UN Secretary General Kofi Annan reminded the world that the very idea of the United Nations emerged from the ashes of World War II and the Nazi Holocaust. The ashes of the dead can inspire progress towards peace. They can also serve to diminish the value of being human, evidenced by the wanton butchery in Syria and a heartless artist in Sweden.

December marks the month in 1948 when the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That document was written just three short years after the liberation of Auschwitz, inspired by the twin traumas of world war and the unprecedented scope of Nazi brutality -- so massive, that a new word, genocide, had to be invented to describe it. It was an exhausted and morally depleted world that chose December 10th to recommit itself to the lost values of decency, rights and peace. Among its architects was Eleanor Roosevelt, haunted by the fact that no one, her late husband FDR included, did enough to thwart Nazism’s plunging the world into unfathomable depths of depravity.

Five annual Human Rights Prizes, to coincide with the annual award of the Nobel Peace Prize were established to help reconstitute civilization’s commitment to common humanity, and December 10 came to mean a great deal to NGOs and fledgling democracies as a benchmark for a brighter future. Indeed, December 10th was even selected by Argentina’s President Raúl Alfonsin, to mark the end of his country’s military dictatorship in 1983. Last year, commemorations focused on how social media and technology could aid human rights defenders in new ways.


What about Human Rights and the United Nations today? The news from the frontlines of the struggle in the Arab world is dismal and there is a growing sense that the war against terrorism may not be winnable.

Don't blame the UN, you say? Perhaps.

But consider that on December 18, the UN General Assembly mustered the collective will to pass nine resolutions condemning Israel, yet reached new depths of hypocrisy by doing nothing as 100,000 Palestinians fled the Damascus' Yarmouk refugee camp after Assad's airforce repeatedly bombed the camp, killing dozens.

Perhaps all this should teach us not to look to a tall decaying building on the East River for a moral center of gravity, but within ourselves.

Let's start with what do we mean by the “human” in human rights. Do we still believe that there is something so special, so different in the human condition, that we see a kind of divinity to the life of every man, woman and child on the face of the globe? If we do, we need to respect and protect the specialness of the human condition.

But not everyone does.

Consider Carl Michael von Hausswolff. The Swedish agent provocateur posing as an artist claims to have used the ashes he removed from the grounds at Majdenak death camp. Tens of thousands of Polish Jews were delivered in cattle cars and in short order stripped of their clothes, their dignity and their lives-- suffocated in Hitler’s gas chambers. Their bodies were searched for valuables, then incinerated. All that remained were the ashes of the victims

Hausswolff stole the ashes in 1989, but did not convert them into “art” until 2010—apparently on the theory that the statute of limitations on his moral and legal atrocities would lapse with the passage of time.

Maybe he’s right.

In our day, "Nazi chic" is in. From fashion houses to rock groups in Japan and Thailand, cosmetic campaigns in Korea, even business school curricula in India, Nazi imagery and aesthetics are in. Nazi chants and violence are part of the European soccer scene. Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbiks are living proof that Nazi motifs and slogans can still help propel the lunatic fringe into the political mainstream during a time of social and economic crisis.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Ahmadinejad’s unique spin on Holocaust denial helped cement his role on the global stage. His message: the Holocaust didn’t happen and given the opportunity, we will finish what Hitler began.

These diverse and sickening global developments have a common denominator. They have generated little or no protest.

Until commemorations like Human Rights Day, or January 27th, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, rekindle the universal sense of outrage that spurred the creation of a United Nations in the first place, they and the institutions that created them will become increasingly irrelevant in the uneven struggle to protect and foster human dignity.

The takeaway for human rights activists for the New Year is this: The keys to a better world lie not in the desk of any diplomat, bureaucrat, NGO, or within a global resolution but rather within the grasp of each of us.