UConn’s Commitment to Human Rights

Hundreds of faculty, staff, students and friends joined President Joe Biden and former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd in celebration and rededication of UConn’s Dodd Center for Human Rights on Oct. 15.

The assembly witnessed powerful comments from a host of luminaries including current Senators Murphy and Blumenthal, Governor Lamont and many others, culminating in a compelling speech from President Biden. Not present, but powerful in his absence, was the long-serving former U.S. Senator Thomas Dodd, the father of Chris Dodd, and a distinguished prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials.

Thomas Dodd was key to the initial Nuremberg trials in 1945 and 1946. These trials broke the mold of historical precedent for post- war vengeance upon the defeated, often extracted by summary execution of the perpetrators. Instead, the allies came together after long debate and deliberation to create a process for the “rule of law” to govern the treatment of the leadership of the defeated Germany. As a prosecutor, Dodd was committed to amassing overwhelming evidence of the “crimes against humanity” such that the civilized world would recognize the unspeakable horrors associated with the extermination of 6 million Jews, and related actions.

Accumulating evidence was made somewhat easier by the German recordkeeping systems that provided lists of names of those executed in many of the gas chambers, and often associated the responsible leaders with the events. The world was war weary, and the trials were very long, but occasional examples such as the paperweight made from a human head continued to capture awareness and underscore the horror. In the final moment, 10 men were sentenced to death, seven to life imprisonment, and three were acquitted.

At the screening of a film, produced by students in a class on Human Rights that relied upon the Dodd archives, a student panel asked us to reflect on how often we see violations of human rights in our daily experience. They pointed out that such violations are sometime embedded in law and custom. They noted that “Nuremberg Laws” was a phrase attached to a set of laws passed by the German leaders intended to make legal their persecution of Jews and others in the search for Aryan purity.

The “Nuremberg principles” adopted in conjunction with the trials were intended to confront directly long-standing debates on legality and fairness. For example, the seven Nuremberg principles included explicit recognition that the head of state was not relieved of responsibility under international law. Moreover, Crimes against Peace, War Crimes, and Crimes against Humanity were all identified and explicitly made subject to international prosecution.

President Biden offered an energetic discussion of the importance of Thomas Dodd, the Nuremberg history, and today’s reality of the need for international leadership from the USA. He stressed the importance of the archives documenting war crimes for capturing the notion that no one can deny their own eyes. He stressed that these “horrors could never be diminished or denied” given the amassed evidence. Given that we still see Holocaust deniers today, it is doubly important that the historical effort was so strong. The President also noted that trials have continued through the years, not only of other Nazis but also genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

In short, President Biden reminded us that the USA is unique in being built upon an idea, that all men and women are created equal. As he emphasized, some people think they have their rights because the bill of rights gave them to us, but the truth is we were born with them as a birthright. The USA has recognized our birthrights, but has not always successfully lived up to them. He challenged those assembled to remember that a fundamental lesson of Nuremberg was that silence is complicity. We must speak up to defend and embrace human rights and our birthright.

In that spirit, the School of Business has continued to invest in the Business and Human Rights Initiative at UConn. We support related themes such as CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), PRME (Principles of Responsible Management Education), ESG (Environment, Society and Government) and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. These themes are important to our students, our alumni, and the companies for whom they work.

I found the day to be inspirational for me personally, and an important reminder of the role the University has to remember history and to communicate it.

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