Professor details how the Holocaust gives rise to international human-rights law


Bryant University Prof. Michael Bryant spoke about the influence of the Holocaust on the development of international law at this year’s Baxt Lecture, a program of the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center.


Professor Bryant began his Nov. 4 talk with the assertion that, “From the point of view of international law and human rights, warfare is humankind’s greatest teacher. Nearly every major international law, treaty and innovation has been a reaction, in some way, to a major calamitous war.”

The Crimean War, in the mid-19th century, led to the first Geneva Convention and the Red Cross. World War I gave birth in 1919 to the League of Nations; to the Kellogg-Briand Pact, in which countries renounced aggressive warfare as an instrument of national policy; and to the Geneva Conventions adopted in 1929, which became the basis for the Nuremberg trials, in the wake of World War II.

“No war in history has more decisively impacted international law and human rights than World War II,” Bryant stated during his talk, held at the Cranston Public Library.  For example, in 1938, victims of the Night of Broken Glass had no national remedy to pursue damages. They could not hire a lawyer and sue the German government. And, prior to World War II, there was no way to pursue a transnational legal remedy after an event such as Kristallnacht.  The League of Nations could not help because at that time individuals were not subject to international law.

Before World War II, how a state treated its own citizens within its territory was strictly a domestic matter.

“Whatever rights people had were entirely dependent on the nation to which they belonged. The international community had no right to intervene to help you. And this was the situation as the world teetered on the brink of World War II in the late 1930s,” Bryant said.

“National sovereignty was inviolable and no state could protest or intervene on behalf of a victim who was harmed by their own government.”

Since they had no standing under international law, other governments did not intervene on behalf of the Jews in the run up to World War II; there was literally nothing they could do, he said.

By 1945, that situation had drastically changed as policymakers and political leaders around the world came to understand that traditional international law had failed to protect the rights of individuals. This realization was largely driven by the Holocaust.

The belief began to grow that there had to be a way to hold the perpetrators accountable for their grave human-rights abuses. To prevent anything like the Holocaust from happening again, international law had to be changed so that individuals’ rights would no longer be based on their nationality. This new era of human rights began with the 1945 signing of the charter that created the United Nations.

At that time, there was great hope that an enforceable human-rights provision would be inserted into the U.N. Charter, Bryant said.

“Jewish leaders and representatives of smaller countries that attended the conference all lobbied the great powers to insert human-rights language that had traction into the text of the U.N. Charter. This did not happen because opponents such as Stalin’s Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and the United States pushed back hard against the notion that an outside organization could influence their domestic matters.”

Since the United States was the driving force behind the post-World War II world order and the Nuremberg trials, it may seem surprising that its leaders opposed a human-rights provision. This was due, Bryant said, to the political power of Southern politicians, who wanted to uphold Jim Crow laws and feared outside influence on this system of racial discrimination. They told President Harry S Truman that if there was an enforceable human-rights provision, they would not ratify the charter. In order to win ratification, the Truman administration agreed to a watered-down version.

In the years and decades following the creation of the U.N., in the shadow of the Holocaust, there were efforts to come up with more viable ways to defend human rights.

In December 1948, the U.N. published the Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted as a non-binding resolution. Prof. Bryant stated, “This is one of the great cornerstones in the history of human rights. Many people think that this is the most important document in the history of human-rights protection.”

This momentous act was followed by the development of many treaties and conventions, such as the U.N. Genocide Convention in 1949,  the Elimination of Racial Discrimination convention in 1965, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 1979, and the Convention Against Torture in 1985. As a result, human rights are now defensible within the U.N.

There are also organizations outside the U.N. that were created to specifically defend human rights. The most notable is the European Council, which was formed in 1949. In 1953, the European Council adopted the Convention on Human Rights, whose purpose is to protect and defend the rights articulated in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

 “It is very clear from the legislative history that the Holocaust was the catalyst for the European Convention, which was clearly stated by the French foreign minister,” Bryant said.

Perhaps most importantly, the European Convention led to the creation of an enforcement body, the European Court of Human Rights. This is the first institution open to lawsuits by people who think their rights have been violated by their own government.

A similar convention was adopted in Africa in 1986, the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights.

While these organizations are not perfect – there have been some notable failures, such as the Cambodian genocide, the Rwandan genocide and the Balkans civil war – human rights have improved dramatically since 1945. It is not unusual today for aid and development packages to contain human-rights provisions.

“Prior to the Holocaust, none of this was on anyone’s radar,” Bryant said. “Governments today find it nearly impossible to divorce human rights considerations from political and economic decision-making. Such considerations rarely weighed on the minds of political leaders before World War II.”

LEV POPLOW is a communications consultant writing on behalf of the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center, in Providence. He can be reached at