Human Rights

On 2nd December 2010, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks spoke in a debate in the House of Lords on Human Rights.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this important debate, which touches the very core of our humanity, transcending all differences of colour, culture, class or creed and sets moral limits to the use of power. It took great crises to make people aware of human rights. The wars of religion in the seventeenth century which led Milton and Locke to formulate the doctrine of the rights of man proclaimed, in the next century, the American and French revolutions.

It was sustained reflection on the Holocaust and on the Nazi programme to eliminate whole classes of humanity-the physically and mentally handicapped, homosexuals, Roma and Sinti, and Jews-that led to the great 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a way of saying that what happened in the Holocaust should never happen again, and that those who died should not have died in vain.

It remains a testament to the human spirit that, at that time of Cold War and tense conflict in the Middle East, the nations of the world were none the less able to come together in collective affirmation, whether through religious faith or human reason, of the inherent dignity, and the equal and inalienable rights, of all members of the human family. That remains-despite the genocides and abuses that have happened since, of which we have heard so powerfully today-a signal of hope and a template of aspiration that must continue to protect us against cynicism and despair.

On this vast subject I wish to make just one point. Rights depend not only on declarations but on education. Rights are lost when one group within a society, usually the dominant group, sees another group as a threat to its freedom and its own dominance. Threat becomes fear, fear becomes hate, and hate becomes dehumanisation. The Nazis called Jews vermin and lice. The Hutus of Rwanda called the Tutsis inyenzi, or cockroaches.

When this happens-when we dehumanise the other-evil follows, as night follows day. The only way to stop this is through education. I am deeply concerned at the teaching of hate that exists in some parts of the world and among some groups today. That teaching is poisoning the minds of young children and other vulnerable individuals, condemning them to a future of conflict and hostility from which they themselves will lose. Hate harms the hater no less than the hated; and when I diminish others, I am myself diminished.

Article 26 of the universal declaration covers education. Paragraph (2) states that it should, "promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups"

How good it would be if we could find ways to make that a reality and not just a pious hope. Today, as the noble Lord has mentioned, is the first day of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah-the anniversary of the time 22 centuries ago when Jews fought and won their right to religious freedom. Shall we not work together-Jews, Christians, Muslims and those of all faiths-to teach the world's children to see God's image in people who are not in their image, whose colour is not theirs, whose language is not theirs, whose face is not theirs?

The principle is shared, if differently expressed, by secular humanists of all kinds, for human rights begin with the way in which we teach our children to recognise the humanity of others and the dignity of difference. The rights of tomorrow are born in the education of today.