What have Human Rights got to do with us?
Today we commemorate Kristallnacht, the pogrom or night of terror aimed at Jews in Austria and Germany, incited by the Nazi state on 9th November, 1938. The violence was followed by a rounding up of Jewish men, including both my grandfathers, to concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald. And this later led onto the horrors of the Holocaust, when my mother’s father perished in Auschwitz. Some readers will share this history.
It was this brutality that led to the writing of legal documents to ensure the human rights abuses of the Holocaust never happened again. René Cassin, a French Jew after whom the charity René Cassin is named, co-drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The European Convention of Human Rights was drafted by British lawyers in 1950. The UK’s Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates the rights set out in this Convention into domestic British law.
Looking at the articles of the Human Rights Act in the light of the history of persecution of Jews, gay people, disabled people, Roma and Communists during the Holocaust, you can see their provenance. The Human Rights Act enshrines the right to life, the right to be free from torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, freedom of thought, belief and religion and the right to private and family life.
If you share my history, you will know that from 1940 many UK resident Germans, Austrians and Italians, including many Jewish refugees, were interned (in the UK) as enemy aliens. My father’s parents, both dentists, had reached safety in England through the generosity of an English couple who sponsored them. My grandfather was one of many, including David Baddiel’s grandfather and the Amadeus Quartet, interned on the Isle of Man. They were kept there without charge or trial for a year or so. I can imagine my grandfather keeping himself busy providing dental services to the other detainees. It took a huge outcry until they were all released. In those days before human rights legislation, where was their right to liberty, a fair trial, freedom from arbitrary detention?
Shortly after Kristallnacht, Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend German schools. My mother, then aged 10, was taught at home by her grandfather. In July 1939, she reached England on the Kindertransport, set up after Kristallnacht to rescue children from the Nazis. It seems fitting that she became an English teacher. The right to education is clearly set out in the Human Rights Act.
Why do we have the Human Rights Act? Why does it say what it does? The answer lies in the experience of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
*Debora Singer is part of René Cassin’s Safeguarding Human Rights Campaign Group, find out more on how to get involved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org