The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted seventy-five years ago this week. In view of the crimes committed in Germany’s name and the Shoah, this anniversary presents the country with a particular challenge in this post-October 7 world: to maintain human rights as the basis for social and political understanding.
On 10 December 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This represented a milestone. With the Declaration, the United Nations formulated universal political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in addition to civil rights, for all people. It was a clear response to the crimes of the Nazi regime and the atrocities of the Second World War: nothing like that should ever happen again. To this day, in the context of blatant violations of human rights throughout the world, this aspiration has lost none of its relevance or validity.
Periodic reviews by the UN’s Human Rights Council demonstrate that all countries have at least some gaps in the fulfilment of their human rights obligations and commitments. In spite of this, we must continue to stand by the Declaration. After all, it is this document that, over the past 75 years, has given us a common understanding of human rights and by extension of humanity and the conditions needed for peace.
Human rights are universal; they are inherent to all, independent of national or ethnic origin, gender, or religion. This sounds simple, but it requires us to see the world as it really is – and to bear that reality. Particularly in situations of war, different parties’ demands for their rights to be respected and for a future worth living are often pitted against each other. But crises, wars, and conflicts need political solutions, which in turn require dialogue, empathy, and a shared normative foundation – namely human rights. Their disregard and contempt, on the other hand, leads to “barbarous acts” that “outrage[d] the conscience” of humanity. We must never lose sight of this warning, taken from from the preamble to the Declaration.
The Declaration of Human Rights is based on neither a particular conception of humanity nor a particular philosophy or religion. It has its foundations in the respect for life and the intrinsic value of every human being. This was also reflected in the Fourth Geneva Convention, which was adopted a year later and established human rights guarantees for civilians during armed conflicts. According to Article 3 of the Convention , the civilian population “shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria”.
The challenges inherent in ensuring respect for human rights have been keenly felt in Germany since 7 October, if not before. The German perspective on the Middle East conflict is strongly influenced by our historical responsibility for the Shoah and the crimes of National Socialism, which underpins our strong solidarity with Israel. And that is how it has to be. This state was created in response to the persecution and murder of Jews. At the same time, like all nations, we are obliged by human rights and international law to take a universal view. Germany also bears responsibility for the human rights of Palestinians who have been living under occupation for over 50 years. We must therefore strive to find a positioning and a language that defends Israel's right to exist in the face of the brutal antisemitic acts and declared intentions of Hamas and at the same time respects and protects the right of both Jews and Palestinians to live in dignity and security. One that enables us to see and to honour the suffering on both sides. The suffering of the women and men in Israel, of the relatives of those tortured, killed, and kidnapped, and of the people in Gaza affected by the bombings and the blockade.
For years, we have not made any progress on pushing back antisemitism in Germany. Racist, Islamophobic, and authoritarian attitudes have become more common. The German “we” has become increasingly diverse, necessitating the development of a new self-image for our society that does justice to German history and strengthens solidarity, democracy, and the rule of law.
At present, in public debate and demonstrations, the tendency is to take sides. On an international level, we see that many people in Africa and Latin America are expressing solidarity with the Palestinians against the backdrop of their own experiences of violence and displacement. They are outraged by the high number of civilian casualties. For some, this leads them to question the state of Israel.
Universal human rights and international law are, however, binding for all states, regardless of whether they are democracies. They are the basis on which mutual understanding can be built in the interest of a peaceful future. That is why we at the Heinrich Böll Foundation support human rights defenders in Israel, Palestine, and many other countries around the world.
Human rights are also a point of reference for societal debate in Germany and elsewhere – on historical guilt, on responsibility for the future, on the duty to defend and protect one's own citizens, and on the limits to the use of force. Explanations or solutions cannot be directly derived from human rights and international law. Instead, these instruments require us to closely observe and assess actual situations. They are intended to protect people from cruelty in situations of war and provide special protection for civilians, hospitals, and medical facilities, as well as journalists. They provide orientation, and they help us not to lose sight of the ultimate goal: a life of dignity, freedom, and security for all people in the world.
A durable peace solution for both Israelis and Palestinians requires political decisions from both sides that translate human rights into demands for security, the right to self-determination, and self-development, and therefore also to land – decisions that can be recognised as just and implemented by both sides.
The road there will be long and difficult, and there will be setbacks. It will require compromises, and it will not be possible to heal all the wrongs of the past before statehood is achieved.
Human rights were first codified in the 1948 UN Declaration as the sign of a new beginning after two devastating world wars and the civilisational rupture represented by the Shoah. Seventy-five years later, they oblige us to demand compliance with international law by all state and non-state actors and to work with strength and perseverance for peace between Israel and Palestine.