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International Human Rights Violations

Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich

In 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. He was the leader of the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) party, and his regime was known as the Third Reich. Hitler not only invaded and occupied much of Europe, but he also lead a mass-murder, (also called genocide) of millions of so-called “undesirables” who lived in Germany and its occupied territories. This genocide is known as the Holocaust.

The Nazis wanted to have all Germans living together in one area, without people of any other ethnic background living nearby. To do this, they followed a policy of racial purification. People who would contaminate the super-race Hitler and the Nazis were trying to create were persecuted and killed. Although Hitler himself primarily targeted Jews, many Nazi officials also persecuted and killed Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, Afro-Germans, Poles, Slavs, and physically and mentally disabled people. Although the Nazis were an extreme group, their racist ideas fell on fertile ground and they were able to build on the already existing prejudices of people. The groups targeted by the Nazis had been the victims of discrimination for years, and the Nazis began their persecution by simply intensifying existing discriminatory legislation.

Persecution gradually escalated during the years of the Third Reich. The Nazis began by passing laws that restricted people’s movements or prevented them from holding certain jobs. They then began passing laws that mandated sterilization, especially of handicapped people. As the pre-war years passed, the laws became more extreme and the undesirable people were placed in labour camps. The conditions in these camps were horrible and many people died of starvation or illness. Handicapped people were killed under a euthanasia program. Years of racist propaganda combined with the effects of a major war meant that many people in Germany began to trivialize human life. Many stopped viewing the undesirable people as human beings and began simply seeing them as an annoyance that had to be dealt with. Therefore, Nazi persecution gradually escalated.

By 1942, there were mobile killing squads as well as death camps where thousands of Jews and others were gassed to death daily. By the end of the World War II, over six million Jews had been killed as well as millions of Poles, Slavs, Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, Afro-Germans, physically and mentally disabled people, and other social outsiders. (Bergen, Doris L. War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust. Rowman and Littlechild, 2003.)

On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration stated that every human being on the planet is equal and should have equal rights to freedoms, dignities, and rights regardless of his or her ethnic background. However, in spite of this, genocides, the systematic killing of a group of people belonging to a specific ethnic group, have continued to occur.

The Balkans (former Yugoslavia)

A recent genocide occurred in the Balkans. In 1980, Tito, who had been leader of Yugoslavia since 1945, passed away. The various ethnic groups living within Yugoslavia began to struggle for their independence, and on March 3, 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence. It initially wanted to preserve its multicultural nature. However, the Serbs within the country wanted to be part of a larger Serbia and both Serbs and Croats formed militia groups. The country was soon plunged into war.

During this war, the opposing groups were not satisfied with only fighting the armies. They also set up concentration camps and followed a process of ethnic cleansing. Each group, in the territories it controlled, persecuted and often killed all people who were not a member of their ethnic group. During the war, 200,000 people were killed and an additional 200,000 citizens were injured. Sixty percent of the houses in Bosnia-Herzegovina were destroyed; one half of the schools and one third of the hospitals were burned to the ground. Much of the countryside was also destroyed. There were toxic pollutants in the rivers and fields were full of land mines.

The United Nations moved to send in a peacekeeping force, but it was not strong enough to stop the fighting on the first try. It was not until 1995 that a peace treaty was finally signed and two republics created: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serb-based Republika Srska. Peacekeeping forces are still in the area. In 2004, NATO removed their 60,000 troops to make room for a European Union force. (To learn more, refer to the Heritage Community Foundation's West Balkans Edukit.)

In 1993, the International Criminal Tribune for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was created to prosecute the perpetrators of the genocide in Yugoslavia. The ICTY was the first international criminal court to specifically enforce the existing body of international humanitarian law and bring to trail the instigators of genocide and of crimes against humanity. Victims act as important witnesses during the trials and the ICTY has made attempts to show them that their suffering is not forgotten. The ICTY also tries to personalize the crimes and hold the leaders — rather than their nations or communities — responsible for their actions. In this way, the ICTY hopes that the opposing groups may be able to come to an agreement sooner than if their leaders were tied to them.

Learn More

ICTY overview

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