On Dec. 10, 1948, nearly 70 years ago this month, the UN General Assembly adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It was born out of the abject “disregard and contempt for human rights” that stalked most of Europe and elsewhere in the first half of the last century. An extreme, radicalized form of nationalism had taken hold of ethnically self-identifying populations that sought to scapegoat, punish and brutalize “the other.” Of course, Jews have learned through our long history about the harm that follows being outcast as a scapegoat.
In light of recent tumultuous electoral campaigns and equally tumultuous results in Britain and the United States, we should take a moment to recall this major anniversary. For in democracies throughout the West, we are seeing images and hearing echoes of slogans that we’d hoped had been forever banished from public discourse.
That’s not to suggest that the state of western democracies in 2016 is the same as in 1936. Not at all. But the extent that extreme, anti-social attitudes, long ago cast to the margins, are now creeping toward the centre is worrisome.
Forty years after the proclamation, at a Paris gathering of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, Irwin Cotler spoke about law and advocacy in international human rights. It was something of a rallying cry from the Canadian professor, already renowned around the world as a champion of human rights. In 1988, the campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel was in full bloom. The “Zionism-is-racism” resolution formed part of the legal record at the UN, and Jews were being persecuted in the Soviet Union, Iran and parts of Africa.
In his typically forthright way, Cotler urged the gathering not to despair about the proliferating abuse of human rights or the cynical ridicule of the importance of individual human rights in the hierarchy of international jurisprudential values.
“In times such as these,” Cotler said, “each one of us has an indispensable role to play in this struggle for human rights and human dignity. As Edmund Burke put it, ‘The surest way for evil to triumph in the world is for enough good people to do nothing.’
“And if we ever feel tired, fatigued, burned out – wondering what one person can do – let us remember that it was one Swedish non-Jew, Raoul Wallenberg, who saved more Jews in the Second World War than any single government; that one person, Natan Sharansky, stood up against the whole Soviet system and prevailed; that the dream of one jurist – René Cassin – became the foundation for a whole regime of international human rights now.”
Cotler’s words, along with the principles of the Declaration of Human Rights, should guide us today.
The first paragraph of the declaration’s preamble encapsulates the ensuing 30 articles: “[R]ecognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” It is the direct offspring of the pronouncement in Deuteronomy, “Therefore love [treat kindly] the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”
This biblical prescription – along with many others – is the precursor of our modern doctrine of human rights. Cassin himself confirmed that lofty lineal relationship when he wrote in 1968: “From the very day the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations… the world could not help but compare it to the Ten Commandments. Happily, the relationship between the two has generally been confirmed.”
We must, therefore, act according to the grand moral inheritance our forebears gave to the world. To be sure, protecting society from individuals intending only harm is appropriate and even required. But we must all guard against an inclination to shun, ostracize or scapegoat individuals because they are unlike us, or newly arrived or in some way represent “the other” in our midst.