January 27th – the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – marks the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. It is a day to reflect on one of the greatest systematic violations of human rights in our history. This year’s theme, “Rescue during the Holocaust: The Courage to Care”, honours those who risked their own lives to save thousands of people from near certain death under the Nazi regime. Telling these stories of courage serves to inspire people everywhere to reflect on their own capacity for compassion for others and to turn this into action.
Britain’s role in the Second World War is well-known, but less renowned are the stories of those Britons who faced personal risk in order to help save thousands of the persecuted. Twenty six of these people, such as Sir Nicholas Winton and Major Frank Foley, were honoured in 2010 for their incredible bravery (most posthumously as only 2 were alive to receive the honour). Most of those helped by them never knew their names, but these Britons and many others, did what was right to protect those who would otherwise have faced certain death.
The horror provoked by these gross abuses and dehumanization accelerated the development of human rights set down in international, regional and domestic laws. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948, made it clear that all people are born in equal dignity and rights. It began the journey of setting down basic minimum protections that all people everywhere have simply because they are human.
In Europe, where the effects of the Holocaust and World War II were keenly felt, countries came together to ensure human rights had a legal footing to help set the foundations for the future. Leaders from across the political spectrum and state boarders, including Winston Churchill, agreed the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in 1950. This was a guarantee of the standards which would protect all people equally and meant that state power could not be wielded without checks again.
In 1998 the UK passed the Human Rights Act to make the rights in the European Convention accessible here at home. For the first time public bodies, such as the Government, the police, the NHS and others, had a specific legal duty not to act in ways that are incompatible with our rights. Now, when the line is crossed by powerful officials’ people can hold them to account, and if necessary take action in our domestic courts.
In the UK the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust co-ordinates commemorations of the day and this year’s theme is particularly poignant in today’s society: “Communities Together: Build a Bridge.” In times where people all over the country are struggling and when people are experiencing disadvantage and discrimination, and made vulnerable by abuse, neglect and indifference, it is important to remember the foundations set in the UDHR: equal dignity and respect. Sadly many in power seem to have forgotten the legacy of our human rights laws. We should remember that our human rights have been hard-won, they belong to us all, they unite us in our common humanity. Now is the time to be standing together.