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Human Rights: The Legacy of the Holocaust

“Human rights” is a term that gets thrown around a lot. But what are our human rights today and where do they come from? And how do they relate to the Holocaust?

The United Nations General Assembly adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Palais de Chaillot in Paris, 10 December 1948. Credit: STF/AFP/Getty Images

History of Human Rights

The Nuremberg Trials in 1945 was the first time that an international tribunal persecuted criminals for war crimes “against humanity”. These precedent-setting trials revealed the true horrors of the Holocaust and the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany. This understandably led many to reach a consensus that the world needed a written declaration of rights that all humans were entitled to from birth. The Allies, particularly the United States, established four cornerstones based upon their own democratic principles: the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear and freedom of want. These then influenced the creation of the United Nations through its first Charter, established in San Francisco in 1945, which became a key instrument of international law.

From that, members of the new United Nations came together to create the first Declaration of Human Rights. It was finalised and ratified in 1948, with 48 of the 58 United Nations states voting in favour of its adoption.

Children from the United Nations International Nursery School look at the declaration. Credit: UN Photo 1950

What are our Human Rights?

The Human Declaration of Human Rights is made up of 30 articles listing the rights that all human beings are entitled to irrespective of any differences. By simply being a human being born on this Earth, you are entitled to these rights.

Some of the most important rights are:

Article 1 – All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Article 3 – Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 5 – No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

However, all the rights are important as each of these protect us from harm, discrimination and injustice. You can find a full list of the rights here.


Why do they matter?

Human rights are important as in principle they democratise our societies, creating equality across all our community (large and small), and they ultimately break down barriers. By creating a recognised basis for human rights in international law, it creates a framework to discuss those things we have in common while fostering a sense of mutual understanding with our fellow man. Ultimately ‘human rights’ protect us, they give us a sense of community, and help to secure our safety on the global scale. All these considerations were sadly overlooked or unrecognised during the Holocaust.

The Way of Human Rights in Nuremberg. Each pillar has an article of the Declaration of Human Rights on it in German and another language.

What happens when they are taken away?

Although ‘human rights’ within international law for all individuals (irrespective of race, creed, class, ability, gender or sexual orientation) did not exist as a concept, the Holocaust is the ultimate example of what can happen if our human rights are infringed and taken away from us.

Even today, human rights abuses are taking place across the world within Libya’s detention centres, or the ongoing forced captivity of over 100 school girls by Boko Haram, and finally the interment, forced sterilisation and forced assimilation of nearly a million Uyghurs in western China, to name just a few.

A protest against the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China, an ongoing violation of human rights.
Credit: Getty Images/BBC

Advocacy groups, governments, NGOs, and activists continue to fight for the basic human rights of many vulnerable groups. All of us can help by volunteering or donating to causes, by speaking up for what you care about, by listening to survivors (including asylum seekers and refugees today), and to support local businesses or social enterprises that fight discrimination. Even following organisations like Amnesty International or the Malala Fund on Instagram help you see the impact of activism on a daily basis.

Our Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre has a central mission to uphold and defend human rights, freedom and equality for all. You can follow us on Instagram and Twitter too!

Dr Chelsea Sambells and Hannah Randall


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