Leading Article: A timely decision in favour of justice and human rights

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT IS no coincidence that Jack Straw's decision yesterday on General Pinochet should come just as the UN was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - which we have been commemorating with a daily publication of each article, accompanied by a cartoon by Ralph Steadman .

Human Rights, and justice against those who deprive others of them, are fundamentally what the Pinochet decision is all about. And the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains the most direct statement of what those rights should be, and provides the reference point by which governments are judged not just by their own citizens but the international community as well.

In deciding to allow Pinochet to be extradited to Spain to face trial for crimes against Spanish citizens in Chile, Jack Straw is, of course, doing no more than allowing a judgment by the Law Lords to stand. It would have been far harder for him to have intervened the other way. But it remains, none the less, a brave move. Against all the pressures of commerce and international diplomacy, in advance of any real precedent, the prime minister of one country has allowed the extradition of a dictator of another country for a trial in a third country.

Just where that takes the world of international law in the future remains to be seen. Indeed, what precisely happens to General Pinochet when he gets to Spain has yet to be worked out. Critics will still worry that somehow this was a matter best left to Chile to decide how they should pursue truth and reconciliation. Legal doubters will still feel that this is a judgment that owes as much as politics as it does to a independent reading of the law.

Of course it does. That is the point. A few years ago such an extradition proceeding would never have been considered by a judge in Spain, or allowed by a cabinet minister in Britain. There wouldn't have been the extradition treaty, for a start. But then nor would there have been the political atmosphere in which politicians and judges came to their decisions.

The important point is that the world has changed, and changed profoundly. Human rights, or rather the lack of them, are an international concern being dealt with at international level in a way that has revolutionised the concept of sovereignty and the place of international law..

Whether this change is as a result of the Universal Declaration itself, or of the state leaders gathered yesterday at the United Nations in New York, can be doubted. The declaration embodies principles that have been largely ignored for generations, and are still ignored through half the world today.

No, the real importance of the Universal Declaration is not that it has made much difference but that, even today, 50 years after its publication, the values it sets down and the aspirations it proclaims for all remain as valid as they have ever been.

The great difference in time - and the development that must give the greatest cause for optimism - is that public opinion, the general sense of voters and citizens around the globe, has embraced the issue. Human rights are no longer considered to be simply a feature of liberal democracies, to be attained by others. Human rights are now considered to be just that: rights, which any citizen of any country has.

And the deprivation of those rights, through imprisonment, torture, kidnapping, massacre and censorship, is no longer considered just a matter for the country within which the sins are committed, but a matter of concern for everyone in the international community. Human rights are now part of everyone's agenda. The document setting them out is at hand. And the legal foundations are being laid, yesterday as much as tomorrow.

Article 30

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to

perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

Comments