Memorial essay contest

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Memorial Day is over.

Not so our obligation to honor those who gave their lives to defend the values embodied in our founding documents.

Now, as President Lincoln famously put it, “it is for us the living … to be dedicated to the unfinished work” which they have “so nobly advanced.”

That is the premise of the Richard Kemper Human Rights Education Foundation (khref.org).  The goal of KHREF is to motivate students to contribute to the effort to create a world where everyone’s human rights are realized. Hence the Foundation sponsors an annual human rights essay contest for high school students.  For more information about the rules governing the contest go to khref.org.  This year the prize is $1000 for the best answer to the following question:

Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, claims “the central problem with human rights law is that it is hopelessly ambiguous” and that this ambiguity allows “governments to rationalize almost anything they do.”¹  With that thought in mind, how would you respond to the argument that by calling for banning refugees from Muslim countries from traveling to the United States, deporting undocumented immigrants, and bringing back waterboarding, President Trump is or would be ensuring that every citizen’s “right to life, liberty and security of person”² is enforced?  In other words, do some rights (e.g. the right of citizens to be secure) take precedence over other rights (e.g. the right of suspects not to be tortured)?  And if so how should the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights documents be amended to specify what should be done when one right conflicts with another?

  1. The Case Against Human Rights.
  2. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Article 5 reads: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Richard and Adolph Kemper.

Richard Kemper, my uncle, was killed in World War II in the Battle of the Hedgerows, the allies’ effort to push the Germans out of Normandy after the fall of Cherbourg. “There is nothing new to tell you,” Richard wrote my grandparents on August 1, 1944.

“Just wanted to let you know everything is fine…. The country around here is quite pretty. It is rolling land with lots of fields and hedgerows. The farmhouses seem to be made from some kind of sandstone and have thatched roofs. The peasants wear wooden shoes mostly. A few of them are lucky enough to have old, worn-out leather footwear. Their clothing is worn and ragged. But they seem very happy that the Boches have been driven out. Good-bye for now. Loads of Love, Dick.”

Those were the last words my grandparents received from uncle Richard. He was killed five days later while commanding a regiment in Mortain, France on Aug. 6, 1944, exactly two months after D-Day.  The letter, however, was not something my grandparents ever showed me. In fact, my grandparents never spoke to me of uncle Richard. Some things are just too painful to talk about.

What my grandparents did do, however, was purchase land beside Mamaroneck High School in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and deed it to the school district to be “maintained in perpetuity” as a memorial to Richard and the other 99 former Mamaroneck High students who were killed in World War II. Then, year after year from 1947 till the day they died, they made it a family tradition to visit Richard Kemper Park for Memorial Day ceremonies.

Neither of them ever said a word at those ceremonies. Not one word. Yet somehow I got the message that in addition to paying respect to my uncle and others who had been killed in battle, we were there to honor all those who devoted and devote their lives to fashioning a global community free of intolerance and injustice.

Richard Kemper Park, located on the grounds of a high school, was meant to inspire students and others to think about how to create a just and peaceful world in which the human rights of everyone everywhere are recognized and respected. That is the cause for which Richard Kemper and so many others gave, in President Abraham Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion.”

And that is the reason KHREF sponsors an annual human rights essay contest for high school students.

Paul Cantor


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