The Unwavering Mission of Raoul Wallenberg: Fighting for Human Rights in a World Under Threat

Written by Peter Lundberg, Executive Director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute

Inspired by the actions of one man, The Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law has been promoting universal respect for human rights and international humanitarian law for the past forty years. We have strengthened the capacity of thousands of officials, scholars, and practitioners in over forty countries around the world to embrace a human rights culture and the notion that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. We are committed to this work because every time a government, lawmaker, or judge overlooks or rejects these universal and globally accepted principles, someone will pay the consequences.

Raoul’s Legacy

As the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Lund, Sweden, celebrates its 40th anniversary, the world faces a stark reality: fundamental freedoms in many parts of our world are still under attack. The number of armed conflicts in the world is now among the highest since World War II. In this climate of anguish and impunity, the work of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved countless lives during the Holocaust, resonates more powerfully than ever.

Wallenberg’s courage and determination to protect the vulnerable during a time of unimaginable darkness continue to inspire us. He disappeared in 1945, but his legacy lives on, urging us to never take human rights for granted.

Human Rights Uncertain Trajectory

Despite tangible progress since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 75 years ago (in 1948), the fight for these fundamental rights is far from over.  We see old and emerging dark clouds on the horizon. Persecution against human rights defenders in many parts of the world is rising, there is shrinking space for civil and political rights and gains in gender equality are being reversed, and children’s and minority rights are still too often ignored. In the field of international humanitarian law, we continually witness hundreds of millions of people being displaced with more than one hundred ongoing armed conflicts. Many victims of war face illegal detention, torture, sexual violence and even death.

The Raoul Wallenberg Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law was founded in 1984 in Lund, Sweden.
The Board of Trustee´s inaugural meeting at the University on 26th October 1984, signing the Charter of the Institute. Standing from the left: Senior Lecturer Leif Holmström, Professor Göran Melander. Sitting from the left: Ambassador Sven Backlund, Judge (former Marshal of the Realm) Gunnar Lagergren, Professor Lennart Pålsson

The rampant violations of international humanitarian law seemingly take place at greater speed than ever, with perpetrators often escaping accountability. We note with growing concern that many Governments disregard criticism on humanitarian law, partly because the international community is not challenging the violations of humanitarian law and thereby failing on their duty under the so called – third state responsibilities, to ensure respect – according to the Geneva Conventions. One of our founding members of the institute, Professor Göran Melander, was instrumental in this work by pioneering contributions in furthering principles of humanitarian law through his leadership in helping to formulate the UN Minimum Humanitarian Standards which were adopted back in 1991 in Turku, Finland. I believe the Raoul Wallenberg Institute should continue its namesake and founder’s legacy in this regard and continue to develop concepts focused on advancing the work around IHL.

While recognizing that rule of law and compliance is never a given, knowledge and capacities within state institutions needs to be built continuously, and each generation must learn, integrate, and protect these fundamental values. This is done only through systematic and long-term efforts such as research, education, and by targeted outreach.

Hope is Unquestionable

Despite global negative trends, we must not be discouraged by setbacks. This is actually the very time to continue to push for more and for more effective collective action so that international norms and standards will be upheld for all.

Ever since its establishment in 1984, The Raoul Wallenberg Institute has been committed to raising awareness about human rights and international humanitarian law through our academic research and outreach activities, through higher education programmes and capacity building programmes. By doing so, we have been actively contributing to positive change through collaboration and practical implementation. We have empowered individuals by disseminating knowledge about their rights and freedoms but also building the knowledge of scholars, politicians, practitioners including lawmakers, members of governments, judges and prosecutors.

Our strength is in our ability to bring together theory and practice and work for tangible change in the field of human rights and international humanitarian law. Such change often takes time. In today’s ‘Tiktok’ world, time and endurance are scarce commodities. People have little patience for real and sustainable change, but there are no real short-cuts. To strengthen the rule of law based on human rights requires us to stay the course with steadfast commitment and a long-term approach. According to the 2011 World Development report, it took the top 20 countries 41 years to fully achieve long-lasting positive change that enshrined the rule of law based on human rights.

Accountability is the Key

Other challenges are so urgent and existential, with profound implications on human rights that we cannot wait – like climate change as it threatens rights to housing, health, food security and life – in these cases action needs to be taken now. The main responsibility rests on the shoulders of States. The same accounts for extreme poverty and the stark inequalities between and within countries, causing enormous suffering, threatening social cohesion within and across boundaries.

But it is not only on States to act. As businesses play an important role in shaping today’s world – we need to engage with them as they can be part of the solution toward a justand fairer world for all, if they put human rights up front in their business models and undertakings.

The legacy of Raoul Wallenberg serves as a powerful reminder of our unwavering responsibility to fight for a world where human rights are respected and protected for all. Let us honor his legacy by continuing his work towards a fair and humane future for all.

Read the article in Swedish here.

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