Human rights: a legacy of the Holocaust

For International Human Rights Day, Debora Singer MBE, safeguarding human rights lead at René Cassin, explains how the Jewish community has shaped human rights following the Holocaust, and how our freedoms are currently under threat in the UK.
  Published:  07 Dec 2023    |      3 minute read

Human rights have a legacy which the Jewish community holds very dear. The concept of human rights, such as the rights of individuals to not be oppressed by the state, to protest, to speak freely and to seek protection from persecution, didn’t come from nowhere. It came from one of the biggest infringements on human rights within living memory.

When René Cassin, the Jewish voice for human rights, campaigns alongside allies like Friends of the Earth, Liberty, Just Fair and many others, we have something additional to contribute. When we oppose the Illegal Migration Act, which removes the right to protection from persecution, or the now abandoned Bill of Rights, which would have weakened the Human Rights Act, it’s personal. Because human rights are a result of the Holocaust. 

How the Jewish community has championed human rights

When Jewish Polish lawyer Hersch Lauterpacht wrote his book “An International Bill of the Rights of Man” in 1945, his most innovative idea was placing the protection of the individual at the centre of international legal order. He included the right to liberty, freedom of religion, of speech, of association and assembly, and privacy of the home. These are all freedoms that had been denied to minorities by the Nazis, people like Jews, Gypsies and Roma, gay people, disabled people and Communists.

Lauterpacht’s work was informed by his legal training and experience as a professor of international law at Cambridge University. But it was also informed by the fact that, except for one niece, he lost all his family in the Holocaust.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was co-written by a Jewish lawyer, Monsieur René Cassin. A French jurist, he drew on Lauterpacht’s work when putting together the document that was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. It was the first time that a community of nations had made a declaration of human rights and freedoms. 

A black and white portrait of an older man
Monsieur René Cassin
Credit: René Cassin

Like Lauterpacht, Monsieur René Cassin lost most of his family members to the Holocaust. He himself had to flee to safety in London during the war. The belief that never again should a state be able to perpetuate such gross human rights violations on its own citizens with impunity was recognised internationally. But it’s not a surprise that it was Jewish lawyers, who had themselves been directly affected by the Holocaust, who led on the thinking and development of international human rights frameworks.

The European Convention on Human Rights differs from the Universal Declaration as it has an accountability mechanism, a court in Strasbourg where people can take their cases if their Convention rights are breached. Although it was written by David Maxwell Fyfe, a British Conservative politician, with the support of Winston Churchill, Lauterpacht’s influence is seen heavily in its drafting. Indeed, Maxwell Fyfe stated that “I had the good fortune to have Lauterpacht’s personal help when I was preparing the European Convention on Human Rights.” 

On developing the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, British barrister John Harcourt Barrington stated, “We shamelessly borrowed many ideas from Hersch Lauterpacht’s framework of the rights of man.” 

In the UK, the European Convention was brought into domestic law by the Labour government with the support of all the major political parties. Jewish legal policy expert Francesca Klug was the government’s advisor on this and was therefore central to the creation of the Human Rights Act 1998.

How human rights are at risk in the UK

We all benefit from the Human Rights Act. Whether as people of faith who are able to wear our religious symbols to work, women escaping violent partners who are able to access housing for themselves and their children, or elderly couples who are able to stay together at the end of their lives, the Human Rights Act is the recourse. 

Alongside our allies, we fought off the Bill of Rights. But now the European Convention is under threat from some senior Conservatives, most notably former Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Similarly, the UN’s Refugee Convention is also being questioned.

In arguing for the preservation of the Refugee Convention and against the Illegal Migration Act, we make the point that the Refugee Convention is a response to the Holocaust. Many in the Jewish community themselves fled or have parents or grandparents who fled Nazi Europe. The Refugee Convention was written in 1951 to ensure that states take responsibility for those fleeing persecution. The Illegal Migration Act removes this right to state protection. 

A group of protestors holding placards and banners
René Cassin protesting outside the Manston migration centre
Credit: René Cassin

When we consider this, we think of our relatives who couldn’t get out of Nazi Europe. We need the Refugee Convention to ensure that those seeking protection have a right to claim asylum in another country. We feel extremely strongly about the current government’s anti-refugee rhetoric and about the appalling conditions for those seeking asylum. The environmental movement is right to join with us in defending these rights, and to raise the increasing plight of climate refugees. 

Two of the key conventions that came out of the Holocaust, the European Convention on Human Rights and the Refugee Convention, are now under threat in the UK. The rights of individuals to freedoms and protection are at risk.  

As a Jewish human rights organisation, we’re proud to campaign with partners such as Friends of the Earth to  maintain our human rights treaties. Because we all have the right to fairness, dignity and respect.

Debora Singer, 7 December 2023

Alongside allies such as René Cassin, Friends of the Earth is defending our hard-fought rights to have our voices heard and demand climate action. Find out more about how we’re saving our right to save the planet.