In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here is the Preamble, in its entirety:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
From this declaration sprung the concept of universal human rights, applicable to all regardless of race, territory, or gender. Immediate push back came in the form of cultural rights, another concept meant to accommodate practices unique to certain religions or traditions, which stood at odds with some of the articles of the Declaration. Practices such as female circumcision, for example, challenged Article 5:
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
In the eyes of its authors, female circumcision, despite being significant to certain cultures, succeeded only in damaging the girls who received this treatment, putting them at risk of infection, scarring, infertility, and ultimately death. An international campaign was waged by human rights groups to condemn female circumcision, and today we recognize this act by its rebranded phrase: female genital mutilation. It took a prolonged, multi-pronged effort to achieve this reconceptualization, but it ultimately addressed an important challenge to the newly-minted universal declaration. Some practices are so heinous and so destructive, that they deserve neither our respect, nor our protection.
ISIS evokes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in another way. First, ISIS reminds the world of the existence of this declaration, in effect challenging the weight of the liberal ideals that bore its creation. Second, ISIS demands we reexamine divergent paths in the declaration, in order to lend greater clarity to their meaning, and grant greater power to defending its goals. The liberal order was abandoned almost immediately in the wake of the Cold War, where bilateral powers created their own spheres of influence and forced their will on fabricated allies. If the Cold War had never happened, perhaps it would be easier to intervene and protect; to condemn with more than words and maintain alliances of trust, instead of convenience.
The Cold War erased any goodwill intervention might have held, because of the repeated invasions by the United States and the USSR that, rather than protect persecuted minorities or oppressed peoples, placed despotic rulers in their respective seats of power, granting them legitimacy and arms. The struggle we see today by the international community in the Syrian refugee crisis and the questions regarding how to destroy ISIS come directly from this failure to honor the moral guidelines of intervention. At a time when the only justifications for intervention are moral—return the Syrian refugees to their home; eliminate a barbarous group; make way for a transitory government that will remove a vicious dictator—the international powers capable of intervening choke because of their past violations.
This is a mistake. ISIS provides the opportunity to pick up on the promise created in 1948. 67 years later, the world has the chance to usher in the liberal world order it had always intended to, in the aftermath of World War II. We saw the face of evil so clearly in the face of Hitler; we see it again reflected on the veiled heads of ISIS soldiers. Our response today needs to be the same as it was in 1941, when the US entered the war: a cooperative effort to crush a group that revels in obscenity, and fight, once again, for the ideals we cherish, and the truths we hold to be self-evident. It is time to pick up that fight, again.