Liberal internationalism and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

“Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”

So runs the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Drafted in the aftermath of the Second World War, the UDHR was not just a cry of revulsion at the acts of the Nazis, it was a statement of absolute determination that such horrors must never again be allowed to happen.

The doctrine of human rights epitomised the newly-formed United Nations’ vision of a liberal, internationalist and optimistic future for a world rising from the ruins of three decades of global conflict and economic decay.

How we need a dose of that vision and optimism now. A rising tide of narrow, divisive nationalism is sweeping the world – from the poisonous demagoguery of Marine le Pen in France to the simplistic populism of Donald Trump in the USA. Facts? Who needs them? Rational debate? Why bother when crude sloganising gets headlines and wins votes.

Here in the UK we’re not immune to this worrying trend. Some of the language used in the EU referendum debate has borne the same hallmarks – those of a fracturing distrustful society, turning its back to the world and its ire onto ‘outsiders’ and minorities.

Liberal internationalism – the founding faith of the UN, and its antidote to the evils it was formed to defeat – is in retreat. With the sickening disorientation of a driver whose car starts to skid, we sense a world beginning to slide out of control, away from the progressive path we’ve followed for the past seventy years.

But we still have hold of the wheel. That slide can be halted, that retreat can be reversed. How? Facts? Yes, they are vital – they are our raw material. Rational debate? Essential – but not in itself sufficient.

The outward and optimistic vision at the heart of the UN project was not predicated on the pragmatism of facts and rationality, important though these were and still are. At its darkest hour, the family of nations sought to establish the principles by which the world would be rebuilt.

Let’s look again at the preamble to the UDHR. It begins by asserting that the ‘… recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’.

Here we have a bold statement of values – not a fact or debate in sight. So, how does this help us now? To reverse the retrograde trend towards closed, inward-looking nationalism, we need to assert the values of its opposite. To paraphrase the UDHR, we need to say, repeat, shout if necessary ‘Freedom, justice and peace are built on human rights’.

What does all this say to a liberal conservative in a UK heading towards the EU exit-door and on the eve of a general election? If the UN and UDHR seem remote and abstract, let’s bring the focus closer to home.

The debate on human rights in the UK has descended from one of high principle to low factional bickering. It wasn’t always so. No lesser figure than Winston Churchill recognised the importance and power of the UN and UDHR. He called for a parallel ‘European movement’ centred on ‘… a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law.’ For Churchill, this latter point was important. As his Conservative colleague, the former Nuremberg prosecutor and drafter of Churchill’s ‘charter’, David Maxwell-Fyfe said ‘We cannot let the matter rest at a declaration of moral principles and pious aspirations, excellent though the latter may be. There must be a binding convention’.

Churchill’s ‘European movement’ became the Council of Europe, his ‘charter’ the European Convention on Human Rights, its law ‘sustained’ by the European Court of Human Rights.

Today Churchill’s ‘charter’ binds together every European nation except Belarus. It should be cited and celebrated as a shining example of liberal internationalism in principle and in practice.

Mia Hasenson-Gross is Director of René Cassin - The Jewish Voice for Human Rights

Monsieur René Cassin lived a life from darkness into light. This French Jewish lawyer was badly injured in the First World War, an experience that led him to work for disarmament and peace during the 1920s and 1930s. When the world once again slid towards war in 1939, he sought refuge in London. But he was far from idle – turning his efforts towards shaping the world that would emerge from the defeat of fascism.

He was hugely influential in that process – Cassin was one of the co-authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His contribution to building a better, brighter world was recognised when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968.

Today, as the charity that bears his name, we at René Cassin strive to bring a perspective and authority born of Jewish experience to the crucial debate on the future of human rights in the UK and beyond.