FOUNDATION: Unit II. What Are Human Rights and Where Do They Come From? 12 of 15

The Importance of the Holocaust

Prisoners at Dachau Concentration Camp

The UN Charter, with its language of human rights, was drafted before the details of the Nazi Holocaust were known. But the Nazi genocide, in which 12 million Jewish and otherwise “undesirable” people were murdered, outraged the conscience of mankind and gave further impetus to protect human rights, beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. The UDHR relies on the notion of universal or international human rights, and seeks to limit state sovereignty.

Behind the shield of state sovereignty, Hitler organized his massive program of exterminating people he thought were “inferior”: Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally challenged. He systematically slaughtered millions with impunity. Initially, very little was done to stop Hitler. Many saw the Nazi treatment of Germans as a matter of German law, German sovereignty, and thus nobody else’s business. Notions of state sovereignty allowed the state to carry out genocide. There was no other authority to which the victims could appeal.

Bodies of victims in a concentration camp, 1945

When World War II brought an end to the Nazi regime, the abuses the Nazis perpetrated shocked the world. The horrors of the Holocaust helped bring about an international awakening to the need to protect human rights. Against this background, the goal of the UDHR and of the newly founded international human rights movement was to “internationalize” human rights. UDHR was drafted to transform matters that had been previously the exclusive jurisdiction of states under state sovereignty into matters of international concern.

Supporters sought to clarify moral human rights norms as public international law. As a result, certain activities by states, such as the mistreatment of their own people, came under the diplomatic spotlight. The UDHR provided a higher authority to protest laws once protected by state sovereignty. The UDHR provided a foundation for international norms, institutions, and laws that states would be pressured to follow.

There had been atrocities committed by states before the Holocaust. Why do you think this one had such an effect?
The History Place: Genocide in the 20th Century
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum