The rights of every man

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Next month sees the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted

by the United Nations on 10 December 1948. Over the next five weeks The Independent will

be publishing daily each of the 30 articles of the declaration, illustrated by Ralph Steadman.

Here the artist explains his passionate belief in the enduring relevance of the Declaration

WITHOUT THE Universal Declaration of Human Rights, my next sentence could contravene some countries' arbitrary rule of law and cause all others surreptitiously to conspire to suppress its blatant defiance of state: "I have the right to hold an opinion, express it, celebrate it, broadcast it, live by it, and travel with it anywhere I so desire and what's more convince others, by peaceful means, that they should hold that opinion too."

That, in essence, is Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and entombed within it is the right of any artist of any faith, impulse or inclination to express him/herself with unbridled passion and conviction, sufficient to bestow upon the world a Pandora's box of riches or curses we could probably live without.

Now why was I not told that, or given the little booklet itself, back in 1948 when I had just won a scholarship to Abergele Grammar School in North Wales? Javier Perez de Cuellar, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, in his introduction to this little gem, states that the UN General Assembly at the time called upon all member countries to publicise the text of the Declaration and "to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries of territories".

Now where was I when these member countries did exactly that? Was I playing truant? Off sick? Drunk? Not then, not any of that. I was an obedient child of 11 and perfectly capable of digesting the clarity of such proposals, even in the playground.

Were we, perhaps, off the map? Wales is, after all, only a little country concerned with sheep and Eisteddfods - Welsh Festivals of the Arts. During the war our people had been subjected to a policy of linguistic genocide, the death of the Welsh language. My mother was a loving, law- abiding soul and never spoke Welsh again, at home, "so as not to be a bother" as she used to say.

Article 19 is obviously a dangerous one among 29 other equally important human agreements, but it is probably the one article that keeps well hidden within its carefully unbiased structure the undeniable fact that its content releases the power of the individual to be both artist and maniac. The 1948 United Nations Assembly had unwittingly created a monster, an embarrassing loophole, a well-meaning but desperate humanitarian gesture. In its earnest intentions to neutralise any future tyranny in the shadow of the recent Holocaust, freedom of communication was paramount. Slipping it in neatly between "freedom of thought" (Article 18) and "freedom of peaceful assembly" (Article 20) should have covered the board, but the enemies of democracy are forever busy. Freedom to think is an uncontrollable private act and even peaceful assembly is innocuous - nobody can keep every human being in the whole world in solitary confinement - but broadcasting thought and acting upon it, oh no!

Though Cyberspace may yet find a Noble Destiny, radio and television stations, newspapers, books and printing presses are the first victims of tyranny. They remain the lethal chink of light and therefore of hope against a repressive regime. Wei Jing Sheng could be regarded as a lethal chink of light, when he was sentenced to 14 years in 1995 for his part in the Tiananmen Square uprising. The hope that he was still alive was the spur that kept the whole question of Chinese democracy in a state of flux. The difference between Chinese Communism and Chinese culture became apparent to the young. Communism offers no personal freedom. Chinese culture offers a wide spectrum of tradition and evolution, and a chance to develop as individuals.

The much-maligned philosopher Nietzsche caught the breadth of the world's eternal dilemma in one sentence: "It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are permanently justified."

At the time of its publication, every individual of school age should have had the Articles drummed into them like the Ten Commandments, which we did learn. "Thou shalt not..." The negative was emphasised like public hygiene, and what we were not told was no concern of ours. The British Empire was still intact, even then, so everything was assumed to be in order.

The World then still believed that the state knew best and any claim that we might have rights for simply being born was at best a weird piece of human presumption. It sounded like a law for troublemakers, a clarion call to those who think only of revenge. Many crimes are committed in the name of the great cultural revolutions and the icons of their instigation. Neither can the administrators of all repression be free of private thoughts. Who can shave in the morning - or mask their worry lines - without seeing their fear, guilt, and a loathing of their trade?

Within this fatal trap of mid-20th-century political appeasement, of convenient international diplomacy, a tacit agreement was mumbled into a "thinks" bubble. Pay lip service to the idea of individual human rights but keep pumping the UN Charter which declares that all states have the right to sovereign rule and therefore could, with impunity, conduct their state business like Machiavellian Christians or Muslims or rampant fundamentalists. They'll go with that. It's OK to imprison, torture, maim, murder, rape, disseminate, crush, torment, disinherit, cleanse, help even, behind our blanket blessing, behind our sovereign rights. But the individual? Who he??

The disgust I feel for sovereign rights strengthens my conviction that we have to begin again to establish human rights. We may even have to abandon sovereign rights to protect the individual - you and me - Joe Bloggamovitch and his wife Maria della Francesca, and her sister - and the brother - and the children. Don't forget the children. We see them every night on the television - desperate, weeping, bleeding, holding out their arms for some evidence of basic human mercy or clutching their meagre belongings as the only thing they can trust. We balefully watch it all as a fact of life, as though they are in another world and we silently count our blessings in our private thoughts, which we are allowed, and then we hastily change the subject.

Expect nothing from the state except your passport and your ticket home to a prison of your country's choice. A free hotel for you and your kind. The rats that came ashore with the cargo have got a sporting chance of survival. They can hide, they don't need a passport, and they don't speak out except in times of plague.

But you can be an outcast for speaking out, according to the protections sealed into the United Nations Charter which superseded the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations resolve after the First World War (which the US refused to join) requiring member countries to respect territorial independence, while such regimes ruled the world. I go to bed every night with the private thought that there may come a knock on the door at 3am and it's them, the thought police who chose me tonight.

I think often of Victor Jara, a folk singer and civil rights activist in Chile in the Seventies at the time of Allende, who was beaten and had his wrists broken to prevent him from ever stirring people's hearts again. The state paraded him in public to show how strong they were. A eulogy of impotence that instills nothing but fear and revulsion.

We are all guilty of gross negligence or convenient choice. We have chosen to turn a blind eye to the constant injustice of our own species against our own kind. We no longer deserve to belong to the animal kingdom. We have betrayed an innate sense of survival, the one instinctive law which protects all creatures from extinction. Compassion has been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. You may win the battle to be on top for a while but unless the individual is the object of your struggle You will never reach that plateau of certainty to bring you peace of mind. In South Africa they call that state Mandela. May the whole world reach a state of Mandela, tomorrow if necessary, but preferably today.

This essay forms the introduction to a pamphlet edition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights published by Waterstone's at pounds 1, proceeds to the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture