Poppy Livingstone, Staples H.S., Westport, CT
Human rights collectively protect and maintain the fabric of society. The loss of even one human right leads to an instability in this structure, which allows more and more violations to occur. We often see this collapse in three steps: words or rhetoric laced with disregard for human rights, leading to power and policy changes, leading to a total removal of rights. Eighty years ago, the world saw this in Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany. These three steps to the total removal of human rights are also present in modern day America. And though I am in no way equating today's situation to that of the Holocaust, there are parallels in this progression of human rights violations. However, today’s nation of protesters and civil rights activists will likely protect the values highlighted in the UDHR. No one human right should seen as more important than the others because allowing one right to be violated sets a precedent for more violations to occur.
Hitler became a prominent figure in German politics through over “5,000 persuasive speeches, … he bewitched his audiences and promised them that his empire would reign for a thousand years” (Businessinsider.com). His speeches were powerful enough to win over a large amount of the German people. His influence came through his words. Hitler's speeches were laced with implied (and often blatant) disregard for human rights. He came to power at a time when Germany was vulnerable. After losing World War I, The Treaty of Versailles was formed. This treaty officially ended the war, and stripped Germany of its colonies, restricted its government, and demanded $63 billion dollars (almost $768 billion today) in reparations (Time.com). The Treaty sent Germany into a crippling economic crisis. The country was at its lowest point economically and in terms of its dignity. Germans believed that ‘Jews were responsible for huge events like losing World War One and the economic crisis.’, and Hitler's speeches intensified that sentiment. To appease the vulnerabilities of Germany, he promised to take away the rights of Jews. This gave Germans a feeling of power. Though human rights were not yet violated in action, Hitler's disregard for human rights in his speeches undermined the foundation of German society. The world didn’t notice the instability Hitler's words were causing yet, but they soon would.
The people of Germany were so appeased by Hitler's words that they gave him more power. Nazis won more votes than any other political party in Germany during the elections held in July and November of 1932 (facinghistory.com). After the death of German President Paul von Hindenburg, Hitler took total power of Germany under the title ‘Fuhrer’ (history.com). By giving himself complete power, Hitler dismantled the final remnants of German democracy. This violation of Article 21, the right to democracy (un.org) gave Hitler complete power over Germany. From here he began changing policy by restricting media, punishing his detractors with military force, and enacting numerous rights-violating laws. Among these were the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which “prohibit Jews from marrying…persons of ‘German or related blood’… define a ‘Jew’ as someone with three or four Jewish grandparents…among them even Catholic priests whose grandparents were Jewish” (ushmm.org). The Nuremberg laws most obviously violate UDHR's right 16, the right to get married, and 18, the right to religion. Beyond face value, these laws violate nine more human rights regarding discrimination and equality (un.org).
Hitler's rise to power illustrates how human rights violations are not singular events. Violations and the loss of rights stack. As one falls, so do the others. Hitler’s climb to power was enabled by the removal of various human rights. On the first step of his climb to power, Hitler laced his speeches with promises of the removal of human rights for Jews. On their own, these verbal violations were not dangerous, but they laid the groundwork for the next step to power he took. In the second step, Hitler took away the right to democracy and became dictator. Becoming dictator led to his ability to remove human rights through policy, as shown by the Nuremberg laws. These discriminatory laws increased alienation and hate towards Jews, and allowed even worse removal of rights from them (worldhistoryproject.org). These human rights violations stacked and stacked, and Hitler's power grew and grew. By gradually chipping away at the structure of democracy, society, and human rights, Hitler created a system where he could get away with the third step, the mass murder of millions. This was his final step to the total dismantling of human rights.
In the modern day U.S, a chain of events has led us back to the first step, perhaps step one and a half, on the road to a human rights catastrophe. The current administration has shown a disdain for human rights through words, which has encouraged and enabled changes in policy that affect the rights of certain groups.
Verbally, Donald Trump has shown a disregard for human rights in the form of slogans, statements, and tweets. Recently, to a crowd in Huntsville Alabama, Trump said of Colin Kaepernick, ‘‘Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’’ (time.com). This statement was a response to the “more than 200 NFL players choosing to sit or kneel while the national anthem played before football games over this past weekend….this is a public statement in the name of civil rights and American patriotism.” (Time.com). Trump saying that these protesters should be fired is a verbal violation of right 19 of the UDHR and the first amendment. This is a clear example, and there are many, of Trumps disregard for human rights through words. This is step one, the use of human rights violations in speech
Trumps human rights violations haven’t stopped at just words. On September 24, Trump rolled out his third iteration of the travel ban, an order that “restricts travel to the US from…eight countries – six of which have majority Muslim populations – indefinitely” (Vox.com). Visa applicants must prove a family relationship with a U.S resident in order to enter the country. This most notably violates UDHR right 14, the right to seek asylum (un.org), among others. The ban was created to “suspend immigration from nations tied to Islamic terror” (nbcnews.com). His stated goal is to prevent terrorism. But in prioritizing Article 2 of the UDHR, the right to security, the travel ban violates multiple rights regarding religion, discrimination, and open borders. Articles 1, 2, 14, 15, 18, and 30, are violated among others. This is the flaw in saying that some rights take precedence over others; in order for one to be more important, others must be minimized and, by extension, violated.
