This article was first published by The Age.
The emergence of international human rights law and the tragedy of the Holocaust are indelibly linked. If the Holocaust represents the worst of humanity, human rights laws arguably represent the best.
In 2005 the United Nations resolved to make today, January 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day – the day the notorious Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated.
The resolution is twofold. It says we must remember the victims of the genocide: approximately 9000 gay men; 250,000 disabled people; 1 million Roma; 6 million Jews; and more. It also says we must go beyond remembrance and "apply the lessons of the Holocaust to today's world. And we must do our utmost so that all peoples may enjoy the protection and rights for which the United Nations stands."
Last year I visited Auschwitz. I stood at the end of the train tracks where those few who were allowed to live in hell were randomly separated from the hundreds of thousands who were sent straight to their death. I felt rage. More than 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz – the vast majority Jewish people who had been locked into cattle trains and transported from across Europe.
Auschwitz forces us to confront the most gruesome, unfathomable parts of humanity: the rows of blackened ovens, the low ceilings of the gas chambers, Josef Mengele's human experiment wing, the silence. The camp is enormous – breathtaking in its inhumanity.
The term "genocide" often evokes images of a breakdown in the rule of law. But Auschwitz is the opposite of chaos: it was planned, systematised, mandated, documented mass-murder by one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world. It represents the denial of everything we hold dear as human beings: love, dignity, equality, life.
So it was extraordinary that in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and while reckoning with the horror, the world came together in an unprecedented way and with a vision for a harmonious, unified humanity. The United Nations was created, the global body charged with, among other things, the oversight of our universal, fundamental human rights – our shared, core values.
The landmark 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the treaties that followed, go beyond symbolism, beyond being a statement of good intentions. They are intended to be binding, institutionalised, and turned into law in all signatory countries, Australia included.
The human rights system is not perfect and not a panacea against abuse. Genocides and serious human rights violations have occurred and are still occurring. But protecting and upholding human rights – making them part of the architecture of governments around the world – goes a long way towards stopping abuses and the harm caused in the first instance.
Australia is the only western democracy without a national human rights act enshrined in legislation or our constitution. This means that in Australia human rights are largely a matter of good will: they are protected so long as our governments act responsibly and with restraint.
Writing about the Holocaust in the same context as contemporary Australian issues is uncomfortable; the gravity of the Holocaust, the magnitude of death camps such as Auschwitz, are unique and incomparable.
But being at Auschwitz reminded me of how entangled my story is with that most tragic time in human history. I am Jewish and I am a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. And because of their luck, stoicism and bravery, I am also an Australian human rights lawyer. I know that the harm caused by human rights violations can be felt for generations. So part of my story, part of the Holocaust story, is that of survival, continuity and the integration of history's painful lessons.
Enshrining global human rights standards – such as the right to dignity, to equality, to life – into domestic law is critical. Without recourse to codified, formalised protection, human rights are of little use to those confronted by persecution. In other words, human rights are most valuable when they are enforceable.
The chances of the Holocaust occurring in Australia today are remote, but we should have no tolerance for even the shadows of racism and xenophobia. These are dangerous in any guise.
Also, we must be vigilant in resisting the erosion of rights. By allowing the rights of others to be removed, we are undermining the very foundations upon which we claim our own rights.
If Australia is serious about protecting human rights, it should codify and enforce them. A national human rights act would undoubtedly benefit Australia. It would embed human rights into our laws, into our culture, such that our attitude towards straying from them – as we currently do in relation to some disadvantaged and minority peoples – is not so permissive.
Today is about remembering the millions killed because of hatred and those few who survived. It's also about looking forward. Upholding, respecting and protecting universal human rights is the best tool we have for ensuring governments never again reject our humanity.
Ruth Barson is a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre. You can follow her on Twitter here.