Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law…
— Paragraphs 2 and 3 of the Preamble, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which contains the paragraphs quoted above, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 without a dissenting vote. It is the first multinational declaration mentioning human rights by name, and the human rights movement has largely adopted it as a charter. It states as well or better than anything I’ve read what human rights are and why they are important.
The United Nations Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and UN Human Rights convenants were written and implemented in the aftermath of the Holocaust, revelations coming from the Nuremberg war crimes trials, the Bataan Death March, the destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki using atomic bombs, and other horrors smaller in magnitude but not in impact on the individuals they affected. Many people in a number of countries had a crisis of conscience and found they could no longer look the other way while tyrants jailed, tortured, and killed their neighbors.
In Germany, the Nazis first came for the communists, and I did not speak up, because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up, because I was not a
Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak up, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak up, because I was not a Catholic.
Then they came for me… and by that time, there was no one to speak up for anyone.
— Martin Niemoeller, Pastor, German Evangelical (Lutheran) Church
Many also realized that advances in technology and changes in social structures had rendered war a threat to the continued existence of the human race. Large numbers of people in many countries lived under the control of tyrants, having no recourse but war to relieve often intolerable living conditions. Unless some way was found to relieve the lot of these people, they could revolt and become the catalyst for another wide-scale and possibly nuclear war. For perhaps the first time, representatives from the majority of governments in the world came to the conclusion that basic human rights must be protected, not only for the sake of the individuals and countries involved, but to preserve the human race.
My reasons for believing in and supporting human rights stem from what I saw growing up in El Paso, Texas, less than two miles from the border with Mexico and Mexico’s second largest city, Cuidad Juarez. Like most border cities, Juarez was filled with very poor people who had left the countryside looking for a better life. They were prey to every kind of abuse, from harrassment to false imprisonment to beatings to rape to politically-motivated murder by authorities and others on both sides of the border with more power and influence than they had.
I doubt that I would have known such things existed from my own experience. It became part of my experience, though, and I’ve never since been able to take my freedom and lack of fear for granted.