The Convention 2: Lest we forget

DDayA few days ago I met an old man in a care home with white hair and a mischievous smile. We talked for a while, he in his wheelchair and me crouching down beside him to listen as he spoke. After a few minutes I shook his hand, thanked him for all that he had done and stood up to leave.

As I did so a young care assistant aged about 25 or so attracted my attention.
“What did you thank him for?”
“He was on the beaches in Normandy.” I replied. The young woman’s face was blank. She had no idea what I was talking about.
“He was part of the allied invasion of Europe.” I explained. Still not a trace of understanding. I tried again.

“D Day?” Still nothing.

Eventually I got her to understand by talking about the film, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and reminding her of the harrowing ‘beaches’ scene at the start of the movie. But to this old man (we’ll call him Bill) the experience was far more real than that.

Many didn’t even make it on to the beaches from the sea let alone off them to press inland. Thousands of young men lost their lives that day. Still more watched their friends fall, riddled with bullets or blown apart by shell and continued forward anyway in the name of liberty. And Bill was there.

He told me that he’d joined up as a youngster in ’39 and served throughout the war and beyond until his eventual demob (demobilisation) some time later. He fought his way through occupied Europe until the end. And he survived.

CenotaphThere is a war memorial, a ‘cenotaph’ in the middle of my home town. It commemorates the brave men and women who lost their lives in two world wars. Carved in the granite are three simple words:

“Lest we forget”

Well, it seems to me that many of us have done just that. The young woman I spoke with isn’t the only one. Many who understand that world war 2 happened don’t really understand why it happened. Nor do they understand how fragile our freedoms can be. That’s one reason why I wanted to write this blog series…

Lest we forget.

Here’s a ‘potted history’ to set the scene before we get on to the detail of the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s important when trying to make sense of the rights themselves and the international processes that underpin them that we understand where they came from and what they are intended to achieve.

The Treaty of Versailles

The first world war, known at the time as ‘The Great War’ ended with the defeat and utter humiliation of Germany in 1918. The treaty of Versailles and Germany’s unconditional surrender ushered in a period of economic and social deprivation for the German people that almost beggars belief. In large part the ‘reparation’ demanded of ‘the Hun’ who were charged with compensating other countries after the war made world war 2 inevitable.

One former soldier, a corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler was not prepared to take this lying down. He dreamed of restoring Germany to its former glory and he had the charismatic personality necessary to pull it off. All he had to do was unite the people behind a common cause.

The cause was an old standby. It is a unifying tactic that has been used by one society or another for thousands of years and it is effective. If you want the majority to support you, find a minority to blame. Hitler needed a scapegoat. He chose the Jews and he chose the communists. Later his vindictive paranoia would extend to gypsies and blacks, two equally familiar targets but he began with the Jews.

Corporal Hitler
Corporal Hitler
Through a protracted political process involving both elections and extreme mob violence, Hitler manoeuvred the German state into declaring him chancellor. From this point he was able to manipulate German state systems and the German people to realise his dream of a master race.

Following Germany’s eventual defeat at the end of the second world war the true extent of the atrocities committed by the Nazis became clear. The enslavement of the Slavs in Eastern Europe had been known already but the extent of the atrocities in camps like Auswitch and Dachau shocked the world. And the world responded.
Many high ranking Nazis were put on trial for war crimes in a newly established international court at Nuremberg. Some were hanged, some sentenced to lengthy jail terms whilst still others were acquitted. The court set an important precedent though – and the notion that ‘all’s fair in love and war’ was very definitely put to the test. The charges of ‘war crimes’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ such as genocide come from Nuremberg and are still used in international law today.

The years following the war also saw the creation of the ‘Council of Europe’, a group of European countries determined to ensure that there would be no repetition of the war’s atrocities. They drafted the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and each member country signed it in 1950 (although the convention did not come into effect until 1953).

As well as defining the Human Rights themselves the Convention also created the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to ensure that European citizens have a way to bring their concerns to the council if their own country’s court system fails to resolve them. It is intended to be a legal antidote to the holocaust and all the other atrocities of Hitler’s Third Reich.

So before we start complaining about the inconvenience of upholding someone else’s human rights let’s remember why they’re there and what the ECHR is designed to achieve.

Lest we forget

About ‘The Convention’

This series of posts first appeared on Stuart’s blog in June 2011. It is not intended to be a comprehensive or even particularly authoritative reference guide to the ECHR. Rather it is a brief introduction to a much larger and infinitely more fascinating subject. You can download the entire series in PDF format here:

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