By describing majority Muslim countries as ‘Terror Nations’ and ‘dangerous enemy aliens’ (nbcnews.com) Trump has labeled entire populations as people we should fear and loathe. Trump used similar tactics in saying Mexicans are ‘bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.’, among other derogatory and inflammatory statements. This is similar to Hitler's ‘'Othering' of minority groups’ in the 1930’s (ibtimes.co.uk). One of Hitler's greatest tools in his winning over Germany was creating an enemy in the Jewish people. Donald Trump used (and still uses) similar tactics in his campaign to win the support of America. This circles back to the ascending staircase of power. Trump used verbal violations early in his campaign to play into America's vulnerabilities, just as Hitler did. A prominent example of this is Trump saying that Mexicans “take jobs from hard working citizens” (apnews.com). This idea played into the insecurities of some Americans, and created support for his anti-immigrant policies. Sacrificing the reputation of a group of people earned the support of Americans, giving Trump the power to be elected president. Hitler ascended the first step to authoritarian power in the same way, by blaming Jews on the economic issues of the time.
He is at step one and a half. Step two of Hitler's rise to power was violating human rights through policy and removing democracy. Trump has yet to dismantle democracy, but he has violated numerous rights through policy. The travel ban goes against the right to asylum and religion, and unwarranted ICE raids violate the right to privacy and home, among other examples. Trump’s verbal violations and ‘othering’ of minorities early on in his campaign led to support from the American people. This enabled these unfair policies to occur. Allowing rights to be violated, even verbally, has led us here.
And so we are on step one and a half of three steps. The third step, if we’re using the model tracing Hitler's rise to power, is human rights violations on a catastrophic scale. Technically, we’re halfway up the steps to the total removal of rights. But are we really headed there?
Due to the power of the American people, the answer seems to be no. What prevents our society from solid footing on the second step, the removal of democracy, is the work of individuals, organizations, and protesters dedicated to maintaining the integrity of human rights . There are countless organizations across America dedicated to fighting for and protecting the principles of the UDHR. The American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit organization with over 2 million members, works to “defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and the laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country” (aclu.org). By filing cases regarding civil liberties and human rights in state and federal courts, the ACLU prevents human rights violation via policy to occur. Southern Poverty Law Center, NAACP, and The Trevor Project are just a few examples of other organizations dedicated to protecting human rights. Beyond that, normal citizens strengthen human rights by protesting the administration's violations. The Women's March, a nationwide protest that took place on January first, was attended by over 3.3 million people across 500 cities (elitedaily.com). The Women's March goal was to show that ‘‘Women’s Rights are Human Rights and Human Rights are Women’s Rights’’ (womensmarch.com). This, and dozens of other protests, raised awareness that society values and demands their rights . Finally, on a smaller scale, individual people show their concern for human rights. Amy Siskind, an advocate for human rights, created a Weekly List of governmental norms changing in the Trump era. She keeps track of these changes because she read about “how authoritarian governments take hold — often with incremental changes that seem shocking at first but quickly become normalized” (washingtonpost.com). Individuals like Siskind, by monitoring and sharing up to date human rights violations, help prevent further abuses to occur. The main reason that America has stopped at step one and a half on the road to a total human rights catastrophe is that people are identifying violations and fighting back.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written as a direct result of World War II. According to the U.N’s website, the UDHR was made because ‘…the international community vowed never again to allow atrocities like those of that conflict to happen again’. The document was created at a time when the horror of the Holocaust was fresh in everyone's minds. The stripping away of Jewish rights, the imprisonment and death of Germans who attempted to help Jews, and the death of millions showed the stark, unavoidable truth of what happens when human rights violations spiral out of control. The consequences of these violations were staring the world in the face, and out of that tragedy the UDHR was created.
As time has passed, we have had the luxury of forgetting the starkness of these abuses. Time has worn away the sharp edges of what human rights violations once did, which has let people create grey areas out of what was once black and white. And in more peaceful times, we have had the privilege of thinking that there are grey areas. I contend that in times like these, we must remember that somethings must be seen as black and white. Human rights are not expendable, they are not singular, and they are not negotiable. The strength of human rights is in the structure, it’s in the commitment to all of them. At certain points in history, one may have seemed more important than the other. But it's the diligence and steadfastness to all human rights that holds us together. They were, they are, and they always will be equally important to the fabric of society.
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