The Shaping of Human Rights in the Twentieth Century

The twentieth century witnessed a strong surge in the Human Rights movement, both in the establishment and acceptance of the individual rights, as well as repercussions for those who violate them. Several major forces during the century dramatically helped shape the articulation of human rights, and also intensified their violation. These forces include the Holocaust of World War II, the Balkan wars, and the war in Rwanda.


The most significant force that contributed to the shaping of human rights and their violations was the Holocaust of WWII. Although there had been an awareness of atrocities being committed, it wasn’t until the end of the war and the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps that the true horror was exposed. An estimated 6 million Jews and 5 million other “undesirables” had been exterminated (powers, 47).

The horrors of the Holocaust brought new strength to the issue of human rights. In the past, foreign policies were very protective of the notion of state sovereignty. A sovereign nation reserved the right to handle situations within their own borders, as they saw fit. Outside intervention from foreign powers was not welcome, and universally discouraged. This strict adherence had contributed greatly to the devastation of the Nazi’s Final Solution – foreign governments, including the United Sates, wanted to avoid violating Germany’s sovereignty by intervening to stop the mass extermination. After the Allied victory and the liberation of the camps, however, world opinion on non-intervention shifted. As the flood of information – personal accounts, documents, photographs – reached the population, an almost universal agreement was made that these heinous acts could not be ignored, and justice must be served.

The Allied victors of the war established an International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, in order to try leading Nazi Party officials who were responsible for the planning and design of the Final Solution (powers, 48).

Although it had been introduced, the term “genocide” was not yet official terminology, and the first indictments the Tribunal placed against the defendants were crimes against humanity, including crimes against peace, for starting an aggressive war (powers, 49).

The Tribunal was significant not just in that it was the first time that the International Community held individuals accountable for violating human rights, but also because it was the first time that government officials were held accountable and faced punishment, for crimes committed against their own citizens (powers, 48). The Tribunal was cautious though, as the notion of sovereignty was still highly valued. They focused the charges on the crimes against peace, and prosecuted only those crimes that had been committed after Germany had initiated an aggressive war with the invasion of another sovereign nation (powers, 49).


Although the term “genocide” was not used in the initial indictments, it was included in the 3rd count. The defendants were accused of “…genocide, viz., the extermination of racial and national groups, against the civilian population of certain occupied territories” (powers, 50). Nuremberg contributed greatly to setting the framework for official human rights.

The United Nations took the next dramatic step in 1948, when it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It wasn’t adopted as a treaty – but rather it was meant to “proclaim a ‘common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” (burns, 25). Additionally in 1948, the United Nations passed an act called the International Convention on the Prevention of and Punishment for the Crime of Genocide (powers, 57).

The collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 was extremely significant on a global scale, with the most dramatic effects being seen in Eastern Europe. With the fall of a number of oppressive regimes, newly independent states emerged, and with them, a tremendous rise in nationalism and self-determination. New governments were established, new borders were drawn. The feelings of nationalism were extremely intense and a variety of movement sprung up, primarily along ethnic lines (Evans, 19). Especially notable were the strength of these movements in the former Yugoslavia.

The Serbians developed severely intense nationalistic ideology and a determination for dominance. Prior to the Soviet collapse, Yugoslavia has consisted of 6 Republics – Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia. Slovenia successfully seceded first, and Croatia attempted to follow soon after. With a large Serbian minority in Croatia, the Serbian government was unwilling to allow the succession. A seven month war broke out, leaving 10,000 dead (powers, 247). Next was Bosnia, whose situation was even more unstable then Croatia. The Bosnian republic was the most ethnically heterogeneous of the Yugoslavian republics, and either way it ended – remaining with Serbia or breaking off, one or more of it’s significantly large ethnic groups would suffer oppression. In 1992 Bosnia declared its independence, and in the brutal war that followed, the world was introduced to a new set of human rights violations and atrocities, as well as witness to a new genocide (powers, 248).

According to Samantha Powers, in her book”A Problem From Hell”, the United Sates government were well aware that genocide was underway in Bosnia, yet they hesitated to step in and stop it (powers, 264). Finally, NATO initiated a bombing campaign and troop deployment to restore peace.

Soon after, intense violence sprung up in Kosovo, which had long been a location of intense Serb vs. Kosovo Albanian hostility. NATO launched a bombing campaign in Kosovo, hoping to force the Serbian violence to ease, yet instead, the Serbian military retaliated by stepping up it’s brutality against the citizens of Kosovo (powers, 450).

Finally in 1999, Serbian military units decide they had had enough. “They did not want to die for Kosovo and they certainly did not want to die for Milosevic” (powers, 59). Milosevic surrendered on June 3, 1999. The war in the Balkans was finally over – yet a new battle was beginning for the Serbian President and the military leaders who had carried out his orders and program of brutality against civilians – some of the greatest human rights abuses since World War II.

In May 1999, the United Nations had begun development of a War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (powers, 483). This Tribunal was very significant to the Human Rights Movement, as it set a number of precedents and further shaped the articulation of human rights.

When Slobodan Milosevic was brought to trial to face charge of war crimes, it was a milestone in the Human Rights Movement. He had actually been originally charged before his surrender, and he was the first head of state to be charged during an armed conflict with violations of International Law. His original indictment was for crimes against humanity during the war in Kosovo; however the indictment was later increased to include the charge of genocide for the atrocities committed in Bosnia (powers, 458).

General Kristic of the Serbian Army was also charged with genocide. Kristic defense argued that he was not guilty of genocide, because while every Muslim male of fighting age had been targeted for execution, the majority of the women and children were only deported. Therefore, they claimed, genocide had not occurred (powers, 478). The verdict for Kristic and the decision of the court made a substantial move in articulating further the crime of genocide, which had previously been vague.

The Tribunals goal, in addition to criminal prosecution of those responsible for the atrocities was to further define and articulate human rights – particularly in regards to mass extermination. The Genocide Convention they felt was too broad, and the atrocities committed were undoubtedly crimes against humanity, and therefore, should be included in the Convention. They termed the phrase “ethnic cleansing”, which they defined as “rendering an area wholly homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of a given group”. This had been carried out by a variety of violent means, including forced removal displacement / deportation, murder, torture and rape and sexual assault (powers, 483).

The revised, more detailed dimensions of genocide were validated in the August 2001, when General Kristic was found guilty of genocide, based on his agreement to, and promotion of, ethnic cleansing. By early 1999, the ICTFY had convicted more then 80 people for crimes against humanity (forsythe, 100).

The horrendous violence and atrocities in the Balkans were not the only events that shocked the world in the 1990s. The massacres of approximately 800,000 Tutsi in Rwanda by the Hutu militants stunned the world – the reports of systematic butchering of civilians were savage (powers, 334). If there was any question regarding Bosnia, there was no question in Rwanda – this was unmistakable genocide.

In 1994, Rwanda hung in a tentative cease fire of an intense civil war. The ruling Hutu had been battling the Tutsi minority, particularly the rebels who composed the Rwandan Patriotic Front. A cease fire was in effect, and attempt at a power sharing agreement (powers, 336). The fragile peace collapsed, however, on April 6, 1994, when the Rwandan President’s plane was shot down. Almost immediately, the civil war erupted again (powers, 333). By the following day, a massive attack was underway by the Hutu army and militias, with the goal of completely annihilate the Rwandan Tutsi’s. In the subsequent 100 days, more then 800,000 Tutsi (and their Hutu sympathizers) would be massacred – a machete being the weapon of choice. Although Belgian UN peacekeepers were stationed in Rwanda, they were ordered to not intervene (powers, 350).

The genocide finally halted, and in following with the aftermath of Yugoslavia and the creation of the Hague Tribunal, the United Nations passed a resolution to establish a Tribunal to prosecute the perpetrators of the Rwanda genocide (powers, 484).

While there was little doubt that genocide against the Tutsi had occurred, the prosecution was determined to take a further step on articulating crimes against humanity, by including systematic rape. It was argued that rape could result in a group being destroyed – “debilitation of a group to such an extent that the remaining members could no longer contribute in a meaningful way to society” (powers, 485). The Tribunal accepted the argument, and in September 1998, found Jean-Paul Akayesu guilty of genocide due to his attempt to destroy the Tutsi by raping the women (powers, 486). With this verdict, mass or systematic rape became an official violation of human rights.

While the forces of the Holocaust, the United Nations adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Balkans wars and the Rwanda massacres helped shape the articulation of human rights in the twentieth century, they also, ironically, intensified their violation.

The Nazi’s were not the first to attempt to systematically remove or get rid of an entire group of people. The Turkish government has attempted it during World War I, against the Armenians. They weren’t held responsible on an International legal level for the mass murder or for violation of human rights. With the Nuremberg Tribunal, precedent was set for the International community to hold the perpetrators responsible. Therefore, with the Nuremberg Tribunal, the basics of human rights were officially established. With that, the violations against these rights were also established. As a result, actual violations against these rights could occur. If and when it happened again in the future, the repercussion would be much more intense, as official violations of International law would be occurring. Further more, the perpetrators would be held accountable by the global community. This transition was further intensified by the United Nation’s adoption of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights.

The Hague trials not only articulated the actual human rights, but it made the actions involved in ethnic cleansing an actual International crime, which violators could be brought to trial for. The crime of mass rape, established at the Rwanda Tribunal, had the same effect.

The twentieth century has witnessed several intense events of true horror and devastation against humankind. However, the forces of the Holocaust, the wars in the former Yugoslavia and the Rwanda genocide contributed greatly to the articulation of human rights, and at the same time, intensified their violation.


Works Cited

Burns, Weston. “Human Rights”. International Human Rights Overviews. Claude-Weston.
page 25

Evans, Tony. Human Rights fifty years on: a reappraisal. New York. Manchester University Press : 1998.
page 19

Forsythe, David P. Human Rights in International Relations. Cambridge, United Kingdom. Cambridge University Press: 2000.
page 100

Powers, Samantha. A Problem From Hell. New York. Basic Books: 2002.
pages 47-50, 57, 59, 247-48, 264, 333-4, 336, 350, 450, 458, 478, 483-86

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