In 1945 an International Military Tribunal was set up at Nuremberg. Its Nuremberg Charter contained the following definition:
Crimes against humanity: murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against civilian populations...; persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds
This was the first time that crimes against humanity were established in international law.
By 1999 there were 11 international texts defining crimes against humanity. All of them refer to specific acts of violence against any human beings, regardless of their nationality, who they are, why they are being persecuted, and whether the time is of war or of peace.
In recent years two other specific crimes have been added to the list: rape and torture.
In 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drawn up to assert the rights of every human individual. Only since then have individuals had a 'legal personality' in international law. The Declaration was an attempt to protect people: 'Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind'.
The United Nations Charter deals only with the rights of States. As a result, there has been tension. The UN Charter gives States the right to operate without interference in their internal affairs. In recent years humanitarian concerns have been allowed to override this respect for privacy, in the case of atrocities such as genocide and ethnic cleansing. But intervention has mostly been late, unsuitable and problem-making, or has simply failed.
There is also tension between the Declaration of Human Rights, which is implicitly against war, and the Geneva Conventions, which accept war as normal and are concerned only with regulating it.
Another difficulty faced by the Declaration is the way States have, or have not, acknowledged it (which has been made easier by the weakening presence of an opt-out clause). It has even been involved in a kind of trade-off: one State or group of States may, for example, agree to keep quiet about another's human rights abuses, in return for political stability, economic agreements, or even peace itself.
In 1975 an agreement called the Helsinki Final Act (signed by most European countries, the USA and what was then the Soviet Union) acknowledged a more world-wide understanding of what human rights are:
The participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.
They will promote and encourage the effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person.
The participating States on whose territory national minorities exist will respect the right of persons belonging to such minorities to equality before the law, will afford them the full opportunity for the actual enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The participating States recognise the universal significance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for which is an essential factor for the peace, justice and well-being necessary to ensure the development of friendly relations and co-operation among themselves as among all States.
At least the language of human rights is becoming universal. But that doesn't mean that they are kept, or interpreted the same way. In Europe, for example, there is a Court of Human Rights to which cases can be taken for Appeal when abuses have not been acknowledged by courts in individual States.
It's also worth remembering that even the world wide web doesn't guarantee freedom of communication. There are governments (such as China) which block their citizens' access to material which encourages freedom of expression.
In the end, the acceptance of any individual's rights depends, still, on the governments of States. In support of any individual's rights, however, is a huge world-wide Human Rights movement, at work to create a world in which human rights are universally respected. This is the vision of the peace movement, too.
Is there a place for the 'language of human rights' in poetry? Most poets could be said to belong to a community which places a high value on individual human beings, their needs, their insights - and their suffering.
the first world war
the second world war
crimes against humanity
Refugee Blues GO
Bread and a Pension GO
After the War GO
the nuclear age
- Universal Declaration
- Convention on Genocide
- Geneva Convention
- Europenan Convention