On the generally agreed upon date of 28th July, 1914, the Great War began. Some nine million combatants and seven million civilians were killed. The War caused such great trauma to people and nations that they agreed this kind of tragedy ought never happen again. War had passed from a local and even romantic notion to being a cancer so evil that nations must suffer whatever is necessary to avoid being consumed by such blood lust ever again.
The peace didn’t last long; the geopolitical landscape was so scarred and irrevocably damaged, peace could only ever be temporary and even illusionary. Russia fractured along the old imperialists and the new socialists. The cleave wasn’t clean: both sides, the Reds and the White, had moderates and extremists, and both sides committed crimes of unimaginable violence and scale. for that time. Even as the war between armies died, the war on civilians continued. Russia’s economy was utterly destroyed by the wars, millions perished, and yet worse was to come.
Meanwhile, aggrieved victor nations of the Great War demanded more and more from the bankrupted vanquished. Tapping into the fear, the pride, and the resentments of impoverished citizens was increasingly easy nourishment for many politicians. Great evils were brewing.
As if a plot to ensure Fascism cancerous growth, Capitalism rejected any sensible regulation and began to eat itself. The 1929 crash and subsequent Great Depression, if not wholly predicable, was foreseeable. The collapse of economies due to banks’ habit of favouring loans to short-term stock speculators instead over long term capital investors would be borne by millions of taxpayers around the world instead of the decision makers, a situation curiously mirrored nearly 80 years later. The Fascists found a rich vein of xenophobia and disillusionment to mine.
By the time the dangers of Fascism were realised and armies began to mobilise again for global total war, it was too late. Spain had spilled blood and served as a place for Germany to hone their battle skills. Italy decided conquering “lesser” peoples to pay homage to their Roman ancestors was the appropriate path. Japan orchestrated false emergencies in China and elsewhere in Asia to satisfy their lust, greed and pride.
By the time Unconditional Surrender was signed on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, some 80 million people had died directly as a result of the war. That’s nearly four New York Cities, two and a half Tokyos, or three Australias. Gone. And that’s not including incidental and indirect deaths. The figures are debatable to a degree, but the differential is a hair’s breadth compared a length of a river.
Those decades of trauma on the world left a profound wound on humanity. Citizens and leaders decided that too much blood had been shed, and the circumstances that led to such human induced cataclysm should never be allowed to happen again. Part of the solution, and the healing, was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The UDHR isn’t a notion or an ideal: it’s a contract of which you and your government have signed. Should your government decide to breach this contract, there are ways to compensate you. For example, you can be declared a refugee and any country you ask for asylum has to provide you safe haven: it’s not optional. It’s an obligation.
Now, nearly 70 years after humanity’s worst self-inflicted crisis, and the resultant UDHR, it seems that people have forgotten why we have it, what it offers us. It seems that some politicians see the UDHR as an obstacle to legislate around rather than as an instrument to help. Generations of citizens, too, see the UDHR as either not relevant to them or today. The question is why. Possibly one answer is the horrors of 1916-1946 is not real. There are very few alive today to share their experiences; it’s no longer in our collective living memory.
We go about our daily business, borrowing money without thought to pay for anything from a small meal to holiday on a foreign shore. We no longer think about our freedoms as hard won. We don’t share what we have because it’s easy for us to get what we want so it must be just as easy for anyone else, too: if not they must be somehow undeserving. For all our hyperconnectivity, we have never been so isolated. For all our vast data warehouses, we have never been so disconnected from valuable information.
We need to study our history to see where we are going. If we don’t, states may grain by grain erode our rights as laid out in the UDHR and other treaties signed post WWII. We are witnessing this in Australia right now. The parliament has legislated to spy on citizens, to punish refugees seeking asylum, and now it’s legislating to give the government itself arbitrary powers to decide who is a citizen, and to make people it deems unworthy stateless and leave them exiled, Not only do many experts agree this latest attack is unconstitutional, it also contravenes the UDHR. However the Abbott Government seems undeterred.
I hope enough people realise and we stop this before it’s too late, before the next crisis becomes inevitable and wholly foreseeable.