What was the most devastating event in human history? While, sadly, there are plenty of candidates, I would propose World War II. It was a truly worldwide war, extending far beyond Europe as it involved international empires as well as nation states. Not only did it wreck the economy of Europe and much of Asia, but it took the lives of millions. Estimates vary, but as many as twenty-five million military personnel died, and twice as many civilians. The civilians were not only accidental victims, but were often the intended targets of military action. Further, millions perished in concentration camps, or were victims of torture or cruel medical experiments, in both Asia and Europe.
It is sobering to contemplate this carnage.
And it sobered world leaders after the war. They formed the United Nations to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and to do so, among other things, by recognizing “fundamental human rights,” the “dignity and worth of the human person,” and “the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small” (UN Charter).
On December 10, 1948, they issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to further clarify and specify the “rights” that flowed from the dignity of the person. The Preamble, referring to the atrocities of World War II, noted that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” However, the sure foundation for “freedom, justice and peace” is the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”
I think it is fair to say that (although a few nations abstained from the vote to adopt the Declaration) “the world” resolved to prevent a third world war by respecting and protecting the dignity of each and every human being. The Declaration declared itself to be “a common standard of achievement for all peoples…”
While the Declaration is not a legally binding document, it is a strong declaration of principle, of a shared determination not to repeat the atrocities of the past. For instance, remembering not only the slave trade but also the enslavement of entire populations during World War II, article 4 declares that “slavery…shall be prohibited in all its forms.” Likewise, recalling the torture and mistreatment of political opponents, it asserts that “no one shall be subjected to torture” (article 5) and “all are equal before the law…” People are not to be thrown into prison or concentration camps at the whim of the powerful for “everyone is entitled…to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal.” (article 10) Innocent civilians may not be targeted and killed for “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person.” (article 3)
The Declaration is not perfect and few perhaps would agree with all its provisions. But in this its 70th anniversary year, it is well worth our time to contemplate its provisions, and, as it urged, to “strive…to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.”
William L. Saunders is a Fellow and Director of the Program in Human Rights at the Institute for Human Ecology. He is also Director of the Center for Human Rights in the School of Arts and Sciences, and Co-Director of the Center for Religious Liberty in the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America.