mar 2013.

Vivanco, J (2005). Argentina: Amnesty Laws Struck Down Supreme Court’s Long-Awaited Ruling Allows Prosecution of ‘Dirty War’ Crimes. Available: http://www.hrw.org/news/2005/06/14/argentina-amnesty-laws-struck-down. Last accessed 13 mar 2013.