The end of this month sees the close of the Prime Minister’s Commission on the Holocaust, which is seeking views on what further measures should be taken to ensure the permanent, fitting and meaningful memorial and educational resources around the Holocaust. With reports of increased racism in the UK and increasing negative rhetoric around our human rights law, this is perhaps the most fitting time for us to remind ourselves about the all too often overlooked relationship between the Holocaust and the legal protection of basic human rights.
Universal human rights standards
It is easy to forget that until the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948, there was almost no system that enabled criticism of – let alone action against – Government mistreatment of people within its borders, provided their own law allowed such abuses. As Professor Klug (2008) notes, “however morally repugnant, Nazi Germany’s racial purity policies were all in accordance with the law.”
Of course human history is littered with examples of the principles and values that underpin human rights – the struggle for dignity and equal respect has been the hallmark of so many social movements since the dawning of civilisation. Yet it was in “debris and ashes of a devastating world war” and the Holocaust that the world community drew up the UDHR, a document “crafted to celebrate the best that humans are capable of” (Klug, 2008).
The UDHR opens with the recognition that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind” and that to prevent “tyranny and oppression…human rights should be protected by the rule of law”. This was a turning point in the legal recognition of the relationship between people and their governments. As Stéphane Hessel, a French-German diplomat and writer, a concentration camp survivor who helped write the UDHR said:
We had affirmed the universal responsibility of human rights… This was the innovation: we are responsible for human dignity and the rights of the person. It was democracy’s catechism. In other words, we do not govern for the pleasure of power, but to guarantee the exercise of a democratic society.
Human rights here at home
It is from the UDHR that the international system of human rights protections was born, one which heavily influenced the development of our legal framework here at home. At the same time the UDHR was being drafted, the nations of Europe, where the impact of the Holocaust was so keenly felt, also came together to say never again. Championed by leaders such as our Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the Council of Europe was founded to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe. As the UDHR was being drafted European leaders drafted the European Convention on Human Rights, a legally binding document to protect a small but significant number of fundamental rights. During this time Churchill spoke about the strength derived from “our sense of common…values” and of such a Convention being “guarded by freedom and sustained by law” which ensured that “people owned the government, and not the government the people.”
When the UK parliament passed the Human Rights Act (HRA) in 1998 it made our human rights more accessible for people here at home. It means there is now a duty on all our public bodies to respect, protect and fulfill our human rights. This duty which is not just about central Government departments, but also covers the police, NHS organisations and staff, social services, housing and education officials – the types of public services that we all bump into every day.
The Commission on the Holocaust Consultation
The Prime Minister’s Commission on the Holocaust is a national, cross-party commission representing our whole society. It has been established to investigate whether further measures should be taken to ensure Britain has a permanent and fitting memorial and meaningful educational resources for generations to come.
The Commission is an opportunity to call for the continued support of our educators in teaching about the Holocaust. It is also a real opportunity to remind the Government that human rights are an integral part of ensuring meaningful education about the impact and legacy of the Holocaust.
Human rights education and the Holocaust – what is happening across Europe?
In a 2011 study about human rights within Holocaust education in 26 European countries only the governments of the UK* and the Netherlands responded that human rights education forms no explicit part of the core curriculum. The UK’s official response said that the values related to human rights naturally form a part of school education, but that there was no direct recommendation made by the Government with regard to human rights education. Additionally, all Member States except the UK and Bulgaria, said that they ‘promote projects and initiatives which expressly develop connections between Holocaust education and human rights education’. The UK only stated that the Holocaust is of ‘great importance’ in the core curricula.
The study stressed that the main responsibility for human rights education and the Holocaust lies at the school level, but that visits to memorial sites and museums only can serve as a complement to this. In went on to state that teachers should have access to training in human rights education, supporting them to make the linkages between these and the Holocaust.
Yet human rights is disappearing from the curriculum
Previously the statutory requirements for key stages 3 and 4 stated “The curriculum should enable all young people to become responsible citizens who challenge injustice, are committed to human rights, and strive to live peaceably with others.”
However, the new curriculum has removed reference to human rights at Key Stage 3, instead referring to the “precious liberties” enjoyed by those living in the UK, something which BIHR believes is too vague and uncertain. Although a reference to human rights and international law has been inserted into the final Key Stage 4 text, we remain concerned. During the consultation stages BIHR (and many others) asked the Government to reconsider these reforms and to ensure clear references to our human rights laws and systems, there is no mention of the UDHR, the ECHR, or the Human Rights Act.
Time to remember, time to make the links
Our human rights history is more relevant than ever. This week headlines have been dominated by the news that racism is on the rise in Britain; an important reminder that social progress is not a linear journey. We do not automatically become a more tolerant society as time goes on. Our human rights laws are a vital tool for ensuring everyone has their basic human rights respected and protected and they are as important now as they were 60 years ago.
Right now the Commission on the Holocaust wants to hear views about ensuring meaningful memorials and resources. Now is the time for us to make it clear that:
The legal protection of human rights for all is a direct and lasting legacy to emerge from the horrors of the Holocaust. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights opens with the fundamental commitment that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” For sixty years the European Convention of Human Rights has protected and upheld these universal values, and by 1998 these were made the law of the land here at home through our own Human Rights Act. Now is the time to celebrate and strengthen our human rights journey with better public education and ensure our leaders have the moral courage to preserve what has been so hard won and to safeguard it for future generations.
Take Action! The deadline for telling the Prime Minister’s Commission your views is 30 May.
On 29 May BIHR’s Director, Stephen Bowen, will deliver a key note speech, ‘Human Rights: Lessons for Humanity’, at the national teachers conference ‘Empowering Young People to Change the World’, hosted by Royal Wootton Basset Academy and the Centre for Holocaust Studies. You can follow the discussions on twitter using #EYP2CtW
*Explanatory note; when referring to the UK in the report it only represents England. This is because the UK as a whole is the Member State of the EU.