A chemical attack felt round the world

The reaction to Syria’s latest use of chemical weapons shows humanity’s steady if uneven embrace of universal rights, such as the right to life for innocent civilians. Those rights, enshrined 70 years ago by the UN, need both protection and celebration.

White Helmets/Reuters
A girl looks on following the alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8.

The latest chemical attack on civilians in Syria, which killed at least 49 people over the weekend, has evoked a rare response to the conflict from President Trump. “This [attack] is about humanity and it can’t be allowed to happen,” he said. As Mr. Trump and other world leaders now weigh a response, it is worth noting how much his words are an echo of the response to the Holocaust seven decades ago.

Perhaps the best answer to the horrors of World War II was a document, adopted by almost every nation in 1948, called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Such rights, which include the right to life for innocent civilians, did not originate from the United Nations. Rather, as one author, Hernán Santa Cruz, put it, the declaration was a global consensus on the supreme value of each person, a value that lies simply by its “fact of existing.”

Humanity must keep on rediscovering great truths such as rights. Yet one reason atrocities like those in Syria keep occurring is that many nations reject rights as universal. China and Russia, for example, cite values as relative only to a culture or “civilization.” Hungary asserts that people are entitled to rights only “where they live.” In conflict zones like Syria, rights are often reduced to one ethnicity or one brand of religion.

Others contend the universality of rights is not compatible with the sovereignty of the nation-state. The 1648 treaty known as the Peace of Westphalia led to today’s notion of the nation-state, or a political entity that is independent, sovereign, and entitled to borders. Yet the 1948 declaration, which gained legal force in 1976 and whose anniversary is being celebrated this year, is not really a challenge to the nation-state. 

In fact, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated in February, “We must overcome the false dichotomy between human rights and national sovereignty. Human rights and national sovereignty go hand in hand. There is no contradiction.”

The historical record shows that when a society enforces human rights, it reinforces its sovereignty. “If we had given much greater attention to human rights globally over the past two decades, millions of lives would have been saved,” said Mr. Guterres.

Seventy years on, the declaration serves as a legal obligation by sovereign states to the sovereignty of each individual and his or her basic rights. Chemical warfare, with its mass killing of civilians, is one of the greatest challenges to those rights. Just how world leaders now respond to the atrocity in Syria will be a measure of how much humanity sees the supreme value of each person as a “fact of existing.”

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