The Origins of Human Rights and War Crimes

On February 3rd, 2017, Phil Shiner – a previously reputable human rights lawyer who brought abuse claims against British troops after the Iraq War – was struck off for misconduct.

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal ruled that Mr. Shiner committed misconduct on twelve occasions and he admitted to acting “dishonestly”. His now-defunct company,  Public Interest Lawyers, was involved in thousands of claims against the British army – most of which are now known to be unfounded.

Since the dawn of mankind, brutalities have been committed which we would now consider human rights violations, much of this occurring during times of war. In light of today’s developments, the history of human rights and war crime comes to mind.

The Origins of Human Rights and War Crimes

Belief in the sanctity of human life can be found in many religions and, as such, dates back millennia. The concept of human rights, however – that is, inalienable rights possessed purely by being a human being – evolved in Italy during the era of Renaissance humanism, only some 600 years ago. It was over the next two centuries that the ideas of civic responsibility and universal education would develop and spread across Europe. The European wars of religion in the 17th century saw the development of liberalism within intellectual circles and, by the 18th century, this philosophy would come to resemble the human rights we hold so dearly today; freedom of speech, freedom from torture and the right to life, amongst others.

The human rights which we revere today were at the core of the French and American revolutions in the late 18th century. Historians acknowledge the profound impact which these revolutions had to societies around the globe. Take Thomas Paine, a highly influential British political theorist who contributed to the core values of both the aforementioned revolutions and later promoted these very ideas in his home nation in his books The Rights of Man, Part 1 and 2.

The unprecedented brutality and bloodshed of the First World War shattered the illusion of just war; mankind had become too powerful and too destructive. One consequence of WW1 was the establishment of the League of Nations; the brain-child of U.S President Woodrow Wilson, this was to be the inter-war United Nations; a global organisation which encouraged universal cooperation, peace and prosperity – and one which the USA never joined. In these noblest of aims, it failed. However, it certainly did a great deal of good, as the League of Nations oversaw;

  • 400,000 Prisoners of War returned home after WW1;
  • The creation of refugee camps in Turkey in 1922;
  • The emancipation of over 200,000 slaves in Sierra Leone;
  • Its Health Committee worked to end leprosy and to treat malaria in Africa;
  • They advised the USSR on coping with a plague;
  • The league’s International Labour Organisation cut down work hours for children, removed white lead from paint and tried to set a maximum number of work hours in a week.
KZ Auschwitz, Einfahrt

Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Nazi concentration camp where over 1,000,000 Jews were killed

Yet, by 1945, half a millennium’s progress in human rights had turned to dust. The slaughter of roughly 60 million humans – or as many as 80 million, if including subsequent deaths from diseases – turned the world on its head. What’s more, the Second World War saw the first industrial genocide; over 6 million Jews perished in the holocaust. The governments who survived this conflict vowed to never let anything like WW2 occur again. And, on the 10th December 1948, the United Nations (founded 3 years prior) adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Governments in observance of this declaration committed themselves to legal measures to secure the recognition of the human rights which it set out. The key articles of the declaration protect the rights to equality, life, freedom of assembly and association, whilst prohibiting slavery and torture.

War Crimes in Recent Years

Despite the achievements of the United Nations after WW2, the atrocities have not ceased – and they probably never will. For the last 70 years, blood has continued to spill every day. In fact, three of the most horrifying examples of war crimes since WW2 have been in the last twenty years.

Rwandan Genocide

Commencing in April 1994, the Rwandan genocide saw the mass slaughter of Tutsi Rwandans by members of the Hutu majority government. This conflict, spanning 100 days, saw the murder of 30% of Rwanda’s population – estimates suggest that anywhere between 500,000 and 1 million Tutsi were killed. The backlash of this genocide was the ascent of the Tutsi-backed Rwandan Patriotic Front who, in government, displaced as many as 2 million Hutu.

Kosovo War

The Kosovo War, which broke out in February 1998, featured the opposition of ethnic Albanians to ethnic Serbs and the Yugoslavian government in Kosovo. The Serbs’ promoted the strategic and systematic ethnic cleansing of Albanians.  The conflict saw 700,000 Kosovars displaced and 11,000 people killed. It was not until June 1999 that a resolution was reached after heavy NATO involvement.

War in Darfur


SLM Combatants in 2008

For the last 13 years, Darfur – a region in Sudan – has been torn by war. The conflict began when the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) began fighting the government of Sudan, who they accused of oppressing non-Arab people in Darfur. The government’s response to the attacks was a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arabs. The conflict has resulted in an estimated the death toll between 178,258 and 461,520, with 80% of these due to disease, and Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir being impeached for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the ICC.

Looking Forwards

If recent years have shown anything, it is that we have not learnt from the past. With every day that passes, countless lives are lost to senseless causes. As such, there cannot be much doubt that war crimes were committed in Iraq by invading forces. In fact, the assertion made by the Chilcot Report that there was not satisfactory evidence to support an invasion, suggests that the entire invasion could have been a war crime. Nevertheless, today has shown that Phil Shiner is certainly not the man to pursue this inquiry.

References/Further Reading:


2 thoughts on “The Origins of Human Rights and War Crimes

  1. Pingback: The French Revolution: The Bloodied Key to Modern Politics | The FeedBack

  2. Pingback: July 6th | The FeedBack

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