We all know the story of the three little pigs. A wolf is coming. The first pig builds a weak house of straw. The wolf blows it down. The pig flees, alighting upon another pig’s house built from sticks. The wolf blows it down. The two pigs flee to the third pig’s house. It’s made of bricks. Stronger. The wolf huffs and puffs … you know the rest.
Folk tales persist because they contain fundamental truths. The truth is that the three little pigs are us. And so is the wolf. This is also the lesson from the brutal events of the 20th century. The Holocaust wasn’t just caused by charismatic leaders, it was the result of millions of ordinary people collaborating with campaigns of discrimination, hate and murder. It’s what Hannah Arendt – reporting from the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the final solution – called the “banality of evil”. Eichmann was “neither perverted nor sadistic”, wrote Arendt, but “terrifyingly normal”.
The wolf is within us all. Since the Holocaust, psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt have provided the scientific basis to show how ordinary people may be capable of unspeakable deeds. Millions of years of evolution in tribes have made us tribal creatures. We are ruled by intuition, and often use reason to justify our prejudices.
After the Holocaust, key Nazi leaders were put on trial at Nuremberg. In his opening address, the American prosecutor Justice Robert Jackson said the decision by allies – who were “flushed with victory and stung with injury” – to resist vengeance and instead submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law was “one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason”.
At the trials, held within months of the end of the second world war, the prosecutors unravelled the horrors of the Nazi murder machine. Those who worked on the trials remained for ever touched by what they saw, and did all they could to stop it happening again. They saw the soul of the wolf, and recognised – crucially – that within three generations, the banality of evil would disappear from living memory.
They understood that to protect from the wolf, we need to build as strong a house as possible. That house must shelter reason from power, even in times of strife and insecurity, when the wolf stalks the borders of our peaceful villages. The house is our institutions and the building blocks are our human rights.
From the British team, Hartley Shawcross helped found Justice, the human rights law reform organisation. Hersch Lauterpacht, the Cambridge professor who lost almost his entire family in the Holocaust, successfully advocated for an international bill of rights of man and became the British judge on the new international court of justice. David Maxwell Fyfe, a Tory politician, went on, with the support of Winston Churchill, to draft a treaty that would become known as The Conscience of Europe.
Sixty-five years ago today, the European convention on human rights came into force. In our troubled times, it is important to appreciate this great tribute power has paid to reason, across a continent which, a few years before the creation of the ECHR, had witnessed the most brutal carnage in history. The ECHR is an international treaty that sets out the fundamental rights we need to live a free and dignified life. The right to life. To liberty. To free speech. In just a few hundred words, key rights form the blueprint for a free society. Every state that signs up to it agrees to protect the rights within it and, most importantly, to abide by the rulings of its court, the European court of human rights.
Brussels seeks to tie UK to European human rights court after Brexit
After a slow start, the court began to show its worth in the 1970s. One of the first cases was Ireland v UK, in which the court examined the “five techniques” used by UK security forces in Northern Ireland to interrogate suspects. It found that they were “inhuman and degrading” and therefore unlawful.
In the decades that followed, the court made thousands of judgments and now protects 830 million people across the continent. Its case law has touched on every aspect of human life. Its effect in the UK has been profound, though to many people invisible. Because of the court’s judgments, and the UK government’s agreement to implement them, gay soldiers can fight in the military without discrimination, the police cannot retain the DNA of innocent people for ever or stop and search us without reason, beating up children is against the law, our employers cannot spy on our emails without telling us, and journalists have the freedom to report in the public interest and protect their sources.
Even more importantly, 20 years ago, the ECHR was incorporated into UK law through the Human Rights Act. It means that if you want to enforce your human rights against a public authority, you can go to the county court rather than Strasbourg.
The ECHR is not perfect. It has been attacked for being too progressive and for not being progressive enough. Ultimately, it has to strike a balance to ensure that it protects rights without alienating more conservative countries across a diverse continent, as when a case about Christian crosses in classrooms almost led to Italy leaving.
We live in worrying times. Extremist ideologies and old hates are on the march again across Europe. The 20th century showed that we will always be vulnerable to the siren call of the tyrant, a call that our intuition answers even as our reason looks away. On the ECHR’s 65th anniversary, it is worth taking a moment to appreciate how important it has been, and remains, in protecting us from our worst natures. Those who fought for Brexit have said the ECHR is next on the list. Let’s celebrate what it has achieved and protect it for the future. Because the wolf will never be far from our doors.
• Adam Wagner is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and founder and chair of rightsinfo.org, a charity that educates and inspires people about human rights
Adam Wagner, The 20th century showed how vulnerable humans are to tyrannical leaders. Today, at 65, the ECHR is as vital as ever, Mon 3 Sep 2018 15.45 BSTLast modified on Mon 3 Sep 2018 21.39 BST (available on (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/03/european-convention-human-rights-protect-65)