Though it’s common now to say genocide is wrong and human rights are worth protecting, if left to the nation-states themselves, these actions might not have occurred. Nongovernmental organizations, particularly those representing world Jewry, were key to the crafting and adopting both the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There could be no proportional response to the Holocaust, a trauma that nation-states allowed to happen by prioritizing their own interests over the suffering of millions. International NGOs clearly saw that a global effort to prevent genocide and human rights violations provided the only chance for healing. With no national constituencies to answer to, they were more willing to find effective solutions that transcended state borders.
The U.N. General Assembly adopted the legally binding Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, more commonly referred to as the Genocide Convention, on Dec. 9, 1948. One day later, the assembly also adopted the nonbinding Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The international press corps noted that these actions created something entirely new: a common language of human rights where none had existed before.
Winston Churchill famously said the crimes perpetrated by Nazi Germany had no name, and indeed, prosecutors struggled to find the words to appropriately label the inhumanity that had occurred. A Jewish lawyer from present-day Belarus named Raphael Lemkin provided part of the answer by coining the term “genocide.” He crafted it by combining the Greek “genos,” meaning group of common descent or tribe, with the Latin “cide,” meaning to kill. By coining this new term, Lemkin offered vocabulary that could mean only one thing: the intended destruction of a people.
The term genocide, adopted after the Holocaust, has become most strongly associated with the idea of state-sponsored mass murder. Yet as detailed by the Genocide Convention, the word means so much more. Genocide is not just physical death, and although the acts of genocide are committed against individuals, the intent of the acts is to eradicate a group politically, socially and culturally. It is done in increments by stripping people of liberty, dignity, health, property, security and their lives, and, by doing so, tearing at the foundations of their identity.
Leaders of nongovernmental organizations, particularly those of the World Jewish Congress, placed primary importance on the need to prevent future genocide. They effectively argued to state leaders that world security and stability could not be achieved until the international community recognized the value of all human life. The Genocide Convention states that the cornerstone of all rights is the right to exist, and that right transcends national boundaries.
Resistance to these ideas quickly emerged. During the drafting process and ratification, several states argued that violence against groups was sometimes necessary in the interest of national security. Arguments abounded, and in the end, none of the great powers provided leadership. The convention came into force without the United States or Britain ratifying it (though each later acceded).
While the Genocide Convention declared the value of human life, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gave us the vocabulary of human rights by defining what should be included in the term. The UDHR first states the inherent equality of all peoples, and then defines the rights to life, liberty and security; the right to equal protection under the law; the right to free expression; and the right to freedom of movement, among many others. Through the adoption of the UDHR, these rights became universal.
No group knew better than worldwide Jewry how vulnerable a population could be if rights existed only because of the whims and political machinations of nation-states. Nehemiah Robinson, director of the Institute of Jewish Affairs of the World Jewish Congress, a respected research body, said that “past experience demonstrated too often and too well that many governments treated their racial, linguistic and religious minorities as citizens of a lower category and that the only salvation lay in positive norms prohibiting discrimination.” It’s not happenstance that a moment when much of Europe’s Jewish population languished in a stateless limbo, Jewish leaders fought for rights regardless of citizenship.
The United States fought to limit the scope of the UDHR, wanting it to be nothing more than an inspirational statement. John Foster Dulles assured the American Bar Association that the document would have no effect on U.S. laws, and Eleanor Roosevelt, although frequently portrayed as a champion of human rights, used her influence on the drafting committee to try to limit the agreement by lobbying against any enforcement machinery. (Roosevelt also fought the inclusion of language requiring education on the values of human rights and nondiscrimination, but in that she failed.) U.S. politicians wanted to assure white Americans that signing the UDHR would not overturn domestic racial hierarchies, nor would it give United Nations the authority to challenge Jim Crow.
Nation-states tried again and again to thwart the development of universal human rights, meaning ultimately that the United Nations and attending NGO leaders had to find a way to curb the worst impulses of political entities that had just conducted two barbarous world wars and the atrocities of the Holocaust.
In frustration, World Jewish Congress member Ralph Zacklin wrote a confidential institutional memo, saying, “As far as the USA and USSR are concerned, I am convinced that neither one of them cares one iota about human rights. Both practice an acute form of cynicism at the UN and both nations seem to be notoriously adept at not practicing what they preach.”
Yet even with ample examples of the failures of the international community to prevent further genocide and uphold human rights, the sense that rights should transcend political boundaries remains. Language has power, and it is not easy to deny rights now defined.
By adopting both the Genocide Convention and the UDHR, the United Nations first declared the human right to life and cultural identity, and then defined human rights and proclaimed their universality. These are rights inherent to all humans, regardless of the nation-states to which they belong, and even if one has been made stateless.
Those efforts 70 years ago changed the way the world considers, discusses and recognizes rights of all humans, and it created an expectation of a more tolerant and cooperative world. It happened thanks to the determination and exhaustive efforts of savvy NGOs like the World Jewish Congress, which understood how to leverage the collective egoism of political bodies toward action. And that is a lesson we need to remember today, in an era of rising nationalism. States did not promote or protect human rights without pressure from NGOs, and as threats to the international order increase, it will again take the creativity and perseverance of NGOs to safeguard human rights protections.