Barbarity, hatred - and hope

For all man's continuing inhumanity to man, 1998 has been a banner year for human rights
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The Independent Culture
TRULY, THE gods who arrange such things could hardly have laid on a more felicitously timed anniversary. Exactly half a century ago today, the General Assembly of the United Nations gathered at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It might have been a shamefaced occasion, a hypocritical genuflection to those lofty provisions of 1948, mocked by dictators around the globe.

Some, of course, will say that is precisely what it is, and will point to the latest crop of headlines to prove it. Mass graves in Kosovo, yet more barbarity in Algeria, massacres in Afghanistan, harsh political repression in Burma, vicious civil war in Columbia - even the presence of the Dalai Lama at the celebrations in Paris of this anniversary. Each one of them only reminds us how human rights are trampled on across the five continents of a world which professes daily outrage at it. Half of all governments still routinely jail prisoners of conscience; a third of them employ torture to silence political opposition. Last but not least, barely one of them actually promotes the Universal Declaration. If you do not know what your rights are, how can you be expected to demand them?

But let it be said out loud: for all man's continuing inhumanity to man, 1998 has been a banner year for human rights. Last summer, the nations of the world assembled in Rome and approved a treaty setting up a first permanent international criminal court. In September, tiny Burkina Faso became the 40th country to ratify the international treaty banning landmines, thus ensuring that it will take effect next year. Yes, some of the very largest powers - the US, Russia, China and India - have failed to sign. But the treaty is the most visible manifestation yet of "soft power" - attempting to substitute moral example for the barrel of a gun.

And then there is that small matter of a certain ex-dictator, arrested in London at the request of Spain for crimes committed in Chile. Jack Straw's decision to let General Pinochet be extradited to Spain is a landmark in legal history and a warning to others. Nasty leaders everywhere will draw the appropriate conclusions. And first and foremost among them will be this: that just as economics, communications and entertainment are going global, so too - inevitably - are justice and human rights.

The human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki final act were a chink in the closed door of the Communist system. What forced it wide open was the communications revolution. When I went to Moscow in 1987, an office photocopier was kept under lock and key, as if it were a phial of anthrax spores. By 1991, when I left, electronic journalism, the fax and the satellite phone had routed the censor. The party lost its monopoly of information and, almost in the next breath, its hold on power. No longer can a tyrant practise his awfulness in secrecy. No longer can we say, Ah but we did not know. The question now is, will we act?

Here, too, a new universalism is visible. For one thing, no UN secretary general has been as concerned with human rights as Kofi Annan (though this must not excuse the UN's shortcomings in Rwanda and the former Zaire). For another, the coalitions that emerged in support of the ban on landmines, the establishment of the criminal court and an end to the use of child soldiers, cross the borders of continents, religion and race.

With the demise of Communism, the world is largely shorn of those over- arching ideologies in whose names the vilest abuses have tended to be committed. The stock protest of a country at scrutiny of its human rights record as "interference in our internal affairs" has vanished with the end of the Cold War. Even China, for all its excesses in Tibet and the brutality with which it is apt to treat its own people, grudgingly tolerates the likes of Amnesty International.

Of course, universalism has not prevailed. Economic crisis may have shaken Asia, but it has not eradicated the concept of "Asian values", emphasising the primacy of the collective over the individual. Talk persists in some quarters of Africa about "African solutions for African problems". Parts of the Arab world stress the supposedly different value system of Islam. Then there is America's propensity to press standards on others which it will not accept itself; its fondness for preaching to others but resisting anything (the international court, or the landmine treaty, for example) that might cramp its style abroad. And should the democratic First World assume that its interpretation of human rights is automatically the right one in the most benighted corners of the Third World?

And so to the most intractable conflict of all - between human rights, universally defined, and the sovereign national rights and interests of an individual country. At the level of rights, an answer is emerging. As cases like South Africa, Nigeria and the former Yugoslavia show, the international community will punish - by means of sanctions or even military force - nations that systematically violate the rights of their citizens. And, nourished by success, that trend will surely grow.

A country's image is today largely shaped by its human rights performance. The collapse of the apartheid regime - along with the downfall of communism the most resounding human rights success of this half century - was hastened by international ostracism. The desire to be rid of sanctions has been a prime motivator of the new regime in Nigeria to return the country to democratic government.

However, at the level of interests, it is another story. Take Saudi Arabia, a disaster area for human rights but also the world's biggest oil producer, bestower of massive arms contracts and perceived regional linchpin against Iraq and Iran. Will Britain and the US, with their vested interest in oil, arms deals and the containment of Saddam Hussein, risk alienating the Saudis because of their human rights record?

The answer, of course, is, in a word, no - no more than the West would have moved to the defence of Kuwait had dates, not oil, been that country's staple export. Such are the double standards that will prevail until the Kingdom of Heaven arrives on earth, and men turn into angels. Human rights is an issue, like child abuse, crime or war, which will be with us always.

And since perfection is an impossibility, the goals must be more realistic - in the words of the non-governmental organisation, Human Rights Watch, in its latest annual report, to "increase the cost of human rights abuse, and thus alter the political calculations that lead to it".

On both counts there have been notable advances, and we can reasonably expect more. This is a 50th anniversary not of shame and hypocrisy, but of hope.