The history of humanity has been characterized by countless wars and struggles. Indeed, war has been the central theme for most of our history, and not, unfortunately, a rare occurrence. It is perhaps the nature of scholarly review that stories of courage and goodness are rarely told by historians. Through states, religious institutions, and individuals have been channeled the greatest virtues of human character. And yet, the path of history has also been littered with despots, cruel regimes, and irrepressibly horrific conduct, which have cost the lives and security of tens of millions of people.
With the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundation of international human rights law was established. Fundamentally, Article One of the Declaration states that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The Declaration continues to be an inspiration to the global community, as it seeks by its very existence to address injustices. Over the years, the commitments outlined in the Declaration have been translated into law, including in the form of treaties and customary international law, as well as individual domestic law. The creation of a comprehensive body of human rights law is one of the greatest results of the United Nations with the resultant prescribed treaties to which all nations can subscribe.
It has been stated that the instrumental value of international human rights law, direct or indirect, is not as self-evident as hoped. We have only to examine the clear breaches, as evidenced by the genocide in Rwanda, the ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslavia, and the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar. But continued atrocities do not disprove the case for international human rights law. It is a contradiction that scholars and observers of the human condition have never fully been able to reconcile, and it is certainly the foundation upon which enormous volumes of scholarship have been based. We can note that the narratives of death and destruction have traditionally overshadowed attention to a broader history of human goodness. One would hope that this is because evil and oppression are in fact egregious breaks from most of human history, but that unfortunately is a narrative not yet anywhere near complete or determined. While the better aspects of human nature are referenced in this book, our focus will be upon the failure of humanity to avert evil either at the state level or in relation to individual conduct.
These are the debates that instructed the remonstrations of many of the greatest philosophers in human history. Socrates stated that humanity was required to establish fundamental principles that would instruct human behaviour, and that good and evil could be measured most importantly beyond the desires of individual human beings. Plato held a more spiritual view, maintaining that human beings were imbued with a sense of good and evil even before their individual creation. Thomas Hobbes’ view was much more pragmatic, maintaining that the idea of good and evil was essentially relative and that it could change. Irrespective of these views, and those of other renowned thinkers throughout history, the practical implications for humanity have been vast.
Many of the great institutions of human creation have been established to intercede on behalf of the persecuted, whether states or individuals. The League of Nations in the period following the First World War, or the United Nations that emerged from the conclusion of the Second World War, are primary examples.
Protecting populations from the most serious of international crimes—including genocide, crimes against humanity, terrorism, and war crimes—is the collective responsibility of the world community. It is to the shame of the world and its human institutions that these crimes continue to take place in many parts of the globe even in contemporary times. Too often, lessons learned are not solutions applied. Although calls for accountability are now the norm when such crimes are committed, impunity remains all too common.
*Dr. Mario Silva, PhD(law), Distinguished Fellow, Ryerson